The Collapse: The Accidental Opening of the Berlin Wall
By Mary Elise Sarotte
Basic Books, 2014, 320 pp.
Berlin Now: The City After the Wall
By Peter Schneider. Translated by Sophie Schlondorff
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014, 336 pp.
Sarotte’s lively and engaging book scrupulously details the events of November 9, 1989, when the world watched in shock as the Berlin Wall came down. Sarotte argues that the opening of the wall was “accidental and contingent.” It was certainly unforeseen and unintended by world leaders. Neither Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev, who sought to reform Soviet communism, nor U.S. President Ronald Reagan, who a few years previously had called on Gorbachev to “tear down this wall,” really expected that East Germany would open up. Leaders in East Berlin never issued a definitive order to allow people to pass through; rather, their contradictory commands freed border guards to act autonomously. Yet the book also shows—somewhat contrary to Sarotte’s thesis—that the fall of the wall reflected deeper, perhaps inevitable historical trends. By late 1989, neither the Soviet government nor the East German authorities were willing to use force to block the changes unfolding in Berlin. Sarotte’s blow-by-blow account tells readers much about how events developed on that fateful night, but less about how the Soviet bloc had reached the point of no return.
A quarter of a century later, Berlin is once again a global metropolis. Schneider has reported from the city since the early 1960s and his coolly ironic takes on life there reflect a characteristic Berliner attitude. The brief essays in Berlin Now cover the city’s architectural decline, from classical grandeur to modernist compromise; its odd aversion to preserving the remnants of the wall; its sordid history of prostitution; the reasons why women from the East prefer men from the West (but rarely the reverse); Marxist radical chic; Berlin’s right-wing and anti-immigrant violence; the long controversy over whether to repatriate artwork stolen by the Nazis; the city’s celebrity club bouncers; and much more. Anyone who loves this unique city—or simply plans to visit it—should read this book.