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on 13 March 2013
The Wall is fading into history, so much of its time as to leave no legacy except a cultural memory. Its future is to be found on ebay where enough "genuine" chips and snips are on offer to rebuild it several times over. It has found in Frederick Taylor a historian who unpicks its meaning just as joyous Berliners once united to unpick its foundations.

Taylor is especially good on the political machinations within the GDR and Germany as well as the geopolitics of the period. He tackles adeptly the real politics of the time, separated from propaganda east and west. He demonstrates that its construction was a wrong move both for East Germany and for the Soviet bloc. It was of no strategic importance, yet it allowed the west to tout West Berlin as capital of the free world without having to challenge the issue of German reunification, which France, in particular, and Britain were at best ambivalent about. Economically it did very little for Ulbricht's state, whose problems did not stem from and were not solved by keeping talent within the GDR. The Wall became a focus for resentment against Soviet policies and Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, an ideological achilles heel. It contributed significantly to its own destruction and the fall of the state that built it.

His anecdotes and vignettes of escapees and guards make for an engrossing and highly readable book. His pen pictures of leading political figures of the day are revealing. Worth noting too is that, although the Wall was an ugly and brutal architectural imposition on the Berlin map, the numbers killed trying to escape were not so great - possibly 130 - and guards too died in shootouts. The oppressiveness of the GDR state is another matter - it was really a prison camp subbed by the Warsaw Pact - explanation enough in itself for its transience.

Taylor produced a powerful study of the destruction of Dresden and this is I feel equally impressive. He weaves personal experiences with political analysis. His books are always thought-provoking. He gets beyond the cliche and the soundbite. He may not deliver the last word on his subjects, but no future writer can ignore his analyses.

National barriers did not fall with the Wall. In the Middle East Israel surrounds itself with steel barricades. There is some irony too that Western Europe is trying to create another kind of wall today to keep out asylum seekers and refugees from the benefits of western capitalism. History decidedly did not end in November 1989.
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on 31 August 2010
Having read Frederick Taylor's fast-moving and extremely informative 'Dresden,' I was looking forward to his latest book on that icon of the Cold War - the Berlin Wall. I was not disappointed.

The story of the Wall is not quite as linear as that of Dresden, in which events moved inexorably towards the horrific fire-bombing. Rather, there are three acts: the lead up to the construction of the Wall in 1961; the Wall years; the endgame, 1989.

From the start, the book builds with excitement as it is becomes clear that GDR leader Ulbricht, supported by Security Secretary Honecker, will prevail against the preference of (the surprisingly rational) Khrushchev and be allowed to imprison his own people (who were fleeing in huge numbers). Amazingly, all this was not clear to Western security services.

At the beginning of the 'Wall years' there is a slowing of pace as West Germany and the world come to grips with what has happened right under their noses, and in defiance of the four-power Potsdam Agreement. But it doesn't take long for the excitement to rise again with the escape attempts and the first death. The unravelling of Soviet power that leads to the eventual dismantling of the Wall seems, in the end, to be a closing chapter of the Second World War rather than of the Berlin Wall itself.

Taylor's strength as a historian and storyteller is his ability to weave a great deal of minutely researched detail into a highly readable, very accessible tale. The book taught me an astonishing amount, even though I lived through much of this saga. But it was a pleasure, never a chore.

This book is highly recommended for those who wish to more fully understand a frightening period of recent history.
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on 25 November 2007
Frederick Taylor's book is a superb social and political history of the concrete wall that divided the people of East and West Berlin from 1961 to 1989.

This is a fascinating subject. For most of my lifetime up to the fall of the Wall eighteen years ago, a part of Europe not so far from home ran along the lines of a truly authentic Orwellian dictatorship. The notorious East German secret police (the Ministry for State Security or `Stasi') spied, poked and pried into the lives of every single citizen, looking for and punishing any form of dissent against the regime. Even in the Soviet Union, the DDR's `motherland', the ratio of `watched' to `watchers' was never anywhere near as high.

At the end of the Second World War, West Berlin was occupied by the British, French and Americans, with the Soviet Union looking after the East of the city. Shortly afterwards, the border between Soviet-occupied East Germany and the newly proclaimed Republic of West Germany was drawn several miles to the West. Effectively, West Berlin became a `capitalist' island in a communist sea. The Wall was erected around West Berlin in 1961 to stem the flow of East German defectors, hitherto able to permanently vacate life in the 'East' by simply crossing the city. The leaders of the DDR and their Soviet backers claimed at the time that they were trying to prevent 'Westerners' from crossing over to buy cheap Eastern goods but, with defections across the porous border running into thousands every week, it was clear what the real intention was.

