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The Collapse: The Accidental Opening of the Berlin Wall

4.23  ·  Rating details ·  768 ratings  ·  107 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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Jan 03, 2015 rated it really liked it
Shelves: german-history
Substantially reviewed and revised on the 30 year anniversary: Nov. 10, 2019

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 co
Daniel Threlfall
Jun 16, 2015 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
Steven Z.
Oct 29, 2014 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 Sarotte ...more
Jun 14, 2015 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
Joseph Stieb
Apr 12, 2017 rated it it was amazing
An excellent, fast-paced, concise account of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Aside from explaining this complicated story in clear terms, Sarotte has a lot to say here about the distinct benefits of historical analysis and causation. Sarotte argues that in order to understand why something happened, we have to understand how. I'm not sure if I've heard a more concise and perfect definition of how historians think and what they do. We can talk about causation all day, but we need a fine-grained sens ...more
Oct 29, 2014 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 boo
May 24, 2015 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
Anton Iokov
Dec 28, 2020 rated it really liked it
Shelves: audiobooks
Most of us know that Schabowski's made the announcement by mistake. But I haven't realized what a ridiculous series of events led to it. Pressure built by mass peaceful protests + incompetent bureaucrats + a few bits of luck = one of the best day in the human history.

I hope we are in the GDR of 1988.
Ondra Soukup
Jul 12, 2021 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: history, cold-war
Great piece of research, predominantly with use of oral history. Stories of mid-level Stasi officers and DDR dissidents are touching, quite a few moments are new, at least for me.
Nov 28, 2020 rated it really liked it
This book came highly recommended to me, and for good reason: The Collapse tells the story of the opening of the Berlin Wall in a very different way from what I learned in school. In this book, Mary Elise Sarotte tells the story of how the wall opened not by an orchestrated political decision, but by a series of events, some of them merely accidental or misunderstandings. This book really shows the power of people, of why one should not just take the fall of the Berlin wall as a "thing that woul ...more
David Dinaburg
Oct 03, 2017 rated it really liked it
The first hundred or so pages of The Collapse: The Accidental Opening of the Berlin Wall is preamble but the context is required for those without a penchant for modern history. It takes a world’s stage and distills it to the minute-by-minute lives of a handful of people. The prep work can get tedious because it is all marches and mimeographed flyers and you know how it ends, anyway. But if you jump right to the Berlin Wall being overcoming by the citizens of East Germany, the American exception ...more
Sep 21, 2015 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 impos ...more
Jan 16, 2015 rated it it was amazing
The fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9th, 1989, unexpected and unscripted, illustrates Gandhi's point that whatever you do will be insignificant, but it is important that you do it: a great many insignificant individual actions added up to a very important event indeed. Sarotte gives us a detailed, fascinating, and affecting analysis of a remarkable moment in European history. ...more
Glenn Haggerty
Dec 07, 2015 rated it really liked it
Interesting read, good research and detail, well organized and presented.
Nov 28, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
This book was phenomenal. It's a history narrative that reads like a thriller. I literally chewed my fingernails as I was reading, even though I knew how it would end - on November 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall was suddenly opened and a flood of East Berliners walked into West Berlin and celebrated. This was one of the signal events of the end of the Cold War (and a precursor to the demise of Soviet Russia). This book recounts the events that led up to that fateful night, and even, on a minute-by-min ...more
Andrew Cooper
I have to say that this book stared at me for 7 months since I bought it in March of 2019 and I told myself I would read it on the 30th Anniversary of the Wall coming down. So as November 9th approached I was more and more excited to read this book. Reading it last weekend while seeing so many news stories remembering 30 years ago was awesome. It's one of the first huge globally significant events that happened within my lifetime. To be able to relive it through this book was awesome!

A good hist
Becky B
Mary Elise Sarotte takes readers through all the tiny little incidents, accidents, and unprecedented choices that happened at just the right time and were capitalised on so that the opening of the Berlin Wall happened when no one knew it would, not the East Germany authorities, not the Western intelligence agents, not even the reform movements inside East Germany.

This was an absolutely fascinating read about a historical event everyone thinks they know about but few really understand all the his
Wes F
Jul 22, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
A fascinating account of the collapse of the Berlin Wall--leading ultimately to the end of the Cold War & the fall of the Soviet Union. But do not miss the subtitle of this book--it was an "accidental opening." It did not come about from political/diplomatic behind-the-scenes maneuvering or some secret plan and/or agreement between East Germany (DDR) and either West Germany (FRG) or the US or NATO. It was the result of many little victories by unknown activists who never gave up, of the growing ...more
Rich Saskal
Oct 21, 2020 rated it really liked it
The Collapse

The book describes the events leading to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

Sarotte describes, backed with copious, footnoted research and interviews, how utterly unplanned and unexpected the fall was. The book is almost written to counter the argument (I am not familiar with) that the fall was some kind of inevitable step in the winding down of the Cold War.

