Frederick Taylor

The Berlin Wall

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The Berlin Wall Summary

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Published in 2006, Frederick Taylor’s The Berlin Wall: A World Divided, 1961–1989 takes an in-depth look at the construction, existence, and fall of Germany’s Berlin Wall. Examining the roles East and West Germany, the Soviet Union, and the United States played in the events surrounding the Berlin Wall, Taylor argues that the West was content to allow the Wall to remain standing because it restricted a serious threat to the stability of Europe. According to Taylor, in spite of its evident public protest, the West silently deserted millions of German Democratic Republic (GDR) citizens to life behind the Iron Curtain.

The position of Berlin after World War II was unique, explains Taylor, in that it was occupied by the four Allied powers—the United States, the United Kingdom, France, and the Soviet Union. As East German citizens fled across the border to West Berlin in pursuit of a more liberated life, the West’s solution was to create a barrier to stop this trend. The effect that the Wall had on citizens of Berlin, says Taylor, was profound, with many suffering the repercussions of attempting to cross it and thousands more who had to deal with separation from jobs, friends, and family.

The opening chapters of the book deal with Germany’s background, including an explanation of the events that took place toward the end of World War II that shaped Germany and the way it came to be divided. The book then talks about an important event, the Berlin airlift, which marked the first instance that the city was blocked from the West and the Allies’ attempt to provide supplies to the citizens of Berlin. The airlift failed, and the Soviets, says Taylor, decided they required something more substantial to block access to East Berlin. Meanwhile, the Allies were aware of their restricted access to Berlin since it was so far within East Germany.

Taylor then explains why the Wall ever seemed necessary in the first place. As West Germany’s economy boomed, East German citizens began to immigrate to the West. The East’s economy was slow, and citizens had to contend with spying that was conducted by the GDR’s state security, the Stasi. The promise of liberation and luxury resulted in many East Germans crossing the border into West Berlin, which allowed them the potential to get to other places in Western Europe and America. Soon, Walter Ulbricht, leader of the GDR, began an effort to barricade West Berlin to prevent people from fleeing to the West. By July 6, 1961, Operation Rose was underway, though it was kept secret from the West and from citizens of the GDR. At this point, Taylor details common historical facts and information he gathered himself. He describes the morning the border closed, with troops and paramilitary units barricading the streets. Most citizens of Berlin awoke to find their world drastically transformed.

Taylor then focuses on the West’s reaction to the Wall, stating that although it was not aware of plans to seal the border, it knew such an event might take place. The author argues that President Kennedy was willing to accept such an outcome before it even occurred. Vacationing in Cape Cod during the time of closure, Kennedy agreed with Secretary of State Dean Rusk that the news should be downplayed for fear of provoking a war over East Berlin, especially considering the defensiveness of Soviet military actions at the time. Though the U.S. made it clear that the creation of the Wall violated the Allies’ agreement, it became evident that it was not going to take any direct action, even though one of Europe’s most important cities was effectively split in half. Taylor also states that neither England nor France felt the need to take action.

Taking the reader back to Berlin, Taylor details how the border closure affected the citizens. Several deaths occurred due to attempted clandestine crossings. No violence or riots erupted, however, due to the large military presence on the Eastern side of the border. Taylor’s personal interviews reveal that West Berliners were disheartened at the lack of military presence on their side because it showed a lack of concern. The Western side, however, did not want to risk war and felt assurance at the Soviets’ intentions. Seemingly, it was Kennedy’s decision whether to keep the peace at any cost or to attempt to aid the Berliners, whose lives had been so drastically and callously changed.

According to Taylor, an account from Kenneth O’Donnell, special assistant to Kennedy, stated that Kennedy felt a wall was much better than a war. It would appear that mere days after the wall was constructed, the U.S. had already made the choice to do nothing.

When Berlin’s mayor, Willy Brandt, asked for assistance from Kennedy, the president responded that he would send Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson and an American force of 1,500 men to show that America truly was concerned and to prove to the Soviets they were intent on defending West Berlin. The author asserts, however, that this was an inconsequential move when a quarter of a million troops were surrounding the city.

Taylor adds that this request for assistance was the only one from Mayor Brandt that was granted by Kennedy. He discusses how Kennedy did not support the notion of a three-power status in Berlin, requests of the UN, or any potential economic or military sanctions taken out against East Germany. As such, Taylor makes his case that while the U.S. appeared to take action, it clearly made the more important choice of leaving the border sealed off, letting it turn into what would become the Berlin Wall, with the purposeful intent to avoid the threat of war with the Soviet Union at any cost.