Forty-eight hours after leaving the United States for the irst time, I found myself stranded under an East Berlin guard tower. Compared to the suffering experienced by others at the East German border, it was an event of no importance, but it made me start to question. It happened during the Reagan era of the Cold War in 1986, when I was a still a teenager. I had flown to West Germany to visit an exchange student who had lived with my family. We decided to go together for a sightseeing drive in East Berlin, unaware that American and West German citizens had to use different crossing points to enter. We were forced to separate but agreed to rendezvous at the nearest visual landmark just over the border, a guard tower on the East German side. I crossed on foot without problem, but my German friend was not so lucky. We had bought postcards of the Berlin Wall and the sight of this Western propaganda on the rear seat of his car inspired the border guards to demand a complete auto search.
Waiting for my ride, I found myself sitting alone for hours at the base of the tower. I had never seen weaponry at close range before. I began to wonder how the guard above me had got there, how the Wall had got there, how the dictatorship survived and created fear. As the time dragged on, my self-centered questions (would I ever see home again?) became more philosophical. My mother, a social worker, had spent her life trying to prevent conflict on an individual level. I thought about conflict prevention on an international level. Was it possible to deal with dictators? At what cost?
As it turned out, I was on my way within a couple of hours, and on my way home within a couple of weeks; but the questions stayed with me. At the time I thought that the chances of inding answers to them were slim. Then the unexpected events of 1989 followed just three years later. The protesters who brought about a revolution in East Germany opened archives as well as border crossings. So I was able to look for answers to my questions after all.
I conducted the majority of the research for this book in the quietly chaotic atmosphere of post-uniication German archives. Staff members were still, years later, in the process of sifting through the unexpected windfall. During my research, document collections were variously renumbered, relocated, recatalogued, and deemed lost and completely unobtainable, until suddenly obtained. Whole archives moved altogether in the course of my investigation. The inconveniences of working in newly opened collections, however, were outweighed by the drama of reading iles retrieved from Stasi shredders; of interviewing men who, for most of the Cold War, had no faces that Westerners could see; of