Authors: Peter Millar
My Part in Its Downfall
I have to thank my wife Jackie, who lived through so many of these experiences with me, and put up with my, often prolonged, absence during so many more of them. Also my sons, Patrick and Oscar, who had me dip in and out of their early lives, in particular during the tempestuous year that was 1989. At one stage Patrick, then four, used ‘Budapest’ as the name of a nook behind the sofa where he hid his toy cars: when things suddenly disappeared they had ‘gone to Budapest’.
I also have to thank my great friends from East Berlin, some of them now sadly deceased, in particular the Falkner-Margan family: Bärbel, Alex, Alexandra, Horst and Sylvia. And also everyone else who was a regular at the wonderful little East Berlin corner bar, Metzer Eck, during the 1980s. It is still there, run by Sylvie Falkner, substantially unchanged, and remains the best bar in Berlin.
And finally I must acknowledge a huge debt of gratitude to my late mother who throughout that hectic period never failed to cut out her son’s clippings from whichever newspaper I was working for at the time, and to preserve them in a scrapbook for me. Her efforts have made the burden on my memory so much lighter.
One thing needs saying before anything else, at least for those
with the autobiographical works of Spike Milligan: I make no claim whatsoever to having been instrumental in the fall of the Berlin Wall any more than any other of the millions of people who experienced life behind it and the tremendous exhilaration of seeing its ugly scar removed from the face of a much-loved city. And a tumour excised from the heart of Europe.
From 1981 until 1989 – and beyond – I was an eyewitness, albeit a highly involved one, to the events that shook the communist Soviet empire to its foundations, eventually toppling it, bringing down the Iron Curtain and leaving the way open for a fresh start in a new century. Like Milligan’s account of his World War II soldiering in the wonderful
Adolf Hitler, My Part in His Downfall
, I have tried to take the reader from my own version of ‘square bashing’ (in the boozers of Fleet Street) to the trenches of the Cold War, where I was, if not exactly a foot soldier, then a front-line reporter.
I am not a comic writer in the vein of the late, great goon, and this is not primarily a funny story, although it does have more than a few comic moments. I have always firmly believed that, to the
eye, history has a sense of humour, even if it is sometimes black humour.
This is not primarily a history book but the story of the curious love-hate relationship between events and journalists, a relationship that ends up as history. It is in particular the story of this
and this story is one which I did not so much report as
. East Berlin wasn’t just a place I went to write about, but an inseparable part of my life. The people whose lives were forever changed by the events of November 9th, 1989 were not interviewees, but close
friends, people I considered almost part of my family.
East Berlin was where my wife and I made our first home together as a married couple, a home we had to share with a secretary and a housekeeper, one of them possibly in the employ of the secret police,
with microphones in the walls, and men in unmarked cars on our tails as we went about our daily business. It was where we learned the difference between acquaintance and friendship, about the value of freedom and the curious sweet-and-sour taste of life when it is limited, about how the tide of history can all of a sudden sweep over people and places. And how all that really matters is to keep
when it does. This is a story in which the politicians take a back seat and everyday life springs to the forefront, for even journalists have everyday lives. And the people they meet – especially in
societies – are often more interesting than the events they are sent to report on.
In these pages, I have tried to introduce you to some of those people and convey a taste of the lives they led, in many ways so foreign to those of Britons or Americans in the second half of the twentieth century, yet every bit as typical of those decades. Between the affluence of ‘the West’ and the poverty of ‘the Third World’, was a second world, rarely referred to as such. Even those who lived there dared not speak its name: a world of making do, getting by, of living with the shadow of the past, a darkness in the present and little hope for the future. A world that shattered like a glass ceiling in those chaotic days of the autumn of 1989.
I have tried also to answer at least in part one of those questions journalists are so often asked: how do you get the news? And another one that should be asked more often: what do you do with it when you get it? This is a short ride on a rollercoaster of a profession that many people wish they could get into and a good many others wish they could get out of. An insider’s look at the [frequent] nuts and [often missing] bolts of the news business, in particular the ups and downs of being a foreign correspondent in the pre-internet days: from shouting, ‘No love, it’s the Warsaw Pact, not the Walsall Pact,’ over a crackly phone line to
copytakers recently moved from the
News of the World
, to the joys of punching endless seemingly identical rows of holes in telex tape, of vandalising hotel telephone sockets to fit ‘crocodile clips’ to bare wires, and standing in phone boxes in the rain with ‘acoustic couplers’ clamped in an armpit.
