- The Collapse: The Accidental Opening of the Berlin Wall by Mary Elise Sarotte
In this well-documented book, Mary Elise Sarotte analyzes the key events in the German Democratic Republic (GDR) in the autumn of 1989 that led to the opening of the Berlin Wall on 9 November. In Sarotte’s view the opening of the Wall resulted first from unpredictable human factors, including ordinary citizens’ courage to protest Communist rule; second, from the mistakes of key decision-makers in the East German Socialist Unity Party; (Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands, or SED); and third, from Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s refusal to countenance the East German regime’s wish to use force against civilians.
Sarotte challenges the common view that Communism lost because it was “contained” by the Western countries and in particular by U.S. President Ronald Reagan. Sarotte presents excellent arguments for her thesis, but the truth may be more complicated. However, The Collapse is an important contribution to understanding the specific human factors involved in the end of the Cold War in the autumn of 1989.
One can agree with Sarotte that the sudden opening of the Berlin Wall, so long the concrete symbol of the Cold War, constituted a major surprise even for the intelligence communities and policymakers in both East and West. The chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG), Helmut Kohl, would not have paid a state visit to Poland one day before if the Bundesnachrichtendienst (West German foreign intelligence service) had informed him about the forthcoming events in East Berlin. The opening was not even wanted in some of the capitals of Western Europe, fearing that it might undermine Gorbachev. Furthermore, why did thousands of East Germans risk their freedom and lives just days before the collapse by trying to escape [End Page 206] the country if change was imminent? Today we know that a de facto shoot-to-kill policy for escapees remained in place even after the mass emigration through Czechoslovakia was in full flow during the summer of 1989.
Sarotte mostly neglects systemic analyses of the Cold War. The Germans had been uncomfortable with the division of Europe, but the superpowers had by and large been satisfied with the status quo—or, as Sarotte correctly describes it, “the brutal status quo” (p. 6). Economic problems, the arms race, and foreign military adventures had weakened the Soviet imperium, and East Germany had become more dependent on West Germany. The push for unification was vindicated by various measures undertaken by the West German government, such as choosing the small city of Bonn, rather than a big city, to be the capital of the country. Furthermore, instead of a constitution, the FRG had its Basic Law, whose article 146 stated that “the Constitution would take its place at some unspecified date when the German people could freely decide upon it” (p. 6). West Germany’s long-term goal for unification also played an important role in encouraging the East Germans.
Sarotte has scrutinized archival materials of the East German Ministry for State Security (Ministerium für Staatssicherheit, or Stasi) and those of the SED. She is able to reconstruct the decision-making chaos in the highest East German party organs, the SED Politbüro and Central Committee, from September to the collapse of the wall. Erich Honecker, the party leader since 1971, was willing to use force against the protesters. Sarotte describes how China’s deployment of the People’s Liberation Army against student demonstrators in Tiananmen Square on 4 June 1989 had appalled nearly all foreign observers—except those in the East German Politbüro. “East Berlin had earned the gratitude of Beijing by praising the Chinese for their decisive action” (p. 43). Honecker’s deputy, Egon Krenz, even visited China to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party in September 1989. Average citizens of the GDR, however, were horrified by the regime’s support for such violence. Krenz’s visit was well covered in the East German media, and during his trip mass protests in...