Taylor's book charts the history of events leading up to the building of the Wall, subsequent efforts to broker a compromise and the eventual decline of the DDR leading to the toppling of the Wall and German reunification. Amongst the cast are the leading characters of US President John F. Kennedy, Mayor of West Berlin Willy Brandt and the terrifyingly committed East German Presidents, Walter Ulbricht and Erich Honeker. Behind the main story, there are also tales of daring escape attempts through underground tunnels, dark sewers and across the icy waters of the River Spree. There is also plenty of social and cultural background fleshing out the story of how the two halves of the city developed in parallel after the Wall went up. I particularly liked the part about East German punks and the interest the Stasi took in them.

If I have one criticism it is that the late 1970s and early 1980s are dealt with quite quickly. This was `my era' and I would have liked to have read more of Taylor's social history of that time. That is a small criticism really and this is still a marvellous book, very entertainingly written.
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on 7 September 2014
An action-packed version of the story of the Berlin Wall is told here with a complete historical background, going back into early German history. The events leading up to the actual construction of the wall are covered in minute detail and the thoughts of all those involved, on both sides of the story (and the wall!) are told from their perspective and the reasoning, however flawed it appears with the benefit of hindsight, is investigated in depth. The book's a "must read" for anyone interested in Cold War history and particularly when viewed from the post Cold War viewpoint.
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on 10 November 2008
I am unsure what the people who didn't enjoy this were actaully looking for. It is true that the Wall is not built until half way through the book but what went before is perhaps as important as the wall itself. Whenever a history of an event or time period is written it is vital that the reader understands exactly why the event happened or where that period fits into the narrative of its history.
As for the end being rushed, I entirely disagree. It is fast, short and breathless. I think this is fitting, after all the state of East Germany had existed for 40 years and took a matter of weeks to collapse. I would have liked to know more about the feelings of the people standing on the wall on that November night in 1989 but this is my only criticism of an otherwise fantastic book.
As for the 70's and 80's being skipped over, what do you want to know? People continued to suffer at the hands of a regime that to the outside world was stable and showed no signs of what was to come. I believe that to have included too much detail about this period would have meant that the book lost its pace and that, to me at least, is one of the outstanding features.
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on 23 July 2008
This book could best be described as schizophrenic. It starts off with a detailed history of Germany going back to the time of the Vikings, and explains the post-war geography of Europe in vivid detail; the Berlin Wall isn't even built until about the half-way stage. Once the wall is built, however, the book feels like it was rushed and over-simplified. There is plenty of description of the many attempts to breakout of East Germany to West Berlin but there is insufficient detail as to why East Germany failed and for all the talk of how the Wall divided families there is little social and human history here which would explain the desperation of the East Germans. The events of November 1989, when the wall was finally pulled down, are rushed through at indecent pace, only about 50 pages describe this event and it's aftermath which is ridiculous bearing in mind the book is almost 700 pages long. It's not often you can say that a book of this length could benefit from being longer but at the end there is a feeling of being sold short.
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on 8 February 2015
Overwhelmingly anti East Germany was my only negative issue with this otherwise riveting book.....Obviously the east German state wasn't the nicest place to live but there must have been some positive aspects that could have been explored more....
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on 20 February 2015
Excellent book!
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VINE VOICEon 23 November 2008
Obviously you can't write a book about the Berlin Wall or the Second World War without including a lot of politics. I was expecting that. But this book goes to extremes. It is top-heavy history. Taylor is too concerned with the statesmen, the politicians, the generals, the ministers, etc., and their speeches, decisions and policies.

Very little of this book is given over to the little people and their inconsequential -- but fascinating -- lives and experiences. I would certainly have liked more of this sort of thing. Instead I discovered within its tissue-thin, Bible-like pages nothing but politics and -- worse -- economics and statistics!

Also, I don't think Taylor includes much analysis. He tells us who was involved and what occurred with commendable exactitude (plenty of dates and times), but he fails to say enough about WHY this happened and what the consequences were. I think he's aiming this book at readers who already know something about the Berlin Wall and aren't, as I am, too young to know much about it.

Still, I think I learned something from this book even if it glossed over the lives of the ordinary East and West Berliners a bit. I think Taylor could have included a few more interesting anecdotes and personal testimonies without compromising the status of the book as a work of 'serious' history.

PS: I like the cover artwork, but the pages come perilously close to falling out when the spine is creased!
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on 30 August 2010
This is in the main a decent and workmanlike history of Berlin and the DDR, rather than the Wall itself. Strong in its sections on the political manouvrings that led to the Wall's construction, it lets itself down in a couple of areas:
As other reviewers have pointed out, it sees the East and West in strict black and white terms. There is no such thing as a state without qualities, unless apparently it is the DDR. A little balance would have been useful in this book.
Secondly, the writing style. With its short, run on sentences. Is very annoying. I understand that it was an attempt to make his writing more accessible but it jars after a very short time.
Not bad, but better exists; Anna Funder, 'Stasiland' for the social history and 'The Wall; A Peoples' History' by Christopher Hilton for a genuine history of the Wall.
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