It puts agency for the events of October and November 1989 into the hands of East Germans who increasingly took the risk of m
Kamran Tahir
Mary Elise Sarotte discusses takes us back to late 1980s when events, which would eventually culminate into falling of the Berlin Wall, take place. Sarotte emphasizes that after falling of the Wall and subsequent German reunification, many actors propped up who claimed themselves to be architects of these significant events, for instance George Bush boasted of triumph in the Cold War, etc. However, as Sarotte explains in the book, despite the noteworthy role played by many powers, it was the peo ...more
Blake Dryad
Jun 05, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: knowledge
Sarotte puts together an extremely readable account of the opening of the Berlin Wall in 1989 from a very on-the-ground perspective. Instead of the traditional narrative of The Wall falling due to US official actions, or the USSR's weakness, etc - The Collapse depicts the real impact that normal people can have on history.
Sarotte draws from a wealth of sources including internal Stasi documents and personal accounts, among others. As a result, the story is highly authoritative and personal.
Oct 13, 2020 rated it really liked it
Shelves: history
The wall fell in November of my senior year of high school. I vaguely recall the moment I learned of it and that it was a “total non-event” in my small town in AZ, USA, even though I felt a sense of import and silently congratulated the East Germans for their escape from tyranny. In my then-conservative-leaning teenage mind, this tidy outcome was a direct result of Reagan’s Hollywood-scripted tough geriatric demand to Gorbi to “tear down this wall” some two years earlier. Of course, the reality ...more
Wendy Bunnell
Nov 27, 2017 rated it really liked it
I'm doing some research about life in East Germany, especially in the 1980s near the end of the Cold War. This book was perfect in its timing and subject matter. Some serious shit went down in East Germany in the run up to the end. I already knew it was no cake-walk for the people there, but dang, Erick Hoennecker really was not a big fan of his own people. It was fascinating to read about all of these real people, with large and small roles in this real life drama.

The story of the peaceful revo
Robert P. Hoffman
A great book. The author did an exhaustive amount of research, the footnotes take up 20% of the pages. She has told a story that reads like a great work of fiction. And she has a key point (expressed in the title of the book): there was nothing foreordained to the opening of the wall. It was not something that would have happened due to the actions of the leaders. At any point there could have massive bloodshed and a crisis that could have threatened to erupt in wider conflict.

The best part of a
William French
Nov 19, 2016 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 o ...more
Karen (Living Unabridged)
Jan 31, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: history
I highly recommend this look at the “accidental” fall of the Berlin Wall. Well researched and well written, this book challenges assumptions and ably introduces the real lives involved. Even if (maybe especially) you’re old enough to remember these events, you ought to read this book.

Favorite summary quote:
In short, how the Wall opened is a story of highly contingent events. Many of the causes would even be historical trivialities, if not for what followed. These causes…show that significant eve
Ben Craik
A concise account of some of the contingencies that led to the opening of the wall in '89 — a welcome departure from the standard narrative.

A favourite passage:

"When [the activists] did [eventually enter the Stasi's Leipzig headquarters], they would discover inside a mix of banality, bureaucracy, and even pornography.... There were also less than successful attempts at humour. One Stasi desk bore a paperweight reading, "Every third person who complains will be shot. Two people have been here alr
Jared Hatch
Jun 15, 2021 rated it liked it

A peaceful group of revolutionists, bureaucratic blunders, and a botched press release all paved the way for a stunningly unexpected moment in history. It’s simply miraculous.

A few favorite quotes:

“The evil that one endures patiently because it seems inevitable becomes unbearable the moment it’s elimination becomes conceivable.” - Alexis De Tocqueville

“Outsiders seem to think that ‘it was the opening of the Wall that brought us our freedom. It was the other way around. First we fought for o
Apr 29, 2019 rated it it was amazing
This is a very thorough study of the events leading to the accidental collapse of the Berlin Wall. It also gives you a clear understanding of the efforts people within the Eastern part of Germany made to gain their freedom. It is particularly interesting to recognise how the church became a haven of protest as well as a rallying point for the people.
This is a very well written historical piece.
Mar 15, 2020 added it
Shelves: dnf
I am officially a nonfiction snob. I wish I wasn't, but it's true.

Narrative nonfiction that focuses on a handful of characters has become my bread and butter when it comes to learning about historical events (think Demick, Sides, Brown, etc.), and trying to slog my way through Sarotte's endless stream of names, dates and places simply became too tedious after about 50 pages. Why read a boring book about a topic when you could read an engrossing one? Now to find one...
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