The Berlin Wall: August 13, 1961 - November 9, 1989

The Berlin Wall: August 13, 1961 - November 9, 1989

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by Frederick Taylor

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On the morning of August 13, 1961, the residents of East Berlin found themselves cut off from family, friends and jobs in the West by a tangle of barbed wire that ruthlessly cut a city of four million in two. Within days the barbed-wire entanglement would undergo an extraordinary metamorphosis: it became an imposing 103-mile-long wall guarded by three hundred


On the morning of August 13, 1961, the residents of East Berlin found themselves cut off from family, friends and jobs in the West by a tangle of barbed wire that ruthlessly cut a city of four million in two. Within days the barbed-wire entanglement would undergo an extraordinary metamorphosis: it became an imposing 103-mile-long wall guarded by three hundred watchtowers. A physical manifestation of the struggle between Soviet Communism and American capitalism—totalitarianism and freedom—that would stand for nearly thirty years, the Berlin Wall was the high-risk fault line between East and West on which rested the fate of all humanity. Many brave people risked their lives to overcome this lethal barrier, and some paid the ultimate price.

In this captivating work, sure to be the definitive history on the subject, Frederick Taylor weaves together official history, archival materials and personal accounts to tell the complete story of the Wall's rise and fall, from the postwar political tensions that created a divided Berlin to the internal and external pressures that led to the Wall's demise. In addition, he explores the geopolitical ramifications as well as the impact the wall had on ordinary lives that is still felt today. For the first time the entire world faced the threat of imminent nuclear apocalypse, a fear that would be eased only when the very people the Wall had been built to imprison breached it on the historic night of November 9, 1989.

Gripping and authoritative, The Berlin Wall is the first comprehensive account of a divided city and its people in a time when the world seemed to stand permanently on the edge of destruction.

Editorial Reviews

William Grimes
Rarely does history wind up its dramas so neatly, with the same actor reciting both prologue and epilogue, and Frederick Taylor quite rightly savors the coincidence in The Berlin Wall, his gripping, impassioned history of the cold war’s most malevolent symbol … Mr. Taylor, the author of Dresden, does a great service in carefully separating myth from reality, symbol from substance as he traces the history of the wall from its beginnings in August 1961 as a hastily thrown-down barbed-wire barrier to its final form: 30 miles of concrete, with 300 watchtowers manned by soldiers with orders to shoot to kill.
— The New York Times
Anne Applebaum
This book tells the story of this strange piece of architecture—that is, how the Berlin Wall was built, and how it then suddenly, and strangely, ceased to exist. It's a story we think we know, since the outlines have long figured in headlines. But as Frederick Taylor demonstrates in this new history, it's also a story with odd twists and hidden secrets, many only recently revealed, some that have been forgotten and are worth repeating…Taylor concludes his excellent history much as I began this review, with a stroll through the newly intact neighborhoods, marveling at the fact that in many parts of Berlin, it is impossible to tell where the Wall used to be. Indeed, sometimes it seems as if it had never existed at all.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly

