Works under review: The Berlin Wall by Frederick Taylor, Bloomsbury, 2007, 493pp., pbk.
As mentioned previously, quite recently I went to Berlin. Whenever I go away anywhere I tend to pick up some relevant history books about the place to enjoy when I get back. Because I am who I am, these rarely get read. Thus, when I came back from Berlin with the inevitable amazon order on the way I resolve to do things differently and I can now happily report that I have read two of the three books I picked up.
Berlin’s long and rich history remains dominated by the events of the mid-to-late 20th century, first the Second World World and then the Cold War. Consequently, two of the three books I picked up were about the latter, an arduous conflict between the superpowers in which the city of Berlin became a highly symbolic front line. I reviewed Anna Funder’s excellent Stasiland here. This review is for the second, weightier book I got on the subject – Frederick Taylor’s The Berlin Wall.
Whereas there is something lyrical and literary about Funder’s work, Taylor’s book is more of a traditional work of history. It is, however, incredibly readable, which is always to be commended in such a large volume. However, despite the work’s comprehensiveness, it suffers from a lack of focus.
Taylor begins by comprehensively explaining the history of the city of Berlin, the ‘Wall’ itself doesn’t appear until page 131, over a quarter of the way into the book. This wouldn’t be an issue if the book was a history of Germany or Berlin, but it is meant to be a history of the Wall. Even after the Wall, which appeared in a prototype barbed-wire form in August 1961, becomes a key focus of the book, by page 337 Taylor has still not moved beyond 1963 – devoting a huge amount of time to the ‘Berlin Crisis’. This was of course a significant part of the Wall’s early history, but one feels that this could have appeared at the start of the book rather than taking up a great chunk of the middle section of it.
By page 355 Taylor does an epic leap forward. In a chapter which starts with President Kennedy’s infamous ‘ich bin ein Berliner‘ speech in June 1963 and ends with Walter Ulbricht’s death in August 1973, it gives a sense of just how much more Taylor could have said about the history of the city. He speeds through the social and economic policies of the post-war DDR (Deutsche Demokratische Republik – or East Germany) and seems to follow his own maxim that Berlin after 1963 fell off the radar as a flashpoint in the Cold War as the focus shifted to Southeast Asia, Central America, Africa and so on. This would all be perfectly acceptable in a general history of the Cold War, but this is meant to be a history of the Berlin Wall. After so much time languished on the first two years of the Wall’s existence, are we truly meant to believe that nothing of any real significance happened in the decade between 1963-73?
JFK gives his ‘Ich bin ein Berliner‘ speech in 1963 – sadly, according to Taylor, the popular myth that what he accidentally said was ‘I am a doughnut’ is not true.
Indeed, after languishing for so long on the minutiae of the Berlin crisis, Taylor’s book launches headlong into a race to the fall of the wall in November 1989, ending relatively abruptly with a rather weak ‘that is another story’ line. Though there is an afterword which reviews reunified Germany, and comments on the ‘theft of hope’ of East Germans it is more of an opinion piece than anything else. Taylor laments that East Germans blame westerners (wessis) for their current woes rather than their former DDR masters. This is somewhat disingenuous two decades after the DDR disappeared (after all, the state itself only just made it to 40 years old). It is possible to recognise that former West Germans could have done more to assimilate their Eastern neighbours in the past two decades without being an apologist for the crimes of the DDR.
Furthermore, Taylor’s work suffers from its diplomatic-centric look at Berlin’s history in this period. Whilst what the French, British, Soviets and above all Americans thought about the Berlin Wall was undoubtedly important, the book never really delivers on the blurb’s promise that this is “the definitive account of a divided city and its people”. For much of the narrative sometime West Berlin mayor Willy Brandt stands in for ‘West Berliners’, and instead President Kennedy and those around him take up a great chunk of the narrative. This is a shame, because Taylor’s chapter on the early escape attempts (one of the best in the book), does give a much better picture of how the Wall actually affected ordinary Berliners.
On the other side of the wall, Taylor’s evident bias against the DDR shows through time and again. This sometimes distracts from the narrative in subtle yet important ways. I am no apologist for the DDR, perhaps the most authoritarian and repressive of all eastern bloc states, but Taylor’s literary tics began to grate on me. As a trained historian of white supremacists in Rhodesia I know that it is possible to study a regime you personally abhor yet write about it with scholarly detachment. Walter Ulbricht, clearly a very dangerous and callous man, emerges from this book as something of a pantomime villain. East German soldiers are ‘goons with guns’, people escape ‘to freedom’, perhaps most annoyingly to me, anyone who works for the British government is given their full formal title ‘Her Majesty’s Ambassador’. The DDR is run by a coven of wizened old Soviet stooges but whenever western politicians of advanced years are mentioned they are often the ‘old fox’. Taylor’s account is well-researched and does not lack nuance (particularly in his post financial crash preface) but I remain cautious of Cold War histories which fail to explain that both the US and the USSR indulged in lots of dirty tricks. For example, at one point Taylor notes how the informal East German economy KoKo sold arms to both Iran and Iraq in the 1988 war between those countries, something that Reagan’s US was famously also doing at the same time. The sad fact of war is that everyone gets their hands dirty, and perhaps if we acknowledged this more in ‘popular’ histories we be more hesitant to resort to conflict in the first place.
In conclusion, this is a solid introductory book if you know absolutely nothing about the history of Berlin or the Cold War. It is a bit disingenuously titled, however, given that the history of the Wall itself (and in fairness it can’t be easy writing the history of a concrete barrier) is subsumed within a wider Cold War narrative of power plays between the US, Soviets, and East Germans. To give Taylor his due, without this context a study of the Wall would be meaningless, but I do think he takes too long with his setup and it detracts from his (ostensible) subject. A lot more could have been done to bring out ordinary Berliners’ voices from the international cacophony surrounding the Wall and when this was done it made for some of the most effective parts of the book. As Anna Funder recognised, the story of the Wall was only partly the story of the men who built and squabbled over it, far more important are those tales of ordinary people whose world was shattered overnight by the erection of a crude and ruthlessly policed concrete-and-barbed-wire obstacle, not just to West Berlin, but to families and loved ones, to friends and educations and jobs, to the continuation of the lives they had once known.
∏∏∏ – the book gets three ‘n-ary products’ because they look a bit like the large concrete slabs that made up the ‘third generation’ wall.