What an advantage it is for a scholar to speak a foreign language. The story Frederick Taylor tells in The Berlin Wall: 13 August 1961 - 9 November 1989 is not new, but it will be to those who do not read German. The book is more suited to the general reader, as it is too thinly researched for academic readership. It is a commendable compression of information on the Berlin Wall and on aspects of German and international history connected with it; however, its breadth is more impressive than its depth.
Taylor's German is good: he is in command of his German-language sources and translates well from German into English. The book's sweep is broad.
Taylor goes beyond telling the story of the Wall to address wider themes of international and German history, showing a sound understanding of both the German Democratic Republic in the East and the Federal Republic in the West.
He starts with the foundation of Berlin early in the 14th century. Indeed, the Wall is constructed only at the end of chapter eight. Frederick the Great, Bismarck, Stalin, the Berlin Blockade, Walter Ulbricht, Erich Honecker, Willy Brandt and others all make their appearance in the intervening chapters. The book covers a lot of ground, but too quickly for the academic reader, who will find some of the judgments superficial and will even stumble across mistakes. For example, Stalin had more than one spy in the American atomic establishment; Nikita Khrushchev did not appoint Wladyslaw Gomulka Poland's leader; Ernst Wollweber was not a liberal in the Socialist Unity Party's Politburo; and shortly before the closure of the Berlin sectoral border in August 1961 the West German foreign intelligence service did warn it was imminent.
Nevertheless, Taylor has a splendid tale to tell. The best thing about the book is its subject: the tragic division of Berlin and Germany, above all in the years between 1961 and the mid-1960s. Taylor devotes more than 200 pages to this - the central and best part of the book. The Communists'
decision to divide Germany completely with a triple barrier of concrete and barbed wire - overlooked by watchtowers, fitted with alarms, floodlights and vicious personnel traps, guarded by border troops with orders to shoot and by attack dogs, and defended (outside Berlin) with mines - defined (and destroyed) that most fragile of states, the GDR. They were unscrupulous and immoral men: Taylor depicts well the lengths to which they went to deprive the East Germans of their freedom.
But many East Germans were determined to be free; Taylor tells marvellous and moving stories of escape, and his account of West Berliners' efforts to help them is well informed. The incorrigible dishonesty of the leaders of the "German Democratic (!) Republic" is a theme Taylor rightly highlights.
For example, people who merely wanted to leave an illegitimate state for a legitimate one of which they were entitled to become citizens were excoriated as criminals, social misfits and perverts.
Taylor also shows how their view of the threat to the GDR from the West mixed reality and ideology. He writes well about some of the political developments after the Wall's construction, such as the Federal Republic's programme to buy the freedom of GDR political prisoners and efforts, from Brandt's time as West German Chancellor, to give East and West Germans more contact with one another.
The book's limitation is that it does not offer anything new. It relies chiefly on well-known secondary sources published quite recently in English and German. Some use is made of records held in German, British and American archives, but too little to make the book valuable to the academic reader. The endnotes refer to almost no records of the GDR's Ministry of State Security (or Stasi); Taylor did not conduct research at the Stasi archive. The fact that the Wall served the GDR's security interests makes this a weakness. However, Taylor makes some good use of documents from the Socialist Unity Party's archive in Berlin.
The English is sloppy in places, but overall fluent and easy to read. In sum, Taylor tells a good story, but does not include as much academic research as he should. The book ends with an afterword, which surveys events since the Wall fell and makes the point that East and West Germans remain divided. Communism, Taylor argues, did East Germans lasting harm, above all, economically.
The book needs a conclusion that relates to the Wall itself. The Wall and the apparatus of intimidation that reinforced it were immoral. They are striking evidence of how far some people will go to deprive others of their freedom. They remain a lesson for the 21st century: they teach us how deluded, dishonest and cruel our masters can be. The chilling reality of our new century is that people as deluded as Ulbricht and Honecker will possess nuclear weapons.
Paul Maddrell is lecturer in international politics, University of Wales, Aberystwyth.
The Berlin Wall: 13 August 1961- 9 November 1989
Author - Frederick Taylor
Publisher - Bloomsbury
Pages - 486
Price - £20.00
ISBN - 0 747 58015 4