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The Berlin Wall: A World Divided, 1961–1989 by Frederick Taylor

In the end, Taylor argues persuasively, neither the United States nor the Soviet Union thought Germany was worth fighting a war over. The Wall solved a problem for both the East and the West. It kept East German workers at home and temporarily propped up the economy. And for the West, it defused tensions, and by creating a de facto two-state solution for Germany, allowed West Germany to move into an era of incredible prosperity. Taylor admits that many people suffered because of the Wall. He vividly tells the often tragic tales of those attempting to escape over—or in many cases under—it. He brilliantly chronicles the stultifying political and social life of East Germany. He is no Pollyanna about the miseries and injustices, but he maintains that the Wall was an effective way to contain the crisis caused by a divided Germany until—as happened—East Germany and communism collapsed under their own weight.

As for the fall of the Wall, Taylor agrees that the pressure applied by the Reagan administration in the 1980s hastened the process of decay of an already rotten system in the East, but he also believes that other factors such as the Helsinki Accords and the success of the West German state were just as important. As it played out, Mr. Gorbachev did not tear down the Wall, as Reagan so famously demanded. It was the people of East Berlin, fed up with their morbid state, who found that they could rip open the gates and reunite Berlin.

This is a truly excellent book, well written and engrossing. Taylor knows—and understands—Germany. There's no better guide to postwar Berlin and Germany.

Barry Hillenbrand, a retired foreign correspondent for Time magazine, studied in Germany in 1965.

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