Tuesday, 17 June 2008

“The Berlin Wall" by Frederick Taylor

Another review from the archive - this time ...

“The Berlin Wall: 13 August 1961 – 9 November 1989”
by Frederick Taylor

The Berlin Wall defined an era. The symbol par excellence of the Cold War, it was 93 miles long and 13 feet high; its western side was a colourful blaze of graffiti and scrawled slogans, its eastern side a deadly network of barbed-wire, searchlights, watch-towers and attack dogs. This grim concrete edifice scarred the former German capital for a generation, separating the erstwhile occupation zones of east and west, but also dividing communities, families and loved ones.

Given its centrality to German, as well as world history in the mid-20th century, the Berlin Wall is ripe for a biography of its own, and Taylor’s book fills that role well. Taylor is sure-footed on the historical framework and capably illustrates the futility and the tragedy of the episode. His pen portraits of the main protagonists; politicians, escapees and student activists, are engaging and his explanation of the wider political machinations surrounding the wall is sound.

Taylor is at his best describing the many escape attempts. One of the first ‘martyrs’, for example, was Peter Fechter, shot and left to bleed to death in the shadow of the Wall in 1962. The last was Chris Gueffroy, shot in the chest whilst attempting to escape the GDR, only 10 months before the GDR itself met its end. Taylor also tells the moving story of Conrad Schumann, the young East German border guard famously photographed leaping over the barbed-wire in the first days of the Wall’s existence. After settling down to an unremarkable life in the west, Schumann committed suicide in 1998, apparently unable to cope with his reputation as an ‘iconic traitor’.

Taylor relates these stories well, but there is something slightly dissatisfying about his book. The accomplished style of his previous effort, Dresden, seems to have morphed into a curious staccato delivery, with an admixture of occasional folksy lapses. There is also a lack of engagement; Berlin’s ‘soul’ is absent.

More seriously, the book doesn’t appear to know quite what it is supposed to be. It contains too many digressions and too much extraneous material. Its first mention of its subject, for instance, comes only after a 130-page jaunt through German history. This may be because the book is seeking to broaden its appeal and somehow pose as a primer to the history of the GDR or the Cold War. Sadly, it is neither, and the result is simply that it becomes overlong and tends to lose its narrative head of steam.

This is a worthy contribution from a capable writer. But – given the iconic status of the Berlin Wall, and its resonance for a generation – it is hard to conclude that it represents the last word on its fascinating subject.

© Roger Moorhouse 2007

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