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The fall of the Wall and my years as The Spectator’s man behind the Iron Curtain

4 November 2019

8:11 AM

4 November 2019

8:11 AM

Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, but to be young was strictly optional. Most of the heroes of 1989 were middle-aged. The leaders of the velvet revolutions, the Vaclav Havels and Lech Walesas, had been through prison, tough times and many a defeat before this incredible victory. Sure, there were often students in the front line — blithe, unattached, unafraid; but what was most moving to me, as I talked to people in the crowds in Leipzig, Gdansk or Prague, were the older men and women who had endured so much and never believed they would see this day. Women who for 28 years had never even set foot on the other end of their own street, because the Berlin Wall cut across it. Men like the East Berlin porter who told me: ‘Now people are standing up straight… I think the sick will get up from their hospital beds.’

A few weeks earlier, these so-called ‘ordinary’ men and women had still been very afraid — and yet they had put on their coats and scarves, closed the front door of their small flats behind them, and taken the long, nervous walk down to the local square or the Leipzig ring road. When they left home that first time, they did not know they would not be beaten up by the police, and persecuted by the Stasi, as so many had been before, for so many years. Only when they got to the ring road or the square did they discover how many of their fellow citizens had done the same. At a few crucial moments — in Poland’s Solidarity, in Berlin on the night of the fall of the Wall — the sheer gentle force of numbers made all the difference.

Today, it all looks inevitable. It seems to us, with the burden of hindsight, that what actually happened had to happen. But it did not look that way at the time. Every night when I went to bed in some battered old central European hotel, giddy with a mixture of elation, exhaustion and vodka, I had no idea what was going to happen tomorrow. A violent reversal always seemed possible. A ghost stalked central Europe throughout the second half of 1989; it was the ghost of Tiananmen. The East German communist leader Erich Honecker had talked approvingly of ‘the Chinese solution’. And we now know, from the archives, that at several points — for example, on 9 October in Leipzig, when 8,000 armed security forces were mobilised, doctors’ leave cancelled, extra hospital beds and blood reserves prepared — we did come to the very brink of violence.

No, the miracle was not foreordained. Without Gorbachev, none of this would have been possible; yet, while Gorbachev’s green light was necessary, it was not sufficient for success. That also needed the skill and restraint of both opposition leaders and reform-minded communists in each country, the courage of the individual men and women who made up the crowds and, not least, a great slice of good fortune. Machiavelli says in The Prince that half of it is down to fortuna, and fortuna was working overtime in 1989.

For me, this year of wonders was the culmination of more than a decade travelling in and writing about that other Europe, behind the Iron Curtain.

The first article I ever published was about the then still Stalinist enclave of Albania, which I had visited on a highly regimented ‘Progressive Tour’ (the only way you could get in), together with several Marxist-Leninist teachers from Leeds, a Scottish engineer and a former imperial policeman called Mr Godsave, who told me, over a cup of Lumumba (the local tipple, a mix of nameless hooch and strong coffee), that his purpose was ‘to get to know the enemy’. The piece appeared in The Spectator on 30 September 1978, and was relentlessly amusing.

Encouraged by the then editor of The Spectator, Alexander Chancellor, I went on to write — sometimes under the pseudonym ‘Edward Marston’ — about East Germany, where I lived for some time. When I read my Stasi file years later, I discovered that they had me down as working for a sinister magazine called ‘Spekta’. Not the man from Uncle but the man from Spekta.

From my base in Berlin, I set off to drive through the rest of what was then usually called Eastern Europe. But the people who lived there preferred to call it central Europe, insisting that these lands were culturally and historically part of the West. The Czech writer Milan Kundera described it as ‘the kidnapped West’. I remember the very first time I heard the unfamiliar term, ‘central Europe’, which to most British readers at the time sounded like something out of a Lehar operetta or a novel by Anthony Hope. An engineer in Prague took hours out of his working day — these were times when people living under communism joked that ‘we pretend to work and they pretend to pay us’ — in order to help me get my car mended. When we parted he said, ‘Next time you are in central Europe, do please come and visit me.’

In 1980, I was carried away by a great flood called Solidarity in Poland: a velvet revolution avant la lettre which I chronicled enthusiastically in these pages. A few years later, Chancellor’s successor, Charles Moore, encouraged me to assume the grand-sounding title of foreign editor. I had a staff of one — me. But the handle could come in useful. Once, in Moscow, I was being fobbed off by some apparatchik of the Soviet news agency Novosti who told me: ‘But you must understand that I am very busy, I have here the head of the international department of the Sunday Times.’ I retorted that I was the head of the international department of The Spectator. His attitude changed most satisfactorily.

