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Taylor, Berlin Wall, cover

Why the Wall was Allowed to Stand:
A History and Analysis of the Berlin Wall

Book Essay on: Frederick Taylor, The Berlin Wall: A World Divided, 1961-1989
(New York: Harper Perennial, 2007), 449 pages.
[not at UCSB; google books]

by Ryan Langen
December 5, 2008

for Prof. Marcuse's lecture course
Germany, 1945-present
UC Santa Barbara, Fall 2008

About the Author
& Abstract
and Links
Plagiarism Warning & Links
Amazon.com page

About Ryan Langen

I am a senior political science major and history minor who is particularly interested in European history and governments. Last spring, I spent several days in Berlin while studying abroad, and particularly enjoyed my tour of the city, especially being able to see the remnants of the Berlin Wall and the lines on the streets indicating where it once stood. I chose to write about Taylor's book because I was interested on the impact that the Wall had on the people of Berlin, and also the role of the Soviet Union and United States in shaping the Wall and the reactions to its construction.

Abstract (back to top)

Frederick Taylors The Berlin Wall: A World Divided 1961-1989 is concerned with the many events surrounding the building of the Berlin Wall, continuing through its existence and eventual fall in 1989. Taylor gives a thorough account of the role that all sides played in the Walls construction and existence, from both East and West Germany, to the global superpowers, the Soviet Union and the United States respectively. Taylors argument is that because Germany could not easily be reunited, the West was perfectly satisfied to let the unpleasant and cruel Wall stand because it removed a continuing, serious danger to stability in Europe. While the Western governments loudly and publicly protested, it seems that in private they quietly abandoned millions of the GDRs citizens to their fate behind the Iron Curtain. In light of the events surrounding the Wall, it seems as if Taylor is correct in his assertions, because there is simply no evidence that the West seriously considered taking action to remove the Wall.

Essay (back to top)

The book The Berlin Wall: A World Divided, 1961-1989, by Frederick Taylor addresses all issues of the Berlin Wall, events leading up to its construction, the effect it had on the people of Berlin, the part that the Cold War played in the whole process, and eventually its fall. In writing his book, Taylor draws from a wide variety of sources, including his own experiences in the city. He did a lot of research in archives not just in Berlin, but also in the United States and Britain, in order to better understand the West's reaction to the Wall. In addition, he conducted many face to face interviews with Berlin citizens, to gain an inside perspective on what life around the wall was like and their reactions to its construction. Taylor attempts to answer not only why the wall went up and eventually came down, but also how it impacted the lives of those who lived in Berlin from 1961 to 1989. He talks about the unique situation of Berlin because it was occupied by the four main powers after World War II, and it was in all of their interests to leave Germany divided. It was not long before Berlin became a problem as citizens of East Germany flooded across the border to West Berlin to live a freer, more prosperous life. Thus the solution was to wall off West Berlin, and stop the emigration for good. As Taylor makes clear, the impact that the Wall had on Berliners was profound, as many suffered the consequences of trying to cross it, and thousands more were left to deal with the separation it caused from jobs, friends and family, or even a favorite restaurant. While the construction of the Wall was met with harsh words from the West, in reality they did nothing about it. Taylor's argument is that because Germany could not easily be reunited, the West was perfectly satisfied to let the unpleasant and cruel Wall stand because it removed a continuing, serious danger to stability in Europe. While the Western governments loudly and publicly protested, it seems that in private they quietly abandoned millions of the GDR's citizens to their fate behind the Iron Curtain. In light of the events surrounding the Wall, Taylor is correct in his assertions, because there is simply no evidence that the West seriously considered taking action to remove the Wall.

In the beginning chapters of the book, much background is given on Germany in general, in particular events after the end of World War II that helped to shape Germany and explain how it came to be divided. In these chapters Taylor gives factual background on the aftermath of World War II. The book goes on to talk about the Berlin airlift, which was the first time the city was closed off to the West, and the incredible allied effort to supply the people of Berlin. When the airlift failed, the Soviets knew that they would eventually have to come up with something more permanent to block off East Berlin, and the Allies knew that they were always subject to the restricting of access to Berlin, as it lay so far within East Germany.