Walls, like those of Hadrian and Maginot, do not have a good reputation, and Taylor (Dresden) has written a superb narrative of the rise and fall of the monstrous one that scarred Berlin between August 1961 and November 1989. Walls, too, are more than merely bricks and mortar (or, in the 100-mile-long Berlin version's case, anti-vehicle crash obstacles, unclimbable barriers, barbed-wire fences, self-activating searchlights and heavily armed border guards), and one of Taylor's major themes is the Berlin Wall's significance in the global power politics of the Cold War. According to Taylor, Kennedy, Macmillan and de Gaulle were not decisively opposed to the division between East and West Germans. Berlin, in truth, was a dangerously volatile potential flashpoint, and while the erection of the wall was brutal and oppressive to those caught behind or trying to get over it, it stabilized Europe and symbolized the differences between capitalism and communism. Reagan, however, emphasized the rights of the trapped and challenged Gorbachev to tear it down. The Kremlin, ironically, was undone by its own creation. Taylor's enthralling story, combined with impeccable research and its rich human interest, makes this as dramatically gripping as any of the spy thrillers that used the wall as a backdrop. 16 pages of b&w photos, map. (June 1)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Library Journal
The acclaimed author of Dresden fast forwards to the building of the Berlin Wall and its impact. Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A history of "a uniquely squalid, violent-and, as we now know, ultimately futile-episode in the post-war world."Between August 13, 1961, when the Berlin Wall went up, and November 9, 1989, when it came crashing down, 86 people died as a direct result of violence there. The count may include a couple of dozen more, depending on the criteria used, but it is clear that the Wall took fewer lives than one might suppose. Nonetheless, it stood as a powerful symbol of the divide between East and West, and, moreover, as Nikita Khrushchev understood, a repudiation of Sovietism. "The Wall," writes British novelist and historian Taylor (Dresden, 2004, etc.), "was in the long run a propaganda catastrophe for the East. Every day it existed, it screamed aloud one simple, damning statement: in Berlin we Communists stood in direct competition with capitalism, and we lost." Nonetheless, East Germany's leaders had reason to want to impede the flow of traffic into encircled West Berlin, since the most talented, productive members of East German society were defecting to the West in record numbers even before Josef Stalin died. It was Stalin who authorized Walter Ulbricht and Erich Honecker to make a fortress of the frontier between the two Germanys, and Moscow that allowed their regime to erect the wall in the first place, even though Khrushchev "felt it was dangerous to give Ulbricht total control over access to Berlin." In a legalistic turn, the East Germans initially closed traffic only to their fellow citizens passing through the Soviet sector, so that passage from West to East was theoretically permitted; but in the dangerous war of words that followed the construction of the Wall (built on a Sunday, noless, when workers would be resting), the barrier became permanent, heavily fortified and impassable, "a thing for which the term ‘Wall' was wholly inadequate."A sturdy contribution to Cold War history.

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The Berlin Wall

A World Divided, 1961-1989
By Frederick Taylor


Copyright © 2007 Frederick Taylor
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-06-078613-7

Chapter One

Marsh Town

In the summer of 1961, sixteen years after the end of the Second World War, the world was faced for the first time with the realistic threat of nuclear annihilation.

The background cause was the development, during the 1950s, of massively destructive nuclear weapons by both East and West. The immediate reason was the construction of a wall, a wall dividing a city built on sand.

Berlin, where this ominous thing happened, had always been an improbable metropolis. A fishing and trading settlement, surviving on sandy, boggy soil, it then became capital of one of the poorest monarchies in Europe: Prussia, a state whose very weakness gradually became its strength, and whose habitual trade of military violence-forced on it by its meagreness of natural resources-made it powerful, and Berlin one of the great urban centres of the world.

So how and when did the city's rise begin?

Twentieth-century Berlin was divided. And at its very beginning it also consisted of two cities-or rather, large villages. One was called Berlin and the other Colln, located on opposite sandy banks at a narrow point in the northward flow of the river Spree. Colln on the western bank owed its name to the ancient western German Christian city founded by the Romans, Cologne (Köln in German); on the eastern side, the settlement of Berlin was probably not named after the noble bear as sentimental natives still insist-but more prosaically after the old West Slavic word for marsh, brl. Marsh town.

Two heritages found expression in those two names. One was brought with them by the Germanic colonists from the West who flocked into the Slav lands between the Elbe and the Oder as these were conquered. The other expressed the lasting spirit of the non-German people who lived here until this time. These people were gradually Germanised but remained, in some mysterious way that would frustrate later theorists of racial purity, not pure 'Aryan' in the Nazi sense. This was the Berlin 'mix', reinforced by mass immigrations from the eastern and southern regions of Europe in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when the capital of the united Germany became one of the great boom towns of the continent.

At the beginning the expansion of the twin settlement was gradual. There was no fertile hinterland, but Berlin-Cölln's location was sufficiently convenient that it grew steadily on the basis of the Baltic river-borne trade with landlocked central Europe. Local rye and oak timber were shipped north along the veins of the waterways that covered the North German Plain, and in exchange herring and dried cod came from Hamburg. Later, Thuringia supplied iron, Flanders fine cloth, and even oils and Mediterranean exotica such as figs and ginger found their way there. Walls were built. Soon a mill-dam straddled the Spree. In 1307, the towns merged.

Berlin-Cölln owed allegiance to a local magnate. Its overlord was the Margrave of Brandenburg, to whom annual taxes were paid. Though represented by a governor, the margrave left the town mostly to its own devices.