Somehow, the very name of the magazine worked magic too. Perhaps because it is such an old title, even in deepest Transylvania the local intellectuals seemed to have heard of it, or at least thought they had. (Local intellectuals like the German pastor who, when he heard I lived in Oxford, asked, ‘Do you know Newman?’) I was always amazed when — in those countries where I was working officially, as opposed to operating undercover, as a ‘tourist’ — I got in to see the foreign minister, or some similarly high-placed official. Clearly they thought The Spectator must be prime minister Margaret Thatcher’s bedtime reading. (Perhaps her authorised biographer, one Charles Moore, will reveal that it actually was.)

One thing it’s hard to convey to anyone under 30 is just how primitive the communications were. No mobile phones! No email! No laptop! Just a manual typewriter. The main means of sending copy was the Telex, a technology that now looks like the steam engine. Sometimes, I had myself to punch out on a heavy keyboard the narrow perforated paper tape which you then fed through the chattering Telex machine to send an article, praying all the time that the tape would not break. (At the Reuters office in East Berlin they had a dusty loop of perforated Telex tape hanging from a nail on the wall: it was the obituary of the Nazi Rudolf Hess.) If the message was urgent, bells rang on the receiving machine.

The serious business on which I was engaged was that of getting to know the dissidents and opposition leaders across the region, and chronicling central Europe’s gradual emancipation from Soviet-type communism — which of course began long before 1989. What everyone remembers is the fall of the Wall on the night of 9/10 November. But very important breakthroughs came in Poland and Hungary earlier in the year. After ten years of hard struggle, Solidarity was re-legalised in Poland and won the right to a semi-free election on 4 June 1989 (the very day of the Tiananmen massacre in China). Looking back over my Spectator cuttings, I’m surprised to find myself writing as early as May 1989: ‘In Poland the facts are these. After 40 years, communism is over. La commedia è finita.’ A little premature perhaps, but not wrong.

The most delightful of all was the velvet revolution in Prague. From the bowels of the subterranean Magic Lantern theatre, the playwright-dissident Vaclav Havel directed and starred in his greatest play: 300,000 people formed the cast, assembling day after day on Wenceslas Square, one of the largest and finest stages on earth. Cry your eyes out, Cecil B. de Mille. The very last piece I wrote before moving on from The Spectator was a portrait of the leaders of liberated central Europe, especially Havel as the newly elected president of what was then still Czechoslovakia. Installed in Prague’s magnificent castle, Havel took particular delight in showing me the medieval starvation chamber. ‘We shall use it for talks,’ he said.

Looking back now at those times of sepia remoteness, I have a few reflections. First, I think The Spectator did a pretty good job of chronicling what was actually unfolding under the surface of communist rule in Europe, and that this had little or nothing do with any ideological attitude. It had to do with writers — several of them represented in this issue, but there are others who deserve mention — going to the countries concerned, with eyes and ears open, and talking to people on the ground as well as those in power. (‘Underneath is where the people are,’ the Polish Pope, John Paul II, once wonderfully remarked — although I believe he was on an aeroplane at the time.) And then we simply reported what we saw and heard. Nothing more, nothing less.

Second, in that unfolding story of emancipation and eventual liberation, Britain had a good name in central Europe. A few days ago, I heard Janusz Onyszkiewicz, who was then national spokesman for Solidarity, say how much Margaret Thatcher’s visit to Gdansk and meeting with Lech Walesa in December 1988 had meant to them at a rather critical moment in the negotiations that would lead on to Poland’s seminal round table talks in early 1989. Geoffrey Howe, as foreign secretary, and Malcolm Rifkind, a foreign office minister, set the standard for other Western ministers in meeting with dissidents and recognising the legitimacy of the opposition. But alas, politically at least, Britain has rather blown it since. Culturally and educationally, Britain remains attractive to young central Europeans, who like to travel, study and work here; but politically, even the most Anglophile young Pole or Hungarian is more likely to look to Germany and France.

That takes me to a final, somewhat melancholy reflection. Support for the struggle for freedom in communist-ruled Europe united writers, politicians and activists in this country from left and right (while, let us not forget, others on both left and right were indifferent or even hostile to that struggle). It also brought together friends and enemies of European integration, now familiarly known as Europhiles and Eurosceptics, though I don’t think we yet routinely used those epithets. Conservative Eurosceptics like Charles Moore and liberal Europhiles like me could heartily agree about Eastern Europe while profoundly disagreeing about Western Europe.

Now, 20 years on, the enlargement of the European Union to include most of the post-communist democracies of central and Eastern Europe, a logical (though not inevitable) conclusion of revolutions that were conducted under the motto of ‘the return to Europe’, has made the dreaded federal superstate of Eurosceptic nightmare a sheer impossibility. It is simply not going to happen, in any foreseeable future, and even Germany, once the motor of federalism, no longer wants it. Indeed, French and Belgian federalists complain sourly that enlargement has given us, increasingly, a Europe à l’Anglaise, a ‘British Europe’. Why is it only the British who can’t see this?

This article was first published in 2009, to coincide with the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Timothy Garton Ash’s book
The Magic Lantern: The Revolution of ’89 Witnessed in Warsaw, Budapest, Berlin & Prague has recently been reissued by Atlantic Books.


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