The only message of my story is that people make the world. For better or worse. And that accidents happen. All the time.
The fact that the twenty-first century has so far failed to live up to the promise of the end of the twentieth is a depressing reality. All the more reason why we should look back on the events of 1989, the road that led up to them, and savour once again the taste of those moments of euphoria when it seemed the problems of the world were over once and for all.
Because the taste of hope is one none of us dare lose.
Peter Millar, London and Berlin, 2009
East Germany and West Germany plus the exclave of West Berlin
My wife sat at home in floods of tears in front of the television, the uncomprehending toddlers hugging her knees. I was hanging out on a chaotic street corner hundreds of miles away pouring three nineteen-year-old waitresses into a taxi to take them to the biggest party the world had seen in four decades.
My wife’s tears were tears of joy. The night was November 9th, 1989, and the Berlin Wall was coming down. For the first time in a century it seemed the whole world was empathising with the Germans. But for me, on that street corner in Berlin in the midst of the biggest story of my career, the predominant thing on my mind as a Sunday newspaper reporter on a Thursday night was: ‘Damn, this is all happening twenty-four hours too early.’
But then nobody had known it would happen at all. Least of all the intelligence agencies of the West, caught napping on the eve of their greatest ‘victory’, as they would be again on September 11th, 2001, their greatest embarrassment. Not even the men who gave the orders in East Berlin knew it would happen. Not even as they gave them. They had intended something else. Something else entirely. The fall of the Berlin Wall was the triumphant vindication of the ‘cock-up’ theory of history, of what happens when those seemingly immovable objects of political inertia and the status quo get swept away by two irresistible forces: accident and emotion.
I had been a hundred miles away on East Germany’s Baltic coast when the first checkpoint on the Wall that for a generation had severed one half of Berlin from the other was suddenly,
thrown open. Driving a rented – and I was about to discover lamentably underpowered – Mercedes I rammed the accelerator to the floor and headed like a lunatic for Berlin. At Checkpoint Charlie, already awash with East Berliners clamouring to be let through, I had entrusted my less than impressive symbol of the capitalist car
industry to the tender mercies of East Germany’s border troops and crossed the border into the West to have a beer can thrust into my hand with the joyful shout: ‘Welcome to freedom!’
Was it really happening? Could the most concrete manifestation of the Iron Curtain really be crumbling? Was this really a sea change in global politics? Or just a moment of madness? Would the story by Sunday be of a crackdown and the restoration of the Cold War status quo, or would we be welcoming a brave new world?
My three waitresses had been working in an East Berlin hotel all evening, while outside the world turned upside down. They had heard the news that the Wall had opened while they served pork and dumplings to Russian tourists, but with typical Prussian
they had worked to the end of their shift, after midnight, before one winked at the others and said, ‘Anyone for the Ku’damm?’ They burst out giggling, spraying cheap
champagne through the gates at Checkpoint Charlie, and as we headed for West Berlin’s most famous boulevard, I realised they were just what I was looking for: a bright young element of human colour to enliven the
news story breaking over my head. A story that was already on television screens around the world and would have been in the newspapers for two days before my own version of events hit the streets on Sunday morning.
Yet at that precise moment I was less concerned about what I would write than soaking up the intoxicating atmosphere of a
experience. This wasn’t just a news story, this was
. For that one delirious night most of East Berlin took a walk on the wild side: two-stroke ‘Trabbies’, the fibreglass midget cars soon to become an accidental symbol of a revolution based on
values, raced Porsches along the glitzy avenues of the West, littered with broken bottles beneath a sky ablaze with fireworks; it was as if a long-awaited marriage had occurred; Berlin embraced Berlin. Policemen (West) kissed bus conductresses (East). ‘Berlin is again Berlin. Germany weeps with joy’ screamed the headlines on special edition tabloids, rushed off the presses and handed out free on the streets of the West.