After giving a historical background, Taylor discusses reasons as to why the East Germans ever felt the need for a wall. As time went on and the West German economy took off, there became good reason for East German citizens to immigrate to the West. In the East, the command economy was not very successful, and people always had to deal with the Stasi spying on their every move. Because the West afforded much more freedom, as well as the potential for luxury, East Germans began flooding across the border into West Berlin (from where they could fly to the West) more and more rapidly by the late 1950s and into the beginning of the 1960s. By this point, GDR leader Walter Ulbricht had been undertaking a campaign to seal off West Berlin and thus keep the lifeblood of his country from fleeing westward. All that stood in the way of such a plan was final approval from Khrushchev and Moscow. When the approval did come on July 6th 1961, Operation Rose went into action. The operation was top secret, not only to surprise the West, but the people of the GDR. To get ready for the fateful night of the border closure, many police, soldiers, and even paramilitary units of loyalist workers were put on alert to as to prevent a mass uprising against the barrier. The final event was set to take place on an August weekend in 1961, while many Berliners were relaxing in the countryside.

Although he had a ton of material to cover, at this point of his book Taylor does a very good job of clearly explaining events on both sides, while telling both common historical knowledge and also little known information that he gathered for the purpose of the book. His descriptions of the fateful morning on which the border closed were particularly interesting. At 1 am on the 13 th, the sealing off of the border finally began. On all sides of West Berlin, sentries were placed at regular intervals, while “border troops, factory paramilitary units and construction units barricaded the streets by means of barbed wire, tank traps, and improvised concrete barriers” (Taylor 162). In addition to the border, many streets, railroads and underground lines had to be blocked off, all in the cover of darkness. Although it was a vast and ambitious operation, the provisional sealing of the border was completed by 6 am that morning, which meant that most Berliners woke up to find out that their world had drastically changed. Once the border had been created, all that waited was the reactions not only of the citizens of Berlin, but of the Western governments, particularly the United States.

At this stage Taylor does a good job of pulling back from the intense events of Berlin, to the West, where the real power lay to do something about the situation. While the West had no idea that the border was to be permanently sealed off that night, it knew that such a thing was very possible, because the East had been losing thousands and thousands of people. President Kennedy was not only aware of this possibility, but Taylor makes the case that he was willing to accept it even before it happened. To make his point, Taylor cites another book, the Diffusion of Powerby Walt Rostow. According to the book, Kennedy told an aide a few days after a July 25 th speech, “[Khrushchev] will have to do something to stop the flow of refugees-perhaps a wall. And we won't be able to prevent it. I can hold the [Western] alliance together to defend West Berlin, but I cannot act to keep East Berlin open” (Taylor 146). With Kennedy's views on the possibility of a wall clear before the act itself, it is little surprise that he followed a similar path with the world looking for a Western response to the great division in Berlin.

Although Taylor spends an equal amount of time assessing things from the Soviet point of view, it is his descriptions of the U.S. view that are particularly poignant, because they are much more pertinent to his thesis. While the citizens of Berlin were waking up in the morning, and upon hearing the news, many of them gathering along the border to see for themselves, the important men of Washington were still sleeping. On the weekend of the closure, Kennedy was on vacation with his family in Cape Cod. When he was finally alerted of the situation in Berlin, he agreed with Secretary of State Rusk that they should play down the news for public consumption. After all, in a nuclear age the last thing they wanted to do was risk a world war over access to East Berlin, especially when Soviet military actions seemed to be only defensive. The fact of the matter was however, that the world was waiting for the U.S. reaction to the border closure, and as Taylor notes, the first official press release on the matter was purposefully not overly aggressive in nature. It talked of “measures designed to halt the flow of refugees to West Berlin” and denied that the West had done anything to induce the many refugees (Taylor 205). Although the end of the statement did say that the maneuver went against the four-power agreement, it was clear that the U.S. was going to take no direct action despite the fact that the East was putting up a wall that was effectively cutting one of the most important cities in Europe in half. Kennedy was not the only one who did not provide a tough response to the actions in Berlin, both Prime Minister MacMillan of Britain and the President of France, de Gaulle, did not find it necessary to cut their vacations short in light of the situation.

