Twenty years ago I sat in front of my television watching crowds stream through the Brandenburg Gate as the East German border guards finally gave up the job of trying to prevent people crossing from one side of the Berlin Wall to the other. Anyone with a sense of history could not help but share in the jubilation as a whole nation was set free from the vast prison camp which was East Germany.
Peter Millar, a Sunday Times journalist, was present as these historic events happened around him, and his long years of living in East Germany and Russia have equipped him to write a vibrant and involved account of 1989 and the preceding years leading up to the year of liberation.
I enjoyed reading 1989 The Berlin Wall: My Part in its Downfall as much as anything I have read this year. Millar's eye-witness accounts of his time in Berlin provide a ground-level view of events and serve as a useful counterpoint to the other, more scholarly books on the period which have been recently published such as Victor Sebestyen's Revolution 1989 (review to follow).
Despite being a "serious" journalist (Foreign Correspondent of the Year, 1989 etc), Millar has adopted an almost Bryson-esque approach to his description of his life, first as a young Reuter's correspondent and then as a journalist on national newspapers. While his newspaper articles were serious and weighty pieces, there is obviously a humorist in his psyche too.
Millar began writing professionally in the days of Remington typewriters, and rapidly learned the skills of his trade, particularly building a readable story from the barest of facts. After serving his apprenticeship in the London office, he was despatched to East Berlin, where after crossing from West Berlin to take up his appointment he finds himself in the time-warped world of Communism. He both lived and worked in the Reuter's apartment, which he shared with an East German administrator, Erdmute (which means Earth Mother), and a young cleaner, Helga, whose charms he manages to resist despite her advances (was she a state-planted "honey pot"? Probably, as is shown by her departure when Millar marries his English fiancée).
Millar's first task is to pass his driving test, and after passing his theory test (was the examiner's hints as his love for a bottle of French Brandy anything to do with this?), he finds himself taking his practical test in a state-owned Lada with another candidate also being examined in the same car. Nothing in East Germany is simple, least of all the transport system, with the railways which crossed the town being cut off at the border and terminus stations being created where trains had previously passed through. The crossing points of the wall are a constant irritation, with the endless checks of papers and packages, but Millar learns to endure these and even gets to know one of the guards rather well.
Despite the inconveniences of daily life, Millar manages to make many local friends, not least by spending time in the local bar where eventually he is accepted as a regular customer. Building relationships is made much more difficult by the constant fear that people he meets could be Stasi informers, or worse, that he might incriminate innocent East Germans in the eyes of the State by mixing with them. When the STASI secret police are eventually disbanded, Millar eventually gets to look at his files and discovers an astonishing level of surveillance during which he was frequently followed even on shopping trips and conversations in the apartment were electronically monitored almost continually.
This all provides entertaining background, but the book focuses on 1989 when the Communist world was finally imploding, with President Gorbachev refusing to support the aging dinosaur leaderships in the Russian satellite countries. Following the failure of Czechoslovakia to maintain border controls with East Germany, thousands of East Germans leave their country and flock to the West. The Berlin Wall becomes an untenable barrier and on one glorious night, 9 November 1989, the wall is finally and irrevocably breached.
Millar's account of the glorious night when East German's flooded west is as good as any and captures the joy and celebration of these earth-shaking events. This is one of those books which I think should be on everybody's shelves and I recommend it highly for its success in making this phase of European history accessible to people who wouldn't normally read books on political history.