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Remembering the fall of the Berlin Wall

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By Tony Barber

When the Wall fell 25 years ago, the bankruptcy of East German communism had long been clear. Yet there was nothing inevitable about the events of November 1989

The Collapse: The Accidental Opening of the Berlin Wall, by Mary Elise Sarotte, Basic Books, RRP£18.99/$27.99, 320 pages

Berlin Now: The Rise of the City and the Fall of the Wall, by Peter Schneider, translated by Sophie Schlondorff, Penguin, RRP£9.99/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, RRP$27, 336 pages

Born in the GDR: Living in the Shadow of the Wall, by Hester Vaizey, OUP, RRP£20/$34.95, 240 pages

From its construction in 1961 to its destruction in 1989, the Berlin Wall was the world’s most compelling symbol of the moral and material bankruptcy of communism. Other dictatorships, from Albania to North Korea, laid mines and put up barbed wire to stop their oppressed peoples from fleeing to freedom. But no monument to incarceration was more visible and damning of its creators than the Wall, a hideous 156km-long complex of watchtowers, searchlights, anti-tank obstacles, dog patrols and ditches that cut through the once bustling centre of the historic German capital.

East German border guards, with the support of their Soviet-backed masters, fired upon scores of people who tried to escape over the Wall. They were responsible, during its 28-year life, for 136 Wall-related shootings and other deaths. Hundreds more were killed on the inner German border that divided West Germany from East Germany (the German Democratic Republic, or GDR).

Right to the end, the East German communist party stuck to the brazen lies that there was no official policy of shooting would-be escapees, and that the Wall’s sole purpose was to repulse an attack from the “imperialist” west.

In the eastern half of Berlin, life possessed a quality of physical confinement, ideological rigidity and dreary deprivation that was utterly different from western half’s frantic embrace of unconventional politics, cultural adventure and material pleasure. To wander the busy, brightly lit streets of West Berlin at night in the 1980s was to experience one of Europe’s most exciting places. Across the Wall, just a few hundred metres away, to drive through the silent streets of East Berlin, pitch-black and virtually empty of traffic and pedestrians, was to wonder how this could be part of the same city.



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