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The Collapse: The Accidental Opening of the Berlin Wall

4.17  ·  Rating Details ·  370 Ratings  ·  60 Reviews
On the night of November 9, 1989, massive crowds surged toward the Berlin Wall, drawn by an announcement that caught the world by surprise: East Germans could now move freely to the West. The Wall—infamous symbol of divided Cold War Europe—seemed to be falling. But the opening of the gates that night was not planned by the East German ruling regime—nor was it the result of ...more
Hardcover, 320 pages
Published October 7th 2014 by Basic Books (first published October 1st 2014)
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Being Mortal by Atul GawandeThirteen Days in September by Lawrence WrightCapital in the Twenty-First Century by Thomas PikettyThe Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth KolbertAge of Ambition by Evan Osnos
The Economist - Books of the Year, 2014
26th out of 53 books — 28 voters
The Triumph of Improvisation by James Graham WilsonA Spy Among Friends by Ben MacintyreIron Curtain by Anne ApplebaumThe Gulag Archipelago, 1918-1956 by Aleksandr SolzhenitsynA Fiery Peace in a Cold War by Neil Sheehan
Cold War non-fiction
74th out of 117 books — 37 voters

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Community Reviews

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Feb 05, 2015 Nooilforpacifists rated it really liked it
Shelves: german-history
A day-by-day, blow-by-blow account of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the event that made the end of the Cold War irreversible. The book emphasizes the actions of East Germans -- often ordinary ones -- who forced the changes. The DDR's control over the border turned out to be crucial to its power; remove that, and the regime crumbled. But, it wasn't by design: as de Tocqueville observed about the French Revolution, every concession by the old guard paradoxically made the masses demand more.

Some mo
Steven Z.
Oct 29, 2014 Steven Z. rated it really liked it
In German history it seems that November 9th commemorates many important twentieth century dates. In 1918, following the defeat of Germany in World War I, Kaiser Wilhelm II abdicated the Hohenzollern throne. In 1923, Adolf Hitler launched his failed Beer Hall Putsch in trying to seize power in Munich. In 1938, the Nazis unleashed Kristallnacht (the Night of the Broken Glass) against the Jews of Germany. Finally, November 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall came down which is the topic of Mary Elise ...more
Daniel Threlfall
Jun 20, 2015 Daniel Threlfall rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2015
I wandered into this book with a bit of ho-hum. Most of my historical reading centers on a different continent. Would I really be engaged by a different historical approach from an author I didn't know?

I was blown away.

The Collapse describes how the Berlin Wall fell, not by a malicious explosion of violence, but through patient nonviolent protests, face-palming mistakes by the repressors, and the bravery of freedom-loving Germans.

Two things stood out to me:
1. The Christian community can be th
Jul 30, 2015 Chris rated it really liked it
The Collapse opens with the following quote by Alexis de Tocqueville:
It is not always going from bad to worse that leads to revolution. What happens most often is that a people that puts up with the most opressive laws without complaint as if it did not feel them rejects those laws violently when the burden is alleviated. The evil that one endures patiently because it seems inevitable becomes unbearable the moment its elimination becomes conceivable.

As Sarotte explains in her excellent book ab
Jun 24, 2015 Jo rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction, adult
So here’s a sad story. For some reason, I have been belaboring under the delusion for years that the Berlin Wall opened as a direct result of Ronald Reagan making his “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” speech. I chalk this up to not paying enough attention in history, and also the fact that this line of speech appears in so many inspirational montages – but as it turns out, Reagan’s speech was made in 1987, and the wall didn’t open until 1989. I guess its inspirational montage appearances are ...more
May 24, 2015 Adrian added it
Sarotte's thesis is that the Wall came down due to local actors and effects not high-level decision making. She makes the case well. It was the protests of reform churches in Leipzig particularly that grew to a size that forced authorities to forego the use of violence as a means to shut them down which prompted new leadership in East Germany to draft a travel law which unwittingly opened the border on the night of November 9, 1989. Miscommunication and failure to act was endemic within the East ...more
Oct 14, 2015 Lynn rated it really liked it
This book recounts what is, to my mind, one of the most incredible, and most exciting, events of the 20th century. The fact that Western (particularly US) leaders have insisted on undeservedly making themselves its authors has always irked me; it is to be hoped that this book will make more people aware of *why* it was so incredible and exciting - because a lot of perfectly ordinary, mostly forgotten East Germans had the courage to rise up and do something the rest of us were convinced was ...more
Glenn Haggerty
Dec 07, 2015 Glenn Haggerty rated it really liked it
Interesting read, good research and detail, well organized and presented.
William French
Nov 19, 2016 William French rated it it was amazing
This is an excellent book, well-written and meticulously foot-noted. It serves as a road map to the events leading up to the collapse, especially those occurring in Leipzig. While in Berlin recently, I took a day trip to Leipzig with this book in hand. At the Nikolaikirche, I spoke with a man who had participated in the demonstrations and who knew the major players. As an added bonus, the St. Thomaskirche is only a few blocks away. J. S. Bach worked there as Kapellmeister for the last 27 years ...more
Apr 01, 2015 Nate rated it it was ok
The ideas and themes in this book are not complex, and the history of the Berlin wall falling is not dry, but that does not stop the author from putting you to sleep with her writing style while also having you question, with the little consciousness that you have left, why she choose to include some of the research.