On the Ku’damm itself, awash with people hugging one another, spreading across the wide avenue in a vast, uproariously happy
drunken party I let my waitresses vanish into the throng, when I found myself suddenly grabbed and embraced by friends who were practically family. And for them it really was a family reunion: Kerstin Falkner and her husband Andreas had only weeks before fled their home in East Berlin, via the West German Embassy in Poland, thinking it would be years before they saw the rest of their family again, if ever. Now she was standing arm in arm with her brother Horst and his wife Sylvia, who had only hours before walked through a gap in the Wall they thought would keep them apart forever.
If for the world at large the fall of the Berlin Wall was theatre on a grand stage, for me it was as first-hand as a family wedding. Eight years earlier my wife and I had made a decrepit flat in a run-down corner of East Berlin our first family home. I had passed my driving test there. We had made friendships that would last a lifetime, lived alongside the natives in a world of grimy buildings pockmarked by bullet holes, of grey cobbled streets and the tiny Trabant cars with fibreglass bodies in fluorescent orange and apple green that rattled over them. We had held conversations in whispers in the kitchen with the taps running and the radio on because there were
in the walls. Even in the bedroom. We had sat and gossiped with the locals in the pub and exchanged knowing wary glances when somebody new walked in. ‘Just in case.’ Friendships mattered more than anywhere I had lived before or have lived since. Friends could help you get your hands on things you couldn’t find in the sparsely stocked shops. Friends could tell one another jokes, even about the government. As long as you were sure they were really friends.
We were sure about most of them. There was Manne, the obese thirty-something who smuggled disco tapes and hardcore porn from the West in his outsize underpants. Kurtl the fading music hall musician with his comic specs, repertoire of old-fashioned tunes and memories of the Berlin blitz and his father’s death at
. Uschi with her broad Saxon vowels and her lust for imported fashion-plate clothes. And her husband Bernd the classical
whose life was made a misery trying to provide them. Big, bearded Busch who ran a hostel for young print workers and paid
lip service to the Communist Party because he had to belong to it to hold down his job. Jochen, a stage designer of ambiguous
whom nobody quite trusted. Bärbel, the cackling good-natured landlady of a corner pub that had managed to swim against the tide of enforced nationalisation and remain in family hands. And Alex, her partner, worldly-wise cynic, wit and raconteur who transformed Metzer Eck into an oasis of bonhomie, free speech and free-flowing beer that made life in a dictatorship better than just bearable. For all of them the events of that night in November 1989 changed their lives.
Even when we had lived in their midst, we were not, of course, in exactly the same position as they were. We could travel. We could cross into the other half of their city. The border guards, who even on the night of November 9th, 1989, were portrayed on the television screens of the West as scowling faces in communist uniforms, had over the years become for us no longer sinister ciphers but familiar – if nameless – faces. Nor were they all male: there was an attractive dark-haired woman we referred to privately as ‘Lovely Rita’ (from the Beatles’ song: ‘Lovely Rita, meter maid’). Another guard, a big grinning bear of a bloke who always smiled – so many of his
presented only blank stares – and exchanged a few words. I nicknamed him ‘Yogi Bear’. I would get to know his real name only when we shared a beer in a bar just a few yards west of Checkpoint Charlie, the border he had defended for so long, on the night he was finally out of a job.
When the idea of going to Berlin as a foreign correspondent for Reuters news agency was first put to me back in 1981, it was
that the Berlin Wall could ever fall. Hanging on my wall at home I had a big map of Europe, showing the split in the world that everyone thought would never heal: the invisible scar down the middle of a continent. On one side was what was then still called the EEC, the European Economic Community, on the other Comecon, the Soviet trading block; on the one side Nato, on the other the Warsaw Pact, one tucked under the protective wing of the
eagle, the other under the threatening paw of the Russian bear. East versus West, with the old continent of Europe in the middle, the fault line running through the heart of Germany.
The nineteenth-century German military philosopher Clausewitz had famously declared politics to be the ‘continuation of war by other means’. By the mid-twentieth century the Cold War had become the new definition of those ‘other means’. Everyone assumed it would last forever. Some – primarily on the Western side – were even thankful for it. Peace was assured by the policy of Mutual Assured Destruction, which had the pleasing acronym MAD: whichever side started a nuclear conflict would assure its own annihilation.
was inevitable, therefore war was unthinkable. The Cold War was a stalemate that had once been known as the Balance of Power.
