Sunday, May 4, 2008
In April 2008 I visited Berlin for the first time in my life. The city intrigued me on numerous levels. I knew very little about the city and its history upon arrival. Nor did it improve much in the whirlwind three-day tour, between late evenings in the bars and long lunches with the Italian parent-in-laws. However, I did not have any regrets. In all honesty, I actually chose not to do too much research on the city before my arrival because I wanted to be a blank slate upon seeing the city for the first time. Then once having left I could properly select areas of interest which I felt drawn to for further study.
The case remained that I knew little about the modern history of Berlin, the Cold War and the Wall. Therefore, a general introduction was needed. For me, history is a giant bucket with an endless amount of holes in it, like swiss cheese. Water is filled in the bucket and is therefore coming out of all the holes. By studying one certain part of history over time you may cork one of those holes but this does not stop the water from coming out the other holes. I feel like I am constantly running around this bucket not even with cork, but with scotch tape, merely trying to patch up those points in history I embarrassingly know so little about. The Berlin Wall by Frederick Taylor acted as a piece of scotch tape for the fifty year period since World War II. The hole is now covered but something at the more in-depth level is still missing.
Taylor is a British professor who has studied and wrote about Germany since his undergraduate years. As an academic, I can only imagine that he was torn with what type of work to create. The unfortunate trend in modern writing is that non-fiction has really been divided into two camps. The first is the academic camp, with its over-specialization, concentration on details, endless citing, and overall low readability. The second is for the "masses" camp, which more or less, runs exactly opposite to the academic camp. I believe that a truly successful book on history is somehow able to blend the positive aspects of both of these camps. Unfortunetly, it is a near impossible task.
Taylor clearly selected writing a book for the masses. It is a book that would sit well at newspaper kiosk at Berlin Tegel airport ideal for a rather ignorant tourist leaving Berlin to purchase before his Sunday evening flight. These are more or less the conditions in which I purchased the book. Taylor assumes the task of creating "readable historic non-fiction". Berlin provides an excellent backdrop to succeed in doing so with stories of espionage, fearless escapes, and Cold War political drama.
After World War II Berlin was divided into four segments granted to the Ally victors - and France. As the divergence between Communist Russia and Capitalist America grew, the city of Berlin was forced to live out this division on an extremely concentrated level. Germany's communist leaders, many of whom fled to Moscow during the war, were able to return to Germany to enact that which had been taught to them during their time in Moscow. While East Germany represented the socialist state, Berlin - an island in the sea of East Germany, continued to exist in its divided nature due to the agreements made by the Allies post WWII.
The creation of the wall was a response of East Berliners/Germans seeking refuge in West Berlin where from they were able to fly out of Berlin altogether into West Germany. This exodus of citizens of the East did not bode well with its leaders who were dedicating a lot of time and energy in convincing its citizens that socialism was a superior form of government. The wall was erected on 13 August 1961 to prevent further migration to the West. It remained in place for 30 years.
It was my belief that there were so many exciting occurrences on the Cold War world stage to write about as well as the fascinating personal stories of people living between East and West Berlin. Taylor does a fine job of discussing both. The weakness of the book was his need to emphasize the drama of the events and readability of his writing. I feel that the events in their own right speak for themselves. Instead Taylor adds certain phrases that would be more suited for the low brow fiction section of that kiosk at the Tegel Airport. Without quoting the book specifically, I recall on numerous occasions that certain people did one thing or another "with devastating consequences". Or some political leader who "made a decision, a decision with grave repurcussions". In instances like these I felt Taylor was trying just a little too hard. I would have preferred to have read about these "decisions" on my own and decide for myself if a "choice - a choice he would come to regret" was truly such. Instead he was deciding for me and in a manner better suited for poorly written spy novel.
Overall, the book acts a decent introduction to Berlin history. It will now be up to me, or anyone else interested in this period, to seek out more specific works that dive more in-depth into the countless subjects that this book touches on but does fully address. Areas that perked my interest which I will begin investigating further are: 1) the role Moscow played during WWII, specifically in how it taught and trained future communist leaders; 2) more personal stories about those living in Berlin.