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David Binder, a longtime correspondent for The New York Times who chronicled the Cold War in Europe, the dissolution of the Soviet bloc in the East and the horrific civil wars in Bosnia, Croatia and Kosovo, died Sunday at his home in Evanston, Illinois. He was 88.
His wife, Helga, said the cause was end-stage kidney disease.
A restless, relentless journalist, Binder covered the Berlin Wall’s construction in 1961 and its destruction in 1989 — bookends to his many hundreds of reports on East-West tensions and life under the Communist regimes in East Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria and Yugoslavia.
In the early 1990s, as Germany reunified and peace returned to much of Europe, Binder went back to the Balkans to cover wars that engulfed the former Yugoslavia in massacres, mass rapes and genocide, killing 100,000 people and driving millions from their homes. He interviewed civilian victims, fighters and their leaders, including the accused Serbian war criminals Slobodan Milosevic and Gen. Ratko Mladic.
Milosevic, a former president of Serbia, died in prison in 2006, and Mladic was convicted in 2017 of crimes against humanity and genocide and sentenced to life in prison by the International Criminal Tribunal in The Hague.
Binder’s passport was an 8-foot accordion of pages stamped with the visas of troubled lands, and his reports — more than 2,600 articles and commentaries in a 43-year career with The Times — offered insights into dictators and their policies and glimpses into the daily routines of citizens coping with food shortages, telephone taps and reminders of the perils of defying Communist rule.
“For East Germans the wall is an obsession,” he wrote after the Berlin Wall went up. “The desperate ones think only of escape: swimming across icy waters, running in the face of gunfire across open fields under the glare of searchlights, slithering between strands of barbed wire, leaping three and four stories, crawling through sewers. Some succeed; many fail, their bodies riddled with machine gun bullets.”
Binder covered Eastern Europe and Yugoslavia from 1963 to 1966. He focused on the popular socialist government of President Josip Broz Tito of Yugoslavia, who defied Soviet hegemony and led the nonaligned nations in the Cold War, and on the purges, defections and economic ups and downs of life behind the Iron Curtain in Hungary, Bulgaria, Romania and Albania.
After moving to Bonn, the West German capital, in 1967, he covered the 1968 Prague Spring uprising in Czechoslovakia, which was crushed by Soviet and Warsaw Pact forces.
Binder was close to Willy Brandt, the West German chancellor who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1971 for his East-West reconciliation efforts. Among Binder’s many books was “The Other German: Willy Brandt’s Life and Times,” published in 1976.
He also wrote with authority on the East German leader Walter Ulbricht, who was deposed in 1971 and died in 1973, and on Nicolae Ceausescu, the Romanian dictator, whom he interviewed in 1986 for The New York Times Magazine.
Binder was transferred to The Times’ Washington bureau as a diplomatic and European affairs correspondent in 1973. He often returned to Europe in the 1980s to report on developments in Soviet bloc nations, and in the 1990s to cover the reunification of Germany; the collapse of Communist regimes in Albania, Romania and Bulgaria; and civil wars in Bosnia, Croatia and Kosovo.
As Yugoslavia disintegrated in 1991, he was trapped with Croatian forces in a five-day siege of shelling and sniper fire in the Adriatic port of Dubrovnik. “The federal forces’ bombardment is heavier still: cannon, mortars, rockets, wire-guided missiles,” he wrote. “It started just before dawn. Terrific explosions.”
Ralph Blumenthal, a former Times colleague, recalled that Binder was “a great lover of the Balkans” noting that he had absorbed the region’s history and culture for decades and was deeply affected by the calamity of the wars there. His last book, “Fare Well, Illyria” (2014), was a memoir about Balkan politicians, poets, artists, fishermen, farmers and friends.
David Binder was born in London on Feb. 22, 1931, one of four children of American parents, Abner Carroll and Dorothy Walton Binder. His father was a foreign-news editor and correspondent for The Chicago Daily News. An older brother, Carroll Jr., a navigator in a bomber, was killed in World War II. David, Carroll Jr. and their sisters, Mary and Deborah, who was David’s twin, grew up in Highland Park, Illinois. David attended the George School in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, and graduated from Harvard in 1953.