The Collapse: The Accidental Opening of the Berlin Wall

The Collapse: The Accidental Opening of the Berlin Wall

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by Mary Elise Sarotte
     
 

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On the night of November 9, 1989, massive crowds surged toward the Berlin Wall, drawn by an announcement that caught the world by surprise: East Germans could now move freely to the West. The Wall—infamous symbol of divided Cold War Europe—seemed to be falling. But the opening of the gates that night was not planned by the East German ruling…  See more details below

Overview


On the night of November 9, 1989, massive crowds surged toward the Berlin Wall, drawn by an announcement that caught the world by surprise: East Germans could now move freely to the West. The Wall—infamous symbol of divided Cold War Europe—seemed to be falling. But the opening of the gates that night was not planned by the East German ruling regime—nor was it the result of a bargain between either Ronald Reagan or George H.W. Bush and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

It was an accident.

In The Collapse, prize-winning historian Mary Elise Sarotte reveals how a perfect storm of decisions made by daring underground revolutionaries, disgruntled Stasi officers, and dictatorial party bosses sparked an unexpected series of events culminating in the chaotic fall of the Wall. With a novelist’s eye for character and detail, she brings to vivid life a story that sweeps across Budapest, Prague, Dresden, and Leipzig and up to the armed checkpoints in Berlin.
We meet the revolutionaries Roland Jahn, Aram Radomski, and Siggi Schefke, risking it all to smuggle the truth across the Iron Curtain; the hapless Politburo member Günter Schabowski, mistakenly suggesting that the Wall is open to a press conference full of foreign journalists, including NBC’s Tom Brokaw; and Stasi officer Harald Jäger, holding the fort at the crucial border crossing that night. Soon, Brokaw starts broadcasting live from Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate, where the crowds are exulting in the euphoria of newfound freedom—and the dictators are plotting to restore control.

Drawing on new archival sources and dozens of interviews, The Collapse offers the definitive account of the night that brought down the Berlin Wall.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
08/25/2014
The Soviet Union suffered the most significant symbolic defeat in the Cold War with the fall of the Berlin Wall, but Sarotte, professor of government and history at Harvard University, thinks that is only half of the story. What emerges from this detailed account is that, contrary to popular belief, neither secret plans by German officials nor behind-the-scenes agreements between U.S. President Reagan and Soviet leader Gorbachev caused the barrier between East and West Berlin to crumble; the political breech occurred via a series of miscues by short-sighted Communist-bloc authorities. With growing mass protests in East Germany, an inept statement delivered at a press conference by a functionary from SED (the country’s ruling party) on Nov. 9, 1989, sparked a battle between dissidents and East German security forces that led the Wall to come down much sooner than expected by either side. Sarotte carefully etches his narrative of the momentous shattering of the Wall, coloring it with social, political, and personal details, including anecdotes about the death of young Chris Gueffroy, the last East German shot before the barrier came down, and about Harald Jager, the senior officer giving the order to open a key crossing. This gripping, important account of a long-misinterpreted event is one of the most surprising books about the Cold War. (Oct.)
From the Publisher

Economist Best Books of 2014
“A blow-by-blow account of the birth of modern Germany on November 9th 1989, when, at an otherwise dull press conference in East Berlin, a government spokesman said that a new law permitting East Germans more freedom to travel would go into effect immediately. It changed Europe for ever.”

BBC History Magazine 2014 Books of the Year
“This is history writing at its very best, full of drama and pathos, yet immaculately researched and elegantly written.”

Zócalo Public Square 10 Best Books of 2014
The Collapse challenges our narrative of the Soviet Union’s collapse, 25 years after the Wall’s fall. Sarotte deftly balances individual human agency and contingency with larger political forces to show that the Berlin Wall coming down was neither inevitable nor the result of global power shifts alone.”

Wall Street Journal
“Sarotte runs a fine-tooth comb through the archives and gathers an impressive range of stories from the ordinary people at the heart of these extraordinary events. She is keen to dispel the kind of convenient ‘hindsight bias’ which claims that the peaceful fall of the Wall was inevitable or engineered by bigger forces than human beings who wanted a different life.”

Fareed Zakaria GPS Book of the Week
“This is easily the best book on the fall of the Berlin Wall. It reads like a thriller, it’s deeply researched and smoothly written. It will remind you how unlikely it was that the Soviet empire would collapse until one day it did.”

Economist
“[This] story has not previously been told...so vividly and comprehensively. [Sarotte] brings those dramatic days to life.... The events she describes are at times so unlikely and unfold so quickly that her plot would probably have been rejected in Tinseltown had she offered it during the Cold War.”

