Thursday, September 16, 2010

Five best books: 1989, the end of the Cold War

Mary Elise Sarotte is Professor of International Relations at the University of Southern California. Her books include 1989: The Struggle to Create Post-Cold War Europe, which was named one of the best books of 2009 by the Financial Times.

At FiveBooks, she told Daisy Banks about her five best books about the end of the Cold War in Europe in 1989. One book they discussed:
After the Wall by Jana Hensel

Your next choice is one of the many personal accounts that have come out of 1989, After the Wall by Jana Hensel.

This is an English translation of a memoir that came out in Germany. The title in German is much more evocative; it is called Children of the Zone, a reference to the fact that East Germany started life as the Soviet zone of occupation in divided Germany.

The book was a bestseller in Germany but also a very controversial one. The author was a teenager and living in East Germany at the time the wall came down. She was old enough to know her world was ending but not old enough to know why. Neither she nor her family had been particularly political before the wall came down. This is a story about how she tries to come to terms with seeing her world collapse. All her expectations change and the values that she grew up with are thrown into question.

It’s a controversial book because she decided to use the pronoun ‘we’ throughout the book, even though she is talking about herself. Her critics say that she shouldn’t speak for an entire generation. Other people had different experiences. There was another book that came out from another young woman who was a child of dissidents. She jokes that until she was an adult, she thought that the word ‘cockroaches’ meant the Stasi agents who spied on her parents.

I find Hensel’s book to be a very interesting account of the time. There is a powerful moment towards the end where, many years later, she is talking about the Nazi era with some friends who grew up in West Germany. In East Germany state rhetoric declared that West Germany was the heir to fascism and East Germany was not. She realises when she is having this conversation that actually all Germans are heirs to the legacy of Nazism whether they like it or not. It is part of their shared past and they are all linked to it.

It is also interesting to read about her relationship with her parents. She is jealous of her West German friends’ easy relations with their parents, because they share similar values. She, in contrast, feels alienated from hers. So, I found this book interesting because of all the internal mental discussions that she has with herself.
Read about the other books on the list.

Also see Ernest Lefever's five best Cold War classics.

--Marshal Zeringue