Initially, I assumed the writer was probably a journalist who was struggling with the longer style of form, but then I realized I was just being bogged down in unnecessary details th
May 03, 2015 JQAdams rated it did not like it
In a very short book (even shorter than it may seem, since approximately one-third of the pages were front or back matter), it's understandable that the author has to make choices about what to cover: she's not going to be able to discuss everything. But the choices made here are baffling, seemingly more driven by "well, this uninteresting, unimportant person spoke to me, so I'll tell his/her story at length" rather than by "this person's story is particularly illuminating or representative." Or ...more
Feb 25, 2016 Katie rated it it was amazing
Even though I knew how the story ended before I began reading (the Wall falls), Mary Sarotte’s book still had me biting my nails. History is imperfect. Although we may look back and see the inevitability of the Berlin Wall falling peacefully, back in 1989 there were no such assurances. In what seems to be a series of mishaps, miscommunication, bravery, and sheer dumb luck, the Wall just very suddenly opens.

Only 10 months before it opened people were still being killed trying to cross it (or rat
Aug 31, 2015 Marisa rated it really liked it
Shelves: reviewed
This was a book that was very interesting and had a lot of fantastic content, but I think could have used a slight paring down, particularly at the conclusion. In the end, however, I am convinced that the falling of the wall was by no means guaranteed as the author intended. The events that coalesced into the destruction of the wall were a perfect storm of miscommunications, bad scheduling and poor leadership. On the other hand, the thing I found even more interesting was the number of peaceful ...more
Dec 02, 2014 Erica rated it it was amazing
Shelves: global
What does it take for a repressive regime to fall? In East Germany's case, it took a lot of bumbling, miscommunication, and occasionally good sense from the GDR leadership and an emboldened citizenry taking advantage of that. As Sarotte says, the fall of the wall seems inevitable in retrospect, but so many things had to go right (or wrong from the GDR perspective) in the weeks leading up to November 9. Sarotte interviewed a slew of individuals on all sides of the event and mined Stasi and ...more
Jan 24, 2015 Koen rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
The ultimate account on the fall of the Berlin Wall. Very thoroughly researched the author leaves no doubt that this event was not planned and not meant to be, that this event was not arranged by the GDR, America or other powers. Instead the Wall opened in a storm of misunderstandings and incompetence in the leadersip of the GDR. The Wall opened because of the people of the GDR. Seemingly small events and actions by individuals build up to the fall of the GDR.
I found it great to read about these
Nov 17, 2014 Diane rated it it was amazing
Well-written, well-researched account of the events of 1989 in and around East Germany. This was a much richer account than I've previously seen about the internal and external factors that lead to the fall of the Berlin wall and reunification of Germany. The writing is crisp and suspenseful, despite the fact that the reader obviously knows the ending, but the author reveals mini-dramas within the larger narrative. As the author writes, the result "was in no way predetermined. It resulted from a ...more
Margaret Sankey
Dec 21, 2014 Margaret Sankey rated it really liked it
Using extensive documentation (written and smuggled video) and interviews, Sarotte reconstructs the weeks preceding the fall of the Berlin Wall, revealing that the East German high officials were perfectly willing to have another Tianman Square (and referred to their plans that way). Horrific tragedy was averted by the efforts of mid level passport officers, political deputies, Lutheran pastors and activists, who had been exposed to evidence of the abuses of the regime organized by civil rights ...more
Julie M
Jun 30, 2016 Julie M rated it liked it
Recommends it for: nonfiction fans of history & Europe
Recommended to Julie by: Book Group (Marlene)
Fascinating inside story about the opening of the Berlin Wall. Meticulously researched, the book at times reads like a dissertation. But well developed chapters kept me reading to the climax; even though I knew the outcome! Hard to believe the DDR Stasi/security police at the Berlin Wall wer still shooting (and killing) would-be escapees to the West well into the 1980s. I was especially interested in the media coverage and how NBC & Brokaw "scooped" other networks (really, happenstance) on ...more
K.E. Belledonne
Feb 07, 2015 K.E. Belledonne rated it liked it
An extremely interesting but difficult read. The sheer number of names to remember is unwieldy and the timeline is very unclear -- it's told in a linear fashion, but with much confusing backtracking to add in new viewpoints or describe what other people had been doing.