City magistrates and guilds, dominated by patrician families, regulated everyday economic and social life. Punishments were harsh. Crimes that warranted death or lethal torture included not just murder or treason but also poisoning, practising black magic or witchcraft, arson and adultery. Between 1391 and 1448, in a town with a consistent population of around 8,000 souls, 46 alleged miscreants were hanged, 20 burned at the stake, 22 beheaded, 11 broken on the wheel, 17 buried alive (a specially favoured fate for women), and 13 tortured to death.' Countless mutilations, including severing of hands, slicing of ears, and ripping out of tongues, were administered for lesser transgressions.

Nevertheless, town life even under such harsh conditions offered a certain security, and relative freedom. Stadt Luft macht frei, as the ancient German saying went-'City air makes a man free'.

Of course, wars, plagues and fires tormented its inhabitants, just as they did other Europeans in the unlucky fourteenth century. The Ascanian dynasty that ruled Brandenburg for centuries eventually died out. Disease, war and famine stalked the land. The Holy Roman Emperor decided to name a new ruler for this neglected area, a scion of a Nuremberg family that had flourished as hereditary castellans of that powerful imperial free city. The family was called Hohenzollern. Its members would rule here through triumph and disaster for 500 years.

Frederick VI Hohenzollern officially became Frederick I of Brandenburg in 1415. Berlin's citizens were delighted. The patrician élite was pleased that this busy man from a distant province left them to rule as they had done for centuries. Berlin kept its privileges, and so did they.

In 1440, the first Hohenzollern ruler died. His successor, Frederick II, unpromisingly known as 'Irontooth', proved the city's nemesis. He played the citizens off against the patricans, then crushed the rebellion that followed. Henceforth the city was ruled by his nominees. The Margrave would deal with Berliners' property and levy taxes on them as he wished.

In 1486, the city became the lords of Brandenburg's official residence. From now until the second decade of the twentieth century, the monarch ruled there, in person and almost entirely absolutely.

In the 1530s, Brandenburg's ruler, Joachim II-now bearing the title of 'Elector', as one of the princes who chose the Holy Roman Emperor adopted Protestantism. In February 1 he attended the first Lutheran service to be held in Berlin. His subjects followed him-on the whole, willingly-into this new religious direction.

The states of the Holy Roman Empire agreed on a policy of mutual toleration. According to the neat Latin slogan, cuius regio, eius religio (whose region it is, his religion), it would be up to each German prince to determine whether Lutheranism or Catholicism would be the official religion in his particular area. The religious truce and Germany's prosperity lasted until the early 1600s.


Excerpted from The Berlin Wall by Frederick Taylor Copyright © 2007 by Frederick Taylor. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Frederick Taylor studied history and modern languages at Oxford University and Sussex University. A Volkswagen Studentship award enabled him to research and travel widely in both parts of divided Germany at the height of the Cold War. Taylor is the author of Dresden and has edited and translated a number of works from German, including The Goebbels Diaries, 1939-1941. He is married with three children and lives in Cornwall, England.

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Berlin Wall: A World Divided, 1961-1989 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 5 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
55T-Bird More than 1 year ago
Cold War history at its best!  This book clearly demonstrates why the Berlin Wall became the quintessential symbol of the divide between Communism and capitalism.  There are so many poignant stories of those who lived inside and outside the Wall.  Reading this I couldn't help but feel despair as the events led up to the sudden and secret construction of first a wire fence and then an almost impenetrable wall.  But I also felt elation as the hold of Communism began to fail and the ideological and physical wall crumbled.  Reading this story of the Wall and all it represented brought me to tears on more than one occasion.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
I never knew so much until I read this book. It has everything a non-fiction reader could want and is easy to understand. The author also gives it great voice and character. It starts with the very beginning of Berlin-Coeln in the 13th century all the way through to modern day Germany. Every chapter is filled with quotes and writings of the people who lived through it. This book gives you an in depth look of both sides of the wall, including how and why it was built. It tells how the Berliner¿s felt and controversy over its existence. The different sectors and neighborhoods within Berlin are shown and described in the book. The historically accurate illustrations help clarify the book, giving you a much better understanding. It is a masterpiece of history and philosophy. I highly recommend this book to anyone who loves a great story, with all its different characters.