That balance had not been achieved easily. The Germany of the immediate post-war years was a country in ruins and under
. Vast swathes of its territory in the East had been carved off forever, most given to the new communist-dominated Poland which had literally been shifted several hundred miles westward. The old eastern Polish territories had been grabbed by Stalin as the result of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact in 1939.
The remainder of Germany was divided into three occupation zones: between the Soviets, British and Americans. The Russians reckoned that as France had technically lost the war it wasn’t entitled to any of the spoils. A French zone had to be carved out of the British and American share. The same happened in Berlin, which had once occupied a relatively central position in the country but now lay in the far north-east. The idea was for Germany to be disarmed and declared perpetually neutral; the problem was that neither side in the emerging Cold War hostility trusted the other to assure that.
In June 1948 the three Western powers introduced a new
, the Deutsche Mark or D-Mark, to replace the old Reichsmark. The Soviet Union, convinced it was a plan by Wall Street to create a new capitalist puppet state, introduced a separate Mark in the East. It also tried to seize all of Berlin with a blockade barring access to the Western sectors. Only a remarkable and highly risky British and American policy of supplying the city with food and fuel by air ensured that the tactic failed. In May 1949 the three Western zones united to become the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) and announced that, pending unification, their provisional capital would be the little university town of Bonn, birthplace of Beethoven.
Five months later on October 7th the Soviet-controlled communists in the East responded by declaring their own German Democratic Republic (East Germany). West Germans would, for years, joke that it was neither German, nor democratic nor a proper republic (
still called the territory around them ‘the zone’). But another German concept said it was
Berlin remained theoretically under the control of the four
‘Allies’, even if by this time the Soviets and Westerners were hardly on speaking terms. Berliners, East and West, came and went in the city and the surrounding countryside much as they had always done, using whichever currency anyone would accept. But with better living conditions in the West, the Soviet ‘zone’ kept
people. In 1952 at Stalin’s behest, the East Germans built a fortified fence along the border with West Germany and equipped it with watchtowers, armed guards, dogs and eventually automatically triggered machine guns. But there was still nothing to stop people wandering into the Western sectors of Berlin and not coming back. By 1960 the working-age population of East Germany had dropped from seventy to sixty per cent of the total. Before long it would be empty of all but geriatrics and the disabled. People denied a genuine vote at the ballot box were voting with their feet.
On June 15th, 1961 Walter Ulbricht, the general secretary of the East German Communist Party (officially the Socialist Unity Party since a forced merger with the Social Democrats in 1946) gave a speech in which he famously said: ‘
Niemand hat die Absicht, eine Mauer zu errichten
. (Nobody has any intention of building a wall.)’ He obviously woke up next morning and said to himself, ‘Now there’s a thought!’
At midnight on August 12th, armed guards began to roll out barbed wire along the border between the sectors that ran through the middle of Berlin. And not just along the forty-three kilometres that actually lay within the city limits but out in the country too, all along the 156 kilometres that formed the rest of the border between the Western half of Berlin and the landscape around it. Within hours, especially in the middle of the city itself, they were digging up the road alongside the barbed wire and cementing concrete blocks into a wall that would be the first of several incarnations, each one more
intimidating and permanent than the last, over the next two and a half decades. All the work was done, standing firmly on ground that was in the Eastern sector, by labourers watched over by armed guards. One guard, a young soldier of nineteen called Conrad Schuman, made himself famous just two days later by jumping over the barbed wire within range of a Western photographer’s lens.
Because the sectors had been drawn up along old postcode lines, in some places the boundary itself ran along the line of the
. This meant that in Bernauer Strasse to the north of the city centre, the houses were in the East, but the pavement they opened onto was in the West. The closing of the border meant that armed guards marched into people’s apartments and began bricking up their windows. Western photographers captured images of people dropping from upper windows as the troops bricked up the lower ones. Within months the houses were evacuated and in 1963 the last of them was demolished.