Customer Review

14 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Comprehensive and Sympathetic., 11 Dec 2003
This review is from: The Wall: The People's Story (Paperback)
Christopher Hilton's narrative of the Berlin Wall, from its conception to its destruction is a terrific read. I have to admit, I was a little skeptical at first and it took me a while to get right into it but it was well worth the effort. This is a no-nonsense account. Hilton is admirably neutral in his description of why the wall was built, especially when it comes to describing the characters involved such as Ulbricht and Honecker. He explains how they arrived at the conclusions they did and what the West did - and didn't - do about it.
East Germany had been impoverished by Stalin's war reparation taxes until his death in 1953, so East Berliners had to sit by and watch as West Berlin was rebuilt under the Marshall Plan. During this time, the temptation to emigrate to the West became too strong for many people but in those days it was not so difficult. The queues to leave grew longer every day until, in 1961, as many as 1,500 people per day were crossing over, half of them under 25. Ulbricht, a committed Communist well before WWII, could see the future of East Germany disappearing down the road to the West and after consultation with Krushchev, closed the border on August 13th, 1961. Construction of the first of four versions of the wall began almost immediately along with the issuing of orders to "shoot to kill".
The West responded by allowing it to happen. Realistically, there was not much else they could do. If, in desperation, East Germany moved on West Berlin, that would have been totally unacceptable to the West and would likely have led to nuclear war. Allowing the wall to be built was really the lesser of two evils and the arrival of the Soviets on the scene actually stabilised the situation. What a lot of people don't realise is that the wall was actually built around West Berlin, thus isolating it further, to keep East Germans "in".
But it really the people's story which is the focus of the book. Using first-hand accounts of escapers, families of would-be escapers, border guards and public officials from both sides, Hilton paces the whole story really well and punctuates it with examples of the tragic consequences of attempted escapes.
The result is a book with far more impact than would otherwise be the case were he less even-handed. The stories are those of desperate people, willing to risk everything to negotiate it. They are stories mostly of tragedy and in the end, relief. That the wall was an abomination needs no prologue and indeed, in his first chapter, Hilton opens thus;
"Looking back on it, the mixture of madness and dreams seems logical, with each step leading inexorably to the next but, even so, dividing a major European city by a wall and for twenty-eight years killing anyone who tried to cross it without the right papers still stretches credulity and probably always will; but this is what happened to Berlin and this is what happened to ordinary human beings who lived and died with it."
Having read that opening, it truly is amazing that this monstrous chapter in modern history really only ended fourteen years ago. For anyone who has been there recently, it is even more astonishing. One could be excused for thinking that, in many ways, WWII did not end until 1989.
Aside from some silly spelling errors, almost unheard of in this day of word processors, the book wants for very little and is highly recommended.
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