Financial Times Best History Books of 2014
“An authoritative and fast-moving account of the events that led up to the collapse of East Germany.”

Washington Post
“Sarotte is a superb historian. She’s ferociously intelligent, but what really separates her from her colleagues is her acute sensitivity to human drama.”

Guardian, UK
“Sarotte has produced a skillful, scrupulously documented, nuanced reconstruction of how a series of mistakes by East German leaders and officials...turned what was meant to be a carefully managed process of controlled opening...into the world’s most celebrated festival of popular liberation.”

Telegraph, UK
“A fast-paced, fascinating account of the final weeks, days and hours of the wall.”

Winnipeg Free Press, CAN
“Brief, intense, and gripping.... Sarotte’s effort is magnificent.... This is history at its best.”

Washington Post's Post Everything Blog
“The book that will haunt Vladimir Putin as long as he’s in power.”

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
“The most definitive account to date of the events that led to the demise of the German Democratic Republic, the reunification of Germany and the end of the Cold War.... It is a scholarly work of considerable accomplishment, painstakingly researched, fastidiously documented.... This book is well-written, even fluid. Ultimately, it rewards the patient reader, who emerges with a deeper and richer understanding of one of the most astonishing and memorable events of the past quarter century.”

Booklist, starred review
“An inspiring and often thrilling account.”

Publishers Weekly
“This gripping, important account of a long-misinterpreted event is one of the most surprising books about the Cold War.”

Kirkus
“A rigorous sifting of evidence surrounding the final toppling of the sclerotic East German state. With extensive use of Stasi files, Sarotte finds that accident, rather than planning, caused the collapse of the Berlin Wall.... [T]his account amply conveys the universal amazement and excitement of the time.”

Library Journal
“[Sarotte] utilizes international reactions, publications, and interviews to highlight or offset her main narrative and in doing so creates a cohesive picture of a tumultuous nation whose oppressed yet hopeful citizenry sought the freedom they had been denied. Amply researched and emotive, this work shares the full narrative of events leading to the fall of the Berlin Wall in a way that both academics and lay readers will appreciate.”

O.A. Westad, author of Restless Empire: China and the World since 1750
“History the way it should be written: world historical change, seen through the eyes of the people who lived through it, and a top historian who can tell us what it all meant. Highly recommended for everyone with an interest in global affairs.”

Fredrik Logevall, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America's Vietnam
“It's one of the most astonishing events in contemporary world history: the sudden fall of the Berlin Wall one autumn day in 1989. Mary Elise Sarotte tells the story with verve and insight, drawing on a wide array of previously untapped sources. The outcome, her gripping narrative suggests, was in no way inevitable, but resulted from a series of high-pressure decisions by individuals—many of them hitherto unknown—who might easily have chosen differently. A splendid book.”

Angela Stent, author of The Limits of Partnership: US-Russian Relations in the Twenty-First Century
“In her compelling and fast-paced narrative, Mary Elise Sarotte reminds us that the end of the Cold War was not foreordained, but that courageous acts by East German dissidents, offhand comments by GDR officials, and the actions of one perplexed border-guard changed the course of twentieth-century history. This is essential reading for those who want to understand the role of contingency and human agency in the unexpected opening of the Berlin Wall.”

Serhii Plokhy, author of The Last Empire: The Final Days of the Soviet Union
“Meticulously researched, judiciously argued, and exceptionally well written, The Collapse describes the fall of the Berlin Wall from an unprecedented perspective. Mary Elise Sarotte weaves together numerous German, American, and Soviet accounts, allowing the reader to crisscross the Berlin Wall on the eve and in the course of its collapse. It will come as a surprise to many that that this climactic event in Cold War history resulted not from agreements reached in Washington, Berlin, Moscow, or Bonn, but from the uncoordinated actions of people on both sides of the Berlin divide. The Collapse makes it possible for those who made history in 1989 to speak in their own voices.”

Rick Atkinson, Pulitzer Prize winner and author of The Guns at Last Light
“A lucid, compelling account that illuminates the most astonishing event of the late twentieth century. With verve and impeccable scholarship, Mary Elise Sarotte tells a tale no novelist could have invented—the decline and fall of the Berlin Wall.”

General Brent Scowcroft, former National Security Adviser
“In The Collapse, Mary Elise Sarotte provides a needed (and highly readable) reminder that the peaceful culmination to 1989's dramatic developments was in no way inevitable.”

Tom Brokaw
The Collapse is a riveting and important account of the political chaos in East Germany that led to the fall of the Berlin Wall. Mary Elise Sarotte is a distinguished historian with a playwright's eye who gives us fresh insights and telling anecdotes about one of the most important nights of the late twentieth century."

