Nonfiction at Its Best: The Collapse: The Accidental Opening of the Berlin Wall by Mary Elise Sarotte

20344441 (2)As Germany is getting ready to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the collapse of the Wall, I was happy to discover The Collapse: The Accidental Opening of the Berlin Wall by Mary Elise Sarotte. It is a newly published, very timely, book. Growing up with family in both East Germany and West Berlin, the Wall had always been very tangible for us. In 1988, we went to East Germany and experienced the oddness of having to provide a travel itinerary to East German police, of not being able to meet people because they worked for the post office, and of waiting for hours while border guards searched our car before being allowed back into West Germany.

During 1989, we watched with quiet excitement and hope as more and more East Germans sought refuge on the grounds of West German embassies in Budapest, Prague, and Warsaw and the peace meetings in front of the Nikolai Church in Leipzig continuously grew in size. A few days after the Wall fell, we went to Berlin and experienced the unlimited joy that came with the open border.

I was too young then to fully understand everything that was happening. As I read The Collapse, I realized that this was a book I had unknowingly been waiting for. It outlines events, explains their meaning and consequences, and gives names to people. Some I vaguely remember, but others I have never considered, like Aram Radomski and Siggi Schefke, who shot secret video footage of the peaceful demonstration in Leipzig on October 9—a key event that fall.

Sarotte argues that while Gorbachev’s reforms and Reagan’s call to “tear down this wall” created a situation in which a collapse of the Wall was possible, it took a series of unplanned events to happen in just the right order for the collapse to actually happen. She focuses on about a dozen people who played a crucial part during the tense months of October and November 1989. Based on interviews, memoirs, and a good number of Secret Police (Stasi) files, she has created a cohesive and moving narrative of the public and private figures who willingly or unwittingly helped to bring down the Wall. I found it fascinating.

This book brought back many memories, and I am incredibly glad I read it. (I don’t expect the average reader to be moved to tears while reading, as I was.) It is meticulously researched and very well written. While it is a scholarly book—almost 50% of the eBook are made up of footnotes—this should not deter anyone from reading it. Even if you are not particularly interested in history or Germany, you will still find an entertaining and at times gripping account of a peaceful revolution. There aren’t many of those in mankind’s history. I highly recommend you read The Collapse.

If you want to see how Berlin is celebrating the collapse of the wall, click here.

And don’t forget to check out lots of other great nonfiction posts assembled by Kim.

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18 comments

  1. How wonderful that you had such a personal connection to this book! I always enjoy reading books set in locations I’m familiar with, but I’ve never read any that deal with historic events I’ve lived through.

  2. I still remember that contrary to my usual habits I switched on TV immediately after I got home from university during the weeks before the wall fell, especially after the refugee crisis in the West German Embassy in Prague. When I saw people dancing on the wall, I thought: It’s not true – this is Science fiction! I couldn’t have imagined to see something like this during my lifetime. And yet it happened and without bloodshed. And on a 9 November (1918, 1923, 1938 – always an important date in German history). This was a rare happy moment in history and it shouldn’t be forgotten even when many Germans are still complaining about the consequences 25 years later.

  3. I was in my final year at uni when the wall came down. I cried.
    As a student of history, I was aware of the significance and the momentousness of this event.

    I loved hearing about your family connection – it certainly adds a level of poignancy and reminds us of all the individual lives affected by this wall.
    Thanks for highlighting this book…my TBR wishlist just increased by one!

  4. What a great book to read right now! I was too young to remember the Berlin Wall falling, but it’s definitely something I’m interested in.

  5. I just ordered this today…have seen several reviews praising the book.

    Seems a timely thing to read on 25th anniversary of the fall of The wall.

    Jody

  6. Wow – this book must have been incredibly meaningful for you. It sounds vey interesting to me too – I recently read Ken Follett’s Edge of Eternity and my favorite parts of it were about families split by the Wall and the events leading up to the Wall’s collapse. I’d love to read a nonfiction about those events – will add this to my TBR list.

  7. As you, I was too young to comprehend everything that was going on at the time. I was 9 years old when the wall came down. Only thing I can really remember was sitting in front of our TV and watching for hours people coming over the border and the joy and gladness in their faces.
    Thanks for the review. I will definitely check this one out.

    • Glad to hear it. I will also always remember how happy people were then. When we drove to Berlin after the Wall collapsed, we sat in a major traffic jam, but it was the only time everyone was happy to be stuck in their cars.

  8. Wow, not only am I adding this book to my list but I am going to gift it to my step-dad. He was born in Germany and left Berlin just before the wall went up. This book is as perfect for him as it was for you. Great recommendation.

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