I was fascinated by the book because I had absolutely no idea that the wall was opened "by accident". I clearly remember watching it on TV as it happened and didn't know all the factors that had contributed to it.

It's a good book,
Feb 21, 2015 Sandra rated it it was amazing
A fascinating book about the events leading up to the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the people involved. The book starts off slowly as the author introduces the reader to the people who will play a part in her narrative. But the book, short (about 200 pages before notes), gains momentum and introduces some interesting constructs for thinking about, among many hints, political repression and political activism, the role of the church as a medium of spreading news and offering shelter to ...more
May 21, 2015 Eric rated it it was amazing
Shelves: cold-war, history
Dr. Sarotte did a fantastic job with her research and writing of The Collapse: The Accidental Opening of the Berlin Wall. In my passing research on the subject of the course of several years I've only heard parts of the story. This book does a great job of preserving history and is a must read for anyone that is interested in divided Germany and the Cold War.
Mary Warnement
Nov 23, 2014 Mary Warnement rated it really liked it
Shelves: history, berlin
I've been waiting for this book, because this scholar excellently argues what I have thought for years: not enough credit is given by Americans to the Germans living in East Germany who fought for their freedom. The wall did not come down because an American president made a speech and suggested to the Soviets that it should. I enjoyed this most when hearing the voices of those protestors, resisters, and the actual guards at the border on November 9, 1989.
I heard the author speak in October, and
Jim Blessing
Feb 17, 2015 Jim Blessing rated it liked it
Shelves: history
This was an amazing story of how the Berlin Wall opened. It appeared to be a bureaucratic mess-up based on a poor performance at a press conference in describing a rather innocent change in travel laws that was picked up by the Western Press and resulted in thousands of East Berliner showing up at border crossing the night of 11/9/1989 and a senior Stasi and border control agent becoming teed off by comments of his superiors, which resulted in him gradually allowing the crowd to cross between ...more
Mar 10, 2016 Hannah rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: gdr
I was only 6 years old on November 9, 1989, so I learned a lot from this book about a period of time for which I was alive, but not yet old enough to understand what was really going on when I saw the images from Berlin that evening (a memory that in my mind is fuzzy at best). A review of this book on Amazon stated that it "reads like a thriller" and I'd have to say I agree. I kept wanting to read more to find out what happened next. Also, because of this book, I have renewed my obsession with ...more
Ellen Keim
Sep 22, 2015 Ellen Keim rated it liked it
I was impressed by the amount of research that went into the writing of this book. The author did a great job of laying the groundwork surrounding the Berlin Wall and then reconstructing its actual fall. The tone of the book is somewhat scholarly but with a lot of human details. I like the fact that she told the story through the eyes of witnesses and participants on both sides, of the Wall and of the two regimes (the GDR and the FRG), including key players in the Stasi, East Germany's secret ...more
Mar 10, 2015 Robert rated it it was amazing
Excellent historical narrative of the events that led to the collapse of the Berlin Wall. Her thesis is that like many major historical events, the fall of European communism in general, and of the GDR in particular, was the result of a serendipitous series of unplanned events that allowed the German democracy movement the opening it needed to reunite the country. Very compelling reading for those interested in this period in European and world history.
Nov 04, 2015 Jean rated it it was amazing
(Audible; Elizabete Rodgers, narrator) Still amazing after all these years. Not one death, not one shot fired. The author also recounts the role that citizens and churches of Leipzig had in the opening of East Germany to the West. To think that my foray into 20th-century history started with Bernie Gunther, Berlin detective, Philip Kerr's noir hero! Thank you, Bernie!
Jun 01, 2015 Lisa rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is a book that covers an interesting time in history -- but I wish the author had taken more time to explore research and actually develop a more in-depth look at the larger issues. For those old enough to remember this was an event that seemed to come out of nowhere overnight. I would have liked to see the events more fully developed and presented.
Janette Mcmahon
Apr 18, 2015 Janette Mcmahon rated it really liked it
Being at the right place at the right time for all the pieces of a revolution to finally, incidentally fall together. A well documented book of the fall of the Berlin wall, which may be different than what the history books like us to think. An interesting read and would recommend if you are a contemporary history buff.
Apr 30, 2015 Chad rated it it was amazing
Starts slow. But, it's worth getting through those first 100 pages, after which it really picks up pace. Sarotte is so effective at making you, the reader, feel like you're present for each of the high-stakes series of events that led up to the opening of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989.

It's a great example of how a book can be both scholarly and riveting story-telling.
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