“Today I walk from my place up Brunnenstrasse, past Frau Paul’s tunnel to Bernauer Strasse where the Wall was. There is a new museum here. Its greatest exhibit is opposite: a full-size reconstructed section of the Wall, complete with freshly built and neatly raked death strip, for tourists.” –Stasiland: Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall
We are going to mark several anniversaries of important historical events in 2019, one of them being the fall of the Berlin Wall and the beginning of the end of the Cold War – 30 years ago already! And the library has a lot to offer fans of history on this topic.
For over 50 years, Germany, which was divided between the victors of WWII, was a symbolic battleground where two ideologies and their competing East/West alliances faced-off. This era that became known as the Cold War was marked by varying periods of tensions and detente between the two blocs of nations. The city of Berlin, an already divided city in a divided nation witnessed the erection in 1961 of a wall protected by mines, barbed wire and watch towers, supposedly to protect East Berliners from the evil of the capitalist West (the wall’s official name in the Soviet sphere was the “Antifascist Bulwark”) but was really there to keep them in.
70 years before the wall, Berlin was already a flashpoint of the Cold War that pitted former wartime allies over the fate of a still-ruined German capital. In 1948, Stalin ordered the closing of all land access points to the city, leaving West Berliners potentially isolated in East Germany without food or fuel. The Russian dictator hoped that the Western nations would lack resolve and accept the loss of the blockaded city to the Communists in order to avoid another shooting war so soon after the last global conflict. Instead, the United States and its allies (including Canada) chose to keep West Berlin supplied through a massive airlift operation where transport plane flew around the clock, defeating the blockade while avoiding a shooting war. The blockade was lifted after 11 months and over 200,000 sorties by allied planes ferrying 2,300,000 tons of food and fuel, but this first triumph of the West set the tone for what would become a new type of conflict that would define the lives of most nations of the world for decades to come. Barry Turner’s The Berlin Airlift is an excellent book for readers interested in learning about the day-to-day experience of Berliners as well as those who took part in the airlift operations to preserve their freedom, often at the risk of their lives.
The brinkmanship that characterised the Cold War came to its most dangerous point in the early 1960’s, with the risk of a nuclear war and the end of humankind becoming a real possibility. It was in this context that the Berlin Wall was built, taking most everyone by surprise. In Berlin 1961, Frederick Kempe explains how a series of diplomatic blunders and misunderstandings across the globe came to a head when the armies of both super powers became fully mobilised in Berlin. Up until then, travel between East and West Berlin was still possible even if closely monitored by the state. This led to 3.5 millions East Germans defecting to the West between 1946 and 1961, leading Eastern leaders to find a way to stop this exodus by effectively closing its border. Construction of the 156-kilometer wall began on August 13th and would be reinforced and improved over the coming years. Attempting to cross it without official permission became a crime punishable by prison or death, with up to 200 people killed while trying to escape and 5,000 managing to reach West Berlin out of 100,000 attempts. The recent movie Bridge of Spies, featuring Tom Hanks takes place in part during that period and portrays the real-life efforts of an American lawyer trying to secure an exchange of prisoners at the height of the crisis.
One woman who did manage to escape East Germany was Nina Willner, and her memoir Forty Autumns is an intimate portrait of how one person had to choose between her freedom and the loved ones she had to leave behind. Nina takes us deep into the terrifying world of East Germany under Communist rule, revealing both the cruel reality her relatives endured and her own experiences after becoming an intelligence officer, running secret operations behind the Berlin Wall that put her life at risk. We also learn of the aftermath, when both sides of her family had a chance to meet each other when the wall fell.
Probably the most terrifying aspect of life in East Germany was its all-powerful and ever-present surveillance apparatus in the form of the Stasi (with 1 out of 6 East Germans being either informants or agents, it surpassed even the KGB and the Gestapo in its pervasiveness in the lives of East Germans). In Stasiland : stories from behind the Berlin Wall, Ana Funder collected the testimonies of former East Germans, even some former members of the Stasi, to get a sense of everyday life in a totalitarian society where everybody lied and risked being betrayed, even by the people they knew. Stories include those who tried to escape and were jailed and then pressured to spy on others in exchange for their release, a rock star who experienced being made an “un-person” to be erased, and then those who were still unrepentant about their role in propping up the regime they served through. This is an important but difficult read but it also has hope and humour as people have had time to rebuild and reflect after German reunification.
I used to think I had a good idea of how the Wall fell but historian Mary Sarotte’s The Collapse: the Accidental Opening of the Berlin Wall made me realize how much I had missed from previous readings. The forces that ultimately brought the Berlin Wall down had been at work for some time, but the announcement that the border between East and West would open on November 9th, 1989, took the world (least of all East Germans) by surprise. That was in part because it was the work of East-European politicians working behind the scenes, combined with a growing popular peaceful protest movement against a stagnant and stifling dictatorship. But according to the author, the tipping point was a series of miscommunications that culminated in a small error by an East German official during a press conference about new travel regulations that accidently led to the floodgates opening literally overnight and heralded the end of East Germany a few months later. Sarotte’s account is well-researched and is a suspenseful read that I recommend for anyone wanting to learn the fascinating history of the millions of ordinary citizens whose actions were instrumental in bringing this about.
It is fitting that the last book of this post should discuss the revival that Berlin has experienced since the fall of the wall in 1989 and how it has changed. Berlin Now: the City after the Wall by Peter Schneider offers a tour of the reunited city and how it has changed since while describing the insidious legacies of division and re-unification that remain, like the lingering suspicion instilled by the East German secret police to the clashing attitudes toward work, food, and love held by former East and West Berliners. It explores a city still in flux, with hodgepodge architectures from different worlds, construction cranes everywhere, and animated by a vital art and clubbing scene and rich in diversity of its inhabitants, new and old.
Come and check out these great reads!