A rigorous sifting of evidence surrounding the final toppling of the sclerotic East German state.
With extensive use of Stasi files, Sarotte (History/Univ. of Southern California; 1989: The Struggle to Create Post–Cold War Europe, 2009) finds that accident, rather than planning, caused the collapse of the Berlin Wall. Although the author acknowledges the importance of certain external factors—Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev’s four-year “new thinking” reforms, President Ronald Reagan’s famous call for tearing down the wall in 1987—she unearths evidence of the key roles of provincial players, rather than politicians, in the crisis culminating on Nov. 9, 1989. The German Democratic Republic, under the aging iron grip of Erich Honecker, was losing its control over the border crossings as a result of the effects of the Conference of Security and Cooperation in Europe, which eased East Germans’ ability to leave the country; moreover, the shoot-to-kill policy of the border police had grown muddied due to international humanitarian outcry. Meanwhile, the Stasi somewhat tolerated certain religious groups, and St. Nicholas Church in Leipzig had managed to turn itself into a substantial hub for nonviolent protest movements. Also, cooperation among Soviet bloc members began to break down in 1989: Hungarian Prime Minister Miklós Németh and colleagues decided to ease Hungary’s border restrictions, creating a mass exodus by GDR holidaygoers in the spring and summer, encouraged and welcomed by West German leader Helmut Kohl. Sarotte follows the countdown to collapse, from the growth of a massive civil disobedience demonstration in Leipzig on Oct. 9, to the confused international press conference given by East German Politburo member Günter Schabowski announcing apparent new possibilities to emigrate, to Bornholmer Street border officer Harald Jäger’s beleaguered decision to fling open the gates.
More systematic than suspenseful, this account amply conveys the universal amazement and excitement of the time.