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the story behind the book

Historian Sarotte scales the wall with her story

david wilson for the boston globe

Historian Mary Elise Sarotte noticed a strange phenomenon whenever she gave talks about her third book, which focused on post-unification Germany. The minute she mentioned “the accidental opening of the Berlin Wall,” she said, someone in the audience would interrupt.

“I realized pretty quickly that people weren’t familiar with the story,” said Sarotte, a visiting professor at Harvard’s Center for European Studies. How that came to pass, she said, is the puzzle her fourth book, “The Collapse: The Accidental Opening of the Berlin Wall,” tries to answer. “How does a wall that’s been there for 25 years suddenly fall? It’s quite an amazing story.”


To tell it, she interviewed East German dissidents, loyalists, and journalists, as well as key West German, Russian, and American figures — including Tom Brokaw, who was in Berlin the night the wall fell, 25 years ago this month.

“In essence, this is a prequel to my previous book,” she said. “In another life, when I have perfect hindsight, I’ll write the books in the correct order.”

For many Americans, President Ronald Reagan’s 1987 command to then-Soviet Union leader Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall” marked its 1989 opening as evidence of American strength, the culmination of a battle the West had won.

“The contest between the US and the Soviet Union is the crucial context in which this happened,” Sarotte said, but added, “It didn’t actually open the wall.”

When asked whether she had contacted another key American figure often associated with the Berlin Wall, Sarotte surprisingly said yes. “I tried to interview David Hasselhoff,” Sarotte said of the actor/singer whose song “Looking for Freedom,’’ a 1989 West German hit, was viewed by some as helping to lay the groundwork for the event. “The one unfulfilled research component was an interview with David Hasselhoff!”


Sarotte will read from the book at 7 p.m. Monday at Porter Square Books.

Kate Tuttle, a writer and editor, can be reached at kate.tuttle@gmail.com.