After discussing the political situation in the West regarding the Wall, Taylor goes back to Berlin to discuss how the border closure was affecting the local populace. While the powerful men of the West continued their vacations, the people of Berlin were realizing just how much their lives had changed. Those from the West in the East at the time of the closure were allowed back in, but only with proper documentation. At this point, there were still a number of possible clandestine border crossings, through canals and other weak parts of the fortifications, yet already there had been several deaths, and the people of East Berlin were realizing that their hopes of living life in the West might never be realized. People had massed on both sides of the border, but no violent incidents or riots had occurred, due to the heavy military presence on the Eastern side, and the fact that West Berlin police did their best to keep people from getting too close to the new fortifications and prevent them from throwing things at the workers and guards. In conducting personal interviews, Taylor notes how many West Berliners were discouraged at seeing no Western military presence at the border; even if only to show that they cared. While the West cared very much about the security of their city, they did nothing because they did not wish to risk war, and they were confident of the Soviets' intentions. Because of good intelligence, within hours of the border closure, the West knew two things: “that East Berlin remained relatively peaceful, and that although Soviet units had moved into a ring around the capital, the emphasis of that ring seemed to be defensive rather than offensive” (Taylor 213). With the Soviet intentions seemingly clear, it was up to Kennedy to decide whether or not to maintain the peace at all costs, or to try and help the people of Berlin, whose lives had quickly and cruelly been dramatically altered.

Once Kennedy got back to the White House, the events in Berlin were obviously top priority in his mind. To get into Kennedy's mindset at this crucial moment, Taylor quotes Kenneth O'Donnell, a special assistant of Kennedy's at the time. In his office, Kennedy reportedly mused, “It's not a very nice solution, but a wall is a hell of a lot better than a war, and “this is the end of the Berlin crisis. The other side panicked-not we. We're going to do nothing now because there is no alternative except war” (Taylor 220). Thus, it seems that within days of the wall's construction, the decision had already been made to do nothing about it.

Berlin Mayor Willy Brandt requested specific forms of assistance in a letter to Kennedy, who soon responded, writing Brandt that he was sending Vice President Johnson and the prestigious General Lucius Clay, along with an entire American battle group to reinforce Berlin to prove that America really was concerned and show the Soviets that they were serious about defending West Berlin. While this was an important event in trying to win back hearts and minds in West Berlin, in the end Taylor discusses just how inconsequential of a move it was in the context of the Berlin Wall. He mentions how General Clay stated that

sending a force of 1,500 men, [which would] bring the Allied garrison in West Berlin up to 12,000, could not possibly indicate a plan to attack the Soviet/East German forces exceeding a quarter of a million that surrounded the city. (Taylor 231).

While at first glance the move to reinforce the Allied troops in Berlin, along with sending the Vice President, showed just how supportive America was willing to be of the situation, Taylor points out that in fact this was the only one of Mayor Brandt's requests that Kennedy granted. He mentions how Kennedy rejected ideas for three-power status for West Berlin, appeals to the UN, and economic and military sanctions against East Germany (Taylor 232). Thus, he shows that although the US did take symbolic action, it made a clear choice to leave the border closed, and let it turn it into the fortified structure that became the Berlin Wall, with the clear purpose of avoiding the risk of war with the Soviet Union at all costs.

Overall the book was very well written, detailed, but not so much so that it was overwhelming. It seems that anybody from their mid-teens on could potentially be interested in reading the book, because it gives such a thorough history of the Wall that some remember very well, or is more of a curiosity for people like me, for whom the wall came down when they were only two years old. I can definitely see how the details surrounding the wall could seem boring and tedious to somebody who is not overly interested in history, but then again, it seems unlikely for someone to want to read the book who doesn't have an interest in history. I would recommend the book to anyone wishing to know more about the Berlin Wall for any reason, for the book is of sufficient length and depth to cover all the angles, and is overall, a good, interesting read.

