A history of “a uniquely squalid, violent—and, as we now know, ultimately futile—episode in the post-war world.”
Between August 13, 1961, when the Berlin Wall went up, and November 9, 1989, when it came crashing down, 86 people died as a direct result of violence there. The count may include a couple of dozen more, depending on the criteria used, but it is clear that the Wall took fewer lives than one might suppose. Nonetheless, it stood as a powerful symbol of the divide between East and West, and, moreover, as Nikita Khrushchev understood, a repudiation of Sovietism. “The Wall,” writes British novelist and historian Taylor (Dresden, 2004, etc.), “was in the long run a propaganda catastrophe for the East. Every day it existed, it screamed aloud one simple, damning statement: in Berlin we Communists stood in direct competition with capitalism, and we lost.” Nonetheless, East Germany’s leaders had reason to want to impede the flow of traffic into encircled West Berlin, since the most talented, productive members of East German society were defecting to the West in record numbers even before Josef Stalin died. It was Stalin who authorized Walter Ulbricht and Erich Honecker to make a fortress of the frontier between the two Germanys, and Moscow that allowed their regime to erect the wall in the first place, even though Khrushchev “felt it was dangerous to give Ulbricht total control over access to Berlin.” In a legalistic turn, the East Germans initially closed traffic only to their fellow citizens passing through the Soviet sector, so that passage from West to East was theoretically permitted; but in the dangerous war of words that followed the construction of the Wall (built on a Sunday, no less, when workers would be resting), the barrier became permanent, heavily fortified and impassable, “a thing for which the term ‘Wall’ was wholly inadequate.”
A sturdy contribution to Cold War history.