Speaking of National Review (I seem to be on a NR kick of late), I am a big fan of William F. Buckley as I have noted here before. So I was excited to find that his latest work was a narrative history centered on a subject, the Cold War, of great interest to me. Having read Buckley’s more auto-biographical works, his historical novels and of course his political analysis, I was interested to see how he would tackle “straight” history. I was not disappointed.
The Fall of the Berlin Wall is a short and concise history of one of the most compelling symbols of the Cold War. In less than 200 pages William F. Buckley introduces the reader to the events, ideas, and personalities behind the 28-year history of the concrete and barbed wire division that separated Berlin; and in many ways symbolized the separation between East and West. In the process Buckley gives an intriguing glimpse into the heart of the conflict that so dominated the later half of the Twentieth Century.
Buckley lightly and quickly orients the reader to his subject by touching on the history of Berlin – its development and organization – and its leaders. After bringing the reader up to speed, he then outlines how the city became the focus of international relations as the WW II transitioned into the Cold War. Buckley describes the issues and conflicts that pushed Berlin to the center of events and traces how leaders and politicians from both sides of the conflict responded to crises like the Berlin blockade, the Cuban Missile Crisis and Khrushchev’s constant threat of negotiating a separate treaty with East Germany. The author obviously has strong opinions about many of the underlying issues, and was heavily involved in debating and discussing their political ramifications at the time, but he relates them now in a fair and non-polemical style. His point is not to demonize or caricature but to tell the story. After all, winners can be gracious.
The story of the Berlin Wall involves a fascinating cast of characters: from Konrad Adenauer (known as Der Alt) the West German Chancellor, Willy Brandt the Mayor of West Berlin, various East German Communist leaders like Eric Honecker and Walter Ulbricht, and the bombastic Nikita Khrushchev to Western leaders like Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, and Charles DeGaulle; not to mention the Pope, Lech Walesa, Vaclav Havel, and host of other major and minor personalities.
The story isn’t just about those at the top, however, it is also about the everyday people who had to live this history. Buckley relates the stories of those who endeavored to escape entrapment in the East, as the wall’s security grew ever tighter. He outlines the heroic actions of those who dedicated their life to helping people escape. He reminds us of the tragic fate of those whose attempts fell short. On a more hopeful note, he describes the exciting events of 1989 when it became possible to think of freedom in real terms behind the Iron Curtain. When many doubted their desire or courage, the people of Eastern Europe took to the streets and demanded freedom even though such attempts in the past had been violently crushed (usually with Soviet tanks). From the rise of Solidarity in Poland, and Czecholslovakia’s Velvet Revolution, to the more violent events in Romania, it is an amazing story. Buckley, who remembers the earlier attempts and their tragic ending, tells it gleefully.
The Fall of the Berlin Wall is a good introduction to its subject but is obviously limited in the details it provides. Those wanting a fuller accounting of the geo-politics behind the Berlin conflict or the events of 1989 will need to seek out longer more scholarly works. As will those seeking to wrestle with the historical what ifs (like the decision not to physically challenge the wall’s construction) or debate who “won” the Cold War. This work is neither controversial nor particularly profound. But not everyone is looking for exhaustive discussion or analytical judgments of every detail. Sometimes it is enjoyable just to see the big picture, to view the people and events from a bird’s eye view. Buckley gives us just that, an engaging and accessible popular history.
Buckley’s accomplishment should invite repetition. In a culture too often disconnected from a knowledge or awareness of history, presenting important historical events and ideas in such a readable, educational and interesting format should be encouraged. This time period was in many ways the focus of my graduate education, but I enjoyed reading Buckley’s take. I would venture that anyone with an interest in the history of these pivotal events, or who simply wants to learn more about them, would enjoy this brief work. It would make a great gift to students and history buffs alike. For those who find history a daunting subject it is an excellent example of how history can be interesting. I highly recommend it.