Bibliography and Links (back to top)(links last checked 12/x/08)


  • Grimes, William. “The Partition that Divided a City and a Civilization.” The New York Times. June 6, 2007. (NYT link)
    Grimes' review praises Taylor for his work in separating fact from myth, in providing a gripping impassioned history of the Berlin Wall. The article also mentions that Taylor is able to do his best work while describing the intense weeks leading up to the Wall's construction.
  • Applebaum, Anne. “What Goes Up…How a notorious symbol divided a city and its residents.” Washington Post. July 22, 07.
    Applebaums' review points out that Taylor's book tells a story of the Wall with many twists and secrets, and that the true story behind the Wall was with the American and Soviet governments. She thinks that Taylor gives an excellent history of the Wall, and shows the effect it had on all parties with personal anecdotes and stories.
  • Walden, Barbara, Library Journal, May 1, 2007, Vol. 132, Issue 8, p.91. (EBSCO)
    Walden mentions how the book provides fast paced individual narratives surrounding the Wall, including how Taylor gives an individual history for all of the main actors in the creation of the Berlin Wall. She concludes that the individual stories help to give new life to a subject that has already been intensely discussed and written about.
  • Publishers Weekly , April, 9, 2007. Vol. 254 Issue 15, p.43. (EBSCO)
    The Publishers Weekly review points out that Taylor pays noteworthy attention to the significance of the Wall in Cold War politics. The review also praises Taylor for his efforts in combining “impeccable research” with “rich human interest” stories.

Books and Articles

  • Buckley, William F. Jr. The Fall of the Berlin Wall. John Wiley & Sons, Inc., Hoboken, NJ, 2004 (amazon link).
    This book examines not only the Wall's final moments, but its beginnings and its larger role in the Cold War.
  • Rottman, Gordon . The Berlin Wall: and the Inner-German Border 1961-89. Osprey Publishing. Feb, 19 2008. http://www.amazon.com/Berlin-Wall-Inner-German-1961-89- Fortress/dp/1846031931/
    This book describes all the physical elements of the Wall during its development. It also discusses the human aspect, through peoples' struggles to conquer the Wall.
  • Slusser, M. Robert . The Berlin Crisis of 1961: Soviet-American Relations and the Struggle for Power in the Kremlin, June-November, 1961. Johns Hopkins University Press. Feb 1, 1973. (amazon link)
    This is a very specific book that examines the inner workings of Soviet-American relations at the time of the Berlin Wall's construction, an aspect that is paid particular attention to in Taylor's book. It allows the reader to better understand the inner workings of the Soviet government at the time, which can be especially confusing.
  • Gearson, John and Schake, Kori . (eds.) The Berlin Wall Crisis: Perspectives on Cold War Alliances. Palgrave Macmillan. Feb 8, 2003. (amazon link)
    This book also looks at the Berlin Wall through the lens of the Cold War. Although it also discusses the crisis in Berlin in 1958, the book focuses on the issues surrounding the construction of the Wall, and how inter-alliance politics shaped the decisions and actions of the major Cold War powers involved.

Web Sites

  • “Retracing the Berlin Wall” http://www.die-berliner-mauer.de/en/
    This site had impressive media; as one moves to the next page, new facts about the Wall would come floating in, to provide a wealth of information. The site also featured a nice timeline in addition to a very impressive photo gallery.
  • Kirste, Burkhard , “The Berlin Wall” (8-28-2008), http://userpage.chemie.fu-berlin.de/BIW/wall.html
    This site briefly discusses the main elements of the Wall, from background to memorials. It has some interesting facts, especially concerning the measurements of the Wall, and also has links to different sites concerning memorials of the Wall.
  • Wikipedia , “Berlin Wall,” 2007, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Berlin_Wall ,
    This site has very detailed explanations of all aspects of the Wall, including some nice pictures. It gives a good sense not just of the Wall, but of the events surrounding its creation and its lasting legacy.
  • NEWSEUM , “The Berlin Wall,” http://www.newseum.org/berlinwall
    This site had impressive media, and had creative links to take one to new pages, creating the feeling that there was a never ending supply of information to learn about. Overall it was very impressive and well constructed.

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Any student tempted to use this paper for an assignment in another course or school should be aware of the serious consequences for plagiarism. Here is what I write in my syllabi:

Plagiarism—presenting someone else's work as your own, or deliberately failing to credit or attribute the work of others on whom you draw (including materials found on the web)—is a serious academic offense, punishable by dismissal from the university. It hurts the one who commits it most of all, by cheating them out of an education. I report offenses to the Office of the Dean of Students for disciplinary action.

prepared for web by Harold Marcuse on 12/16/08; last updated:
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