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Book Review: The Collapse

By (October 19, 2014) One Comment

the collapse coverThe Collapse:

The Accidental Opening of the Berlin Wall

by Mary Elise Sarotte

Basic Books, 2014

For readers of a certain age, it will be almost impossible to believe that this autumn marks a full quarter-century since the night of November 9, 1989 when the Berlin Wall suddenly opened and began a rapid process of demolition by the public. For those older readers, the shock of that emblematic moment will retain a sense of just-yesterday immediacy that defies the passage of the years, and yet there’s no denying the fact that college freshmen today encounter the fall of the Berlin Wall as an event firmly in the past, the death-knell of an entire government that’s also now firmly in the past. “Put simply,” as Mary Elise Sarotte writes in her terrific new book The Collapse: The Accidental Opening of the Berlin Wall,

the opening of the Wall represented the moment when the movement eclipsed the regime. The opposition seized on mistakes made by the dictators themselves to end their control over the border, and that control turned out to be the key to their power; without it, the regime crumbled.

Sarotte’s lean and fast-paced book charts “the rise of revolutionary but nonviolent civil resistance movement, and the collapse of the ruling regime,” and the actual collapse of the Wall doesn’t happen until the climax of her story. First – perhaps with an eye toward those college freshmen, although in fairness it should be pointed out that a) Sarotte’s a writer wonderful enough to be welcome in any amount of background-filling, and b) current polls hint that even her post-college readers aren’t exactly over-burdened with historical knowledge and could therefore use a refresher – she details just how bad things were in a great old city divided by a guarded and barbed-wire wall that went up as abruptly as it would later come down. East Berliners were a prison population, permitted virtually no travel and thus forced to make what illegal journeys they could, slipping over the border into Czechoslovakia being a perilous but popular alternative. The picture Sarotte paints of the Wall’s day-to-day reality is a necessarily grim one:

If the walls, self-triggering devices, and dogs all failed, border soldiers could also shoot would-be escapees. Over the course of the nearly three-decade history of the Berlin Wall, there were at least seventeen hundred known cases of shots fired at those attempting to flee. Yet despite these incidents – not to mention the fact that residents near the Wall … could hear them – SED leaders continually denied the existence of an order to shoot.

Soviet authorities, reacting to rising protests in the summer of 1989, created an additional checkpoint in the Wall called a “hole variant” – a direct crossing-point designed as a state-authorized alternative for the stream of people emigrating through Czechoslovakia, and Sarotte carefully chronicles the inadvertently funny string of gaffes and miscommunications that culminated in November 9 press conference during which hapless East German Politburo member Gunter Schabowksi bumbled his way into history by mistakenly announcing a universal easing of travel restrictions. Sarotte captures the drama of the scene perfectly:

Schabowski pressed ahead, saying, in between pauses and “uhs,” that the party had decided “to issue a regulation that will make it possible for every citizen … to emigrate.” He would now read a text of the new rules, he said, as soon as he could find it. He began digging through his thick stack of papers. Now not just [Associated Press producer Michele] Neubert but also the German-speaking NBC sound technician, Heinrich Walling, seemed visibly shocked. [Newsman Tom] Brokaw looked at Walling questioningly. Walling whispered to Brokaw in English, “It’s the end of the Cold War.”

Reporters bolted from the news conference, and word spread almost instantly that an unexpected crack had opened in a prison wall (The Collapse‘s strikingly simple cover design, by Nicole Caputo, conveys this perfectly). As Sarotte shows, the famous demonstrations that followed were a product of the fortuitously symbiotic relationship that developed between the rioters and the foreign press:

There was no crossing point at the Brandenburg Gate. Yet both Easterners and Westerners were drawn to it that night. For a while, the Wall in front of it remained as forbidding as ever. Gradually, however, a few individuals started braving its heights. According to Stasi reports, people began climbing on the Wall near the Brandenburg Gate at about 9:00 p.m. But initially were willing to obey orders to come down. The secret police noted that by 11:57 p.m., however, climbers were no longer listening. An unplanned collaboration was unfolding: the NBC floodlights made it easier for climbers to scramble up to the top of the Wall, and in turn, NBC’s cameras filmed the striking sight.

“Understanding how the Wall opened also helps us to understand why it did,” Sarotte writes, and hers is a full and compulsively readable history of both the how and the why, as fully-researched an investigation of the triumph of German resistance forces on both sides of the divide as has yet been produced in English (and her Bibliography is invaluable). To older readers and their younger counterparts, it makes the events of a quarter-century ago feel like just yesterday.