on 6 January 2002
I was thoroughly gripped from start to finish and could not put it down. The last three days of my life have been written off as I was resolved to enjoy it without interruption.
The means by which the author, Christopher Hilton, weaves the political developments of the Berlin Wall with poignant anecdotes from Berliners as a consequence, makes the book both fascinating and very human.
The book's structure works well in communicating the various personal accounts of the cross section of people interviewed. The method of inserting the escapee bulletins as punctuation throughout each chapter illustrates the fact that these events were happening simultaneously and helps to keep the pace of the book going. What also becomes apparent is that these particular accounts, the author chose to highlight, were really the tip of an incredibly large iceberg. However the amount of research is not only exacerbating but seems to flow through the book with great ease as one (the reader) flits from story to story and back again.
It is self-evident that the author comes from a journalistic background as words are treated as a precise commodity with little room for waffle...
The book is an excellent read for anyone interested in the history of the Berlin Wall and the effect it has had on the people of the city.
It should appeal both to those who have prior knowledge of the subject and those who are interested for the first time.
Neil Robert Wenman
on 11 December 2003
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.
on 29 January 2002
I visited Berlin in 1988 as a student a year before the wall came down and crossed through Checkpoint Charlie into East Berlin.
The wall affected your emotions in words its hard to find. The cruelty of it, the contrast of West and East etc. What Hilton has done is to find the words.
I crossed to the East for a day and felt touched by it. Hilton recounts stories from both sides of the divide, lives broken, and lives lost by a regime now forgotten over 28 years.
Hilton's approach is to tell the tale from the viewpoint of many different personal accounts whilst at the same time telling the history of how the wall came to be and how it suddenly collapsed.
He also scratches the surface at the end of the book around how hard it is for West and East to come together again after 20 years but as he concludes the book "thats another story altogether".
A must for anyone with an interest.
on 17 June 2015
This book has the promise of being 5 Star, but after getting past the 20% mark, I started struggling with the Typos. When reaching the end of a "Screen" on my Kindles (I have a Fire & a Voyage), I found that the next screen did not lead on, and went on a completely different tangent. By the 28% Marker, I decided that I had had enough, I returned for a re-fund. I have given 2 Stars and not one as the book had a lot of promise with good facts, and if the problems can be resolved, I'd be happy to retry it and perhaps marking it higher. I hate marking things down and I would put no blame on The Author as he obviously has a lot of knowledge. I think the problem lie in the "Kindelisation" of the book.
on 1 June 2007
I came to this book having just read Mary Fulbrook's "The People's State", so was perhaps in the frame of mind for a more academic read. The good things about this book: clearly carefully researched, contained many first-person accounts, including the author's personal recollections, and was quite easy to read. The bad: at some points I thought I was reading a Dan Brown novel thanks to the rather over-dramatic style (not to my taste - as a previous reviewer mentioned, I could have done without the chapter full of "he would do such-and-such again - but not until 1989!"), a very Western viewpoint ("the GDR was BAD; its people were ALL PRISONERS") and a mediocre copy editor. Some first-person passages were clearly verbatim and had a stilted translation which could have been tidied up. In some passages, particularly where the author described geography relating to the Wall, I was completely baffled by his explanation, and although diagrams were provided, they strangely didn't seem to be of the more complex areas and enclaves he discussed, which would have been helpful. Sadly these minor irritations detracted from what could have been a great book.
on 25 January 2012
This is the latest in a series of books about the Berlin Wall which I've been reading and it is absolutely excellent. The more I read, the more I want to find out!
The Wall takes you through the history 'blow by blow' in tremendous, fascinating detail as the build up, creation, establishment and physical destruction of the wall came about, but unlike the other books this one interrupts its own narrative at the appropriate chronological moment to give the name and details of who was shot trying to get across to the West. Rather than being morbid or gratuitous, I felt that long list was very respectful, and I am very pleased that the names of those victims are not forgotten.
The elation and haphazard events of November 1989 are conveyed superbly, linking what was happening at all the checkpoints and intertwining the actions of the Officials with the stories of the individuals who were there, be they East Germans, Westerners, or guards on all sides. That section alone was worth getting the book for, and brought so much of the mayhem to life. Ultimately it was very moving, as was the post-wall conclusion to the book. Again, that's down to good writing, good research, and genuine sympathy (and empathy) with the interviewees.
I would very strongly recommend this. It's another very well written account of an incredible few decades, and even though this is the sixth book about the wall which I've read, it was utterly compelling, full of new stories, and introduced a raft of new names to me.