The Cold War was the first conflict that came close to annihilating Western civilisation — the first but almost certainly not the last. Yet the story of this global 40 Years War ended happily: it concluded almost bloodlessly in the European Revolution of 1989.
This was a genuine popular revolution, not a coup by professional subversives and terrorists like the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. It came from below, taking the statesmen, diplomats and intelligence services on both sides by surprise.
East and West Berliners celebrate as the Wall is breached
Unlike most revolutions, that of 1989 did not become a vehicle for new tyrannies: it brought freedom and democracy to hundreds of millions who had lived a twilight existence under the political religion of Marxism-Leninism.
Twenty years after, the fact that all this came to pass seems almost too miraculous to be credible. Yet I was there. As a foreign correspondent for the Daily Telegraph, covering Germany from 1987 until the summer of 1989, and what was then known as Eastern Europe for the rest of that year, I had a ringside seat during the events that culminated in the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Velvet Revolution in Prague. But journalists do not only report and comment on events: on occasion, they may even play a part, however small. To be a spectator during that period was a rare privilege. To be a footnote in history, and above all in the history that was made in East Berlin that November night, was an extraordinary epiphany that I am only now beginning to appreciate. In his wonderful new account, The Year That Changed the World: The Untold Story behind the Fall of the Berlin Wall (Simon & Schuster, £16.99), Michael Meyer (who was Newsweek's bureau chief and an eyewitness at the time) has indeed mentioned me in a footnote, generously giving me "a measure of credit for bringing down the Wall". Others deserve much more of that credit, from Reagan and Gorbachev to the East Berliners themselves. But it may be of interest to tell the story of how one Englishman found himself in the right place and time to participate in German (and European) history. "History is now and England": that line from "Little Gidding", the last of the Four Quartets, applied just as much to me in Germany in 1989 as to T. S. Eliot in England in 1942.
My interest in Germany began as a youth in the 1970s. In those days, state schools in England (or at any rate, grammar schools) still taught German. None of my children has been able to study the language, and university departments of German are now rapidly closing. But at 16, I was able to spend three months at a gymnasium near Kassel, acquiring a taste for beer and Beethoven. My Germanophilia was reinforced by Karl Leyser, J. P. Stern, and various other great émigré scholars who taught me at Oxford and Cambridge. In 1979, I went to Berlin on a scholarship for which I was nominated by Tom Stoppard. There, I was briefly a tenant in an apartment at Uhlandstrasse 127, rented first by James Fenton and then by Timothy Garton Ash, described by the latter in his memoir The File. Garton Ash's affectionate but mordant depiction — "Then came Daniel Johnson, palely handsome, Nietzsche in hand. He would burst through the double-doors of a morning, beaming, to tell me he had located another German pessimist...Daniel would startle the girls with remarks like: ‘Have you noticed that Steiner uses the word "moment" in a Hegelian sense?'" — doubtless captures something of my obsession in those days with the Germans and their history. There in Berlin they tried to live normally in spite of their unspeakable past, a past from which there could be no redemption.
The spectral atmosphere of pre-1989 Berlin — divided, isolated, haunted — was best captured by Fenton in the poem A German Requiem that he wrote during his time in Uhlandstrasse: "It is not the streets that exist. It is the streets that no longer exist...It is not what they say. It is what they do not say." Germany in the 1980s was overshadowed by its own past, obsessed not so much with the Holocaust as with its own guilt. A series of scandals erupted, each one focused on "the past that would not pass away": Bitburg, the Historikerstreit, Waldheim, Jenninger. The present reality — the Berlin Wall — was taken for granted, questioned only by outsiders.
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