Joseph S. Nye, Jr., Harvard University Distinguished Service Professor and author of The Future of Power
“The fall of the Berlin Wall was one of the landmark events of the twentieth century, but this great change involved accidental and non-violent causes. In wonderfully readable prose, Mary Elise Sarotte tells a compelling story of how history works its surprises.”

William Taubman, Bertrand Snell Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Amherst College and Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Khrushchev: The Man and His Era
“Can you believe that the fall of the Berlin Wall was a mistake? That the event that changed the world was the result of a series of misunderstandings? Mary Elise Sarotte’s fine, important book, based on painstaking archival research as well as extensive interviews, will not only convince you, but entertain you as well.”

Mike Leary, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist
“From a remove of 25 years, the fall of the Berlin Wall seems foreordained. In fact, as Mary Elise Sarotte shows, this historic moment was an improbable concatenation of events and decisions triggering in perfect if accidental sequence. Catastrophe at times was just seconds away. As someone who was in Leipzig and Berlin as the crucial events unfolded, I can say that Sarotte gets it exactly right, capturing the fear, confusion, courage, and growing excitement as hitherto ordinary people peacefully toppled the deadly barrier that symbolized the Cold War.”

Library Journal
10/15/2014
Sarotte's (history, international relations, Univ. of Southern California; 1989: The Struggle To Create Post-Cold War Europe) latest work discusses the fall of the Berlin Wall from a mostly West German perspective, examining the myriad intertwined political and social elements that resulted in the opening of the wall in November 1989. This deeply complex event is widely discussed and analyzed in its own right as one of the factors leading to the fall of the Soviet Union. The author uses primary sources, such as personal memoirs, interviews, and public broadcasts to shine a spotlight on the public and private figures whose actions, inactions, decisions, or errors led to the falling of the wall. She utilizes international reactions, publications, and interviews to highlight or offset her main narrative and in doing so creates a cohesive picture of a tumultuous nation whose oppressed yet hopeful citizenry sought the freedom they had been denied. VERDICT Amply researched and emotive, this work shares the full narrative of events leading to the fall of the Berlin Wall in a way that both academics and lay readers will appreciate. Those already familiar with the subjects and time frames involved will definitely benefit from the author's extensive research and emphasis on personal narratives.—Elizabeth Zeitz, Otterbein Univ. Lib., Westerville, OH
Kirkus Reviews
2014-07-30
A rigorous sifting of evidence surrounding the final toppling of the sclerotic East German state.With extensive use of Stasi files, Sarotte (History/Univ. of Southern California; 1989: The Struggle to Create Post-Cold War Europe, 2009) finds that accident, rather than planning, caused the collapse of the Berlin Wall. Although the author acknowledges the importance of certain external factors—Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev's four-year "new thinking" reforms, President Ronald Reagan's famous call for tearing down the wall in 1987—she unearths evidence of the key roles of provincial players, rather than politicians, in the crisis culminating on Nov. 9, 1989. The German Democratic Republic, under the aging iron grip of Erich Honecker, was losing its control over the border crossings as a result of the effects of the Conference of Security and Cooperation in Europe, which eased East Germans' ability to leave the country; moreover, the shoot-to-kill policy of the border police had grown muddied due to international humanitarian outcry. Meanwhile, the Stasi somewhat tolerated certain religious groups, and St. Nicholas Church in Leipzig had managed to turn itself into a substantial hub for nonviolent protest movements. Also, cooperation among Soviet bloc members began to break down in 1989: Hungarian Prime Minister Miklós Németh and colleagues decided to ease Hungary's border restrictions, creating a mass exodus by GDR holidaygoers in the spring and summer, encouraged and welcomed by West German leader Helmut Kohl. Sarotte follows the countdown to collapse, from the growth of a massive civil disobedience demonstration in Leipzig on Oct. 9, to the confused international press conference given by East German Politburo member Günter Schabowski announcing apparent new possibilities to emigrate, to Bornholmer Street border officer Harald Jäger's beleaguered decision to fling open the gates. More systematic than suspenseful, this account amply conveys the universal amazement and excitement of the time.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780465064946
Publisher:
Basic Books
Publication date:
10/07/2014
Pages:
320
Sales rank:
982,799
Product dimensions:
6.40(w) x 9.20(h) x 1.40(d)

Meet the Author


Mary Elise Sarotte is Visiting Professor of Government and History at Harvard University and Dean’s Professor of History at the University of Southern California. A former White House Fellow and Humboldt Scholar, she is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and the author, most recently, of 1989: The Struggle to Create Post-Cold War Europe, a Financial Times Book of the Year. She lives in Boston and Los Angeles.

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