The saga of the Berlin Wall: the tale of communism's end

On Books

March 21, 2004|By Michael Pakenham

The East German government's official name for it was the "anti-fascist protective rampart." Construction began in August 1961. It ran 30 miles, twisting and turning from north to south, quarantining the eastern / Soviet sector from the rest of Berlin. In some points 13 feet tall, it was flanked by a "death strip" as much as 200 yards wide over which guards maintained constant armed surveillance. Here and there was a second, lower wall. Fully developed, it had 297 watchtowers. When demolition began in 1989, it had stood firm for twice as long as Adolf Hitler had ruled Germany.

At home, I have a tiny piece of it, not much bigger than a coin -- gray, crumbling plaster with a touch of blue paint on its face. It is a treasured gift from a friend who rushed from London to Berlin to join thousands upon thousands participating in and celebrating the destruction of one of history's premier symbols of tyranny. By the time I was next in Berlin, several years later, there was little physical residue except bits preserved as immortal memorials.

At the end of World War II, Germany was divided into sectors under the administration of its conquerors, the United States, Britain, France and the Soviet Union. The similarly divided capital, Berlin, was entirely surrounded by Soviet-controlled territory. The assumption of cooperation among Allies disappeared almost immediately.

The Germany occupied by Western powers had a population of 51 million. East Germany, under Soviet control, held 16 million. Life there was miserable. According to Simon Wiesenthal, the eminent scholar of the Nazis, the East German regime under Walter Ulbricht was "much, much worse than the Gestapo, if you consider only the oppression of its own people." He calculated that the Nazis had one Gestapo officer for every 2,000 citizens, while the Stasi, Ulbricht's political police, had one per 166 citizens. Inside the Soviet Union, the KGB had about one per 5,830 citizens.

The saga has been told, examined, debated and retold in a thousand books, more. Now comes The Fall of the Berlin Wall by William F. Buckley Jr. (Wiley, 208 pages, $19.95). It's the latest in a series of books commissioned by Wiley under the mantle "Turningpoints" -- which the company says asks "pre-eminent writers to offer their personal perspectives on the defining moments of our time." Other volumes have included Columbus in the Americas by William Least Heat-Moon and America Declares Independence by Alan Dershowitz.

Beyond his amazing prolificness -- by my informal count, this is his 50th book -- Buckley, the intellectual high patriarch of modern conservatism, is eminently qualified by his long experience in Europe and a lifetime record of chronicling the failures and hypocrisies of communism. If Wiley's intent is to present tightly focused and swiftly readable examinations of vital elements of history, they have splendidly succeeded with this book.

Buckley's narrative begins with a brisk digest of the history of Berlin from the end of World War II. In 1948, the Soviets tried to isolate and starve West Berlin and the Allied airlift thwarted them. In 1958, Nikita Khrushchev announced his plan for East German sovereignty by making it clear that it included all of Berlin.

Ulbricht's elite band lived very well, but the rest of the population was near starvation. In 1960, more than 12,000 refugees were fleeing every month, many of them through Berlin -- for a total of 2.5 million refugees. Ulbricht sealed the people in. Soon, in newspapers in the West it was commonplace to see pictures of men and women shot dead trying to cross the barrier.

Buckley presents the story of the step-by-step, confrontation-by-confrontation erecting of the wall. Running in counterpoint is Khrushchev's bellicosity and bravado -- and the ever-present threat of direct military confrontation and thus of World War III. Buckley relates those events with punctilious balance, in language free of any hint of preachiness.

Eloquent as Buckley's prose is, no words could match those that the wall evoked. On June 26, 1963, President John F. Kennedy stood in front of Berlin's City Hall and addressed a crowd of 150,000:

"There are some who say in Europe and elsewhere, 'We can work with the Communists.' Let them come to Berlin. And there are even a few who say that it's true that Communism is an evil system but it permits us to make economic progress. Let them come to Berlin. ... We will never put up a wall to keep our people in. ... All free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin. And therefore, as a free man, I take pride in the words 'Ich bin ein Berliner.' "

Two days later, Khrushchev reconsecrated the wall. He insisted it would be there a century and more hence, unless all of Germany had become communist.

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