On January 20, 1949 – at an hour when the heroic flyers of the Berlin Airlift were landing an airplane in that embattled city every forty-five seconds – Harry Truman gave the speech of his life. It was his first and only inaugural address, and it laid out what America and the West must do to hold off Soviet Communism until, inevitably, it collapsed under the weight of its own massive internal contradictions. In the event, that collapse was four decades in coming – until, thirty years ago tomorrow, the Berlin Wall fell.

Berlin was always Ground Zero in the Cold War – a thermonuclear standoff between two antithetical hegemonies that threatened the very existence of mankind. Thus it was fitting that that war’s most visible, most malignant symbol should have been a wall across that divided city. It went up on August 13, 1961 – not to keep anyone out, but to keep the benighted citizens of East Berlin in – and stood until November 9, 1989.

The story of the rise and fall of the wall – indeed, a luminous history of the Cold War itself – was offered by William F. Buckley Jr. in his riveting short (192 pages of text) book, The Fall of the Berlin Wall. (The book was an entry in Wiley’s “Turning Points” series, and hence brief by design.) It is narrative history at its very best, by a man who lived it, and who happened to be one of the most vivid writers of his era. It is impossible for me to praise this book highly enough; it’s one of the best books on any subject I’ve ever read in my life.   

Buckley opens his account with the original division of Berlin into four occupation zones (American, British, French and Soviet) at the end of WWII. He quickly reviews (but never skims over) the decade and a half after the Airlift, when Berlin was the most dangerous flashpoint in the world, until the Soviets walled its citizens in, and John F. Kennedy famously declaimed, “Ich bin ein Berliner.”

The next quarter century forms a litany of pain: families divided by the wall for more than a generation, desperate seekers of freedom shot down, repression of East Berlin’s people in a failed garrison state. Until, on that night thirty years ago, President Truman’s confident prediction was finally realized – which doesn’t happen until page 163 of Mr. Buckley’s 192 pages.

One of the signal joys for me in preparing these “favorite book” essays is having to actually revisit those books. In the case of The Fall of the Berlin Wall, that exercise has brought me back to a book that is, by an order of magnitude, even better than I remembered it. 

© 2019 Nick Murray. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission. Nick’s next book for advisors, Nick Murray’s Scripts, will be published at Thanksgiving. Watch for the announcement.