Taylor’s book is a vivid, comprehensive account of how the Berlin Wall came about, of the repulsive or inspiring events which took place along it during its 28-year life, and of its eventual fall in 1989. He backs this narrative with a summary of Prussian and Berlin history leading up to the defeat of the Third Reich in 1945, a close study of the devious postwar struggles within the ruling Socialist Unity Party under Walter Ulbricht and then Erich Honecker, and an account of developing East-West relations before, during and after the great ‘Berlin Crisis’ of 1958-61.
When he is telling stories, Taylor is at his best. He makes compulsive reading, for instance, when he traces the process by which the first spontaneous and idealistic Fluchthelfer (‘escape helper’) groups formed in 1961 became slowly entangled in all kinds of moral and practical dilemmas. Should they carry guns and shoot back when fired on? They began to do so, but lost much Western sympathy when GDR border guards were killed. Should they raise money for expensive tunnels by striking coverage deals with American TV networks or Axel Springer’s right-wing press empire? They eventually did, but getting into bed with journalists sometimes compromised their security as well as their public image. Should they convert the whole effort into a commercial undertaking, in which the escapers were obliged to pay for freedom – and in hard currency? By the late 1970s, the price had reached something like £5000 a head.
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