City limits: in West Berlin, press and police watch East Germans cross the border, 10 November 1989. Photo: Magnum Photos/Mark Power
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Crossing over: Germany’s dramatic reunion, 25 years on

Historians, scholars and Berliners are looking back at the chain of cause, effect and accident that led to the events of that night of 9 November 1989, and the way the city and its citizens have evolved since then.

The Collapse: the Accidental Opening of the Berlin Wall 
Mary Elise Sarotte
Basic Books, 272pp, £18.99

Born in the GDR: Living in the Shadow of the Wall 
Hester Vaizey
Oxford University Press, 218pp, £20

Berlin Now: the Rise of the City and the Fall of the Wall 
Peter Schneider
Penguin, 326pp, £9.99

It is strange to think that the Berlin Wall has been down for a quarter-century, almost as many years as it stood. It seemed for a whole generation to be an indestructible symbol of Europe’s division, for a cold war in which the fate of the world hung in the balance. It is almost as strange, given the state of the world today, to recall the year 1989, when – with the signal exception of the horrors of Tiananmen Square – almost all the news was good, where in one country after another freedom was won, borders were opened and democracy triumphed.

When I first arrived in East Berlin in 1981 as a young correspondent for Reuters, one of my first stories was the huge military parade held to mark the 20th anniversary of the building of the wall. As I listened to the dictatorial head of state, Erich Honecker, claim it might stand for a further hundred years it seemed all too obviously true.

Now, 25 years on, it is of little surprise that historians, scholars and Berliners are looking back at the chain of cause, effect and accident that led to the events of that night of 9 November 1989, and the way the city – and the citizens at its heart – have evolved in the decades since.

In The Collapse, the American historian Mary Elise Sarotte uses the benefit of hindsight to track the developments in East Germany, beginning with a depiction of the inhumanity of the wall, reinforced by the grim story of one of the last young men to die attempting to cross it, just a few months before it fell. Chris Gueffroy was shot through the heart by an East German border guard marksman in February 1989. The friend who was with him was badly wounded but survived and was jailed for three years, only to be released to West Berlin in October 1989.

Sarotte’s book is at its best on the farcical sequence of events on the fateful evening of 9 November itself. Honecker had been ousted by his own politburo after demonstrations in East Berlin and Leipzig, and his bumbling heirs, in an effort to defuse the tension, made a hash of announcing a change in travel restrictions. What was intended, we now know – even though those involved have since changed their stories to fit the subsequent facts – was merely that East Germans would be allowed “freely” to apply to make trips to the West, on the assumption that once this was allowed, most would choose not to emigrate but to return home. As it happened, Günter Schabowski, the 60-year-old politburo spokesman, misread a note about the new rules hurriedly passed to him before a press conference, and announced that people would be allowed to cross the border, including the wall, “with immediate effect”.

Schabowski’s inaccurate choice of words was seized on, and misinterpreted, by the western reporters present. East Berliners, who listened almost exclusively to West Berlin news programmes, could hardly believe it – justifiably – but hurried to the crossing points “just in case”. Sarotte recounts the story (established by German reporters in the early 1990s) of how the guards at the Bornholmer Straße checkpoint, the biggest crossing point in the densely populated working-class East Berlin district of Prenzlauer Berg, were soon facing a crowd of thousands clamouring to be let through.

In an attempt to put historic events at a human, understandable level, Sarotte focuses on a couple of individuals who were among the first to be let through to the West, their identity cards (unknown to them) having been stamped to mark them as undesirables, not to be allowed back in.

With no clear instructions coming from on high, Harald Jäger, the Bornholmer commander, who had only half a dozen men against a crowd of thousands pressing on the barriers, had two alternatives: order his men to fire, unleashing carnage and perhaps a mass onslaught, or to let people through. He took the line of least resistance. Soon reporters were beaming back not just radio reports but live television pictures to East Berliners sitting at home. They saw their fellow citizens crossing to the West, and the trickle became a flood.

Caught out like everyone else by Schab­owski’s unexpected and unintentional, unscripted announcement, I was coming back to Berlin from a demonstration on the Baltic coast. I dashed to Bornholmer, where I, almost alone, was not allowed to cross even though I had a multiple-entry visa. With stereotypical Prussian bureaucratic thoroughness, the guards pointed out my visa was valid for Checkpoint Charlie only. I arrived there to a scene of chaos. The border guards I had known for years, by sight if not name, offered to look after my car for me.

Shortly before 11pm I crossed from East to West Berlin, as I had done hundreds of times before – but this was the first time I had a beer thrust into my hand and my hair tousled to cries of “Wilkommen in die Freiheit” (“Welcome to freedom”). The rest of the night was a blur of a party as I met East Berlin friends on the Kurfürstendamm, the glitziest boulevard in the West. My friend Dieter Kahnitz, who ran a bar barely a hundred metres from the Bornholmer crossing, took an improbably capitalist decision: instead of joining the queue to cross to West Berlin he kept open all night and made a small fortune from revellers passing in both directions who did not have the Deutschmarks to celebrate in the West.

If Sarotte’s extensively well-researched and fluently told history has a flaw, it is that it is heavily biased in favour of an American perception. She warns that any western triumphalism is misplaced, but still concentrates unduly on the role and reporting of the NBC anchorman Tom Brokaw, a name not known to most East Germans.

The Oxford academic Hester Vaizey’s archly titled Born in the GDR is not so much a book as a graduate research project, which is in no way to disparage its interesting insights. Vaizey, too young to have first-hand knowledge, has chosen eight former East Germans and interviewed them about their memories and experiences since the fall of the wall. Her interviewees show up the contrast between sinister Stasi-state perceptions of the East and those former citizens who look back on it with an almost Farageiste nostalgia (when life was easier, there were fewer foreigners, and the price of a pint and a loaf was constant).

At one end of the scale is Mario, a gay East German who was jailed for attempting to flee to be with his West Berlin politician boyfriend, then interrogated and encouraged in the relationship by the Stasi, trying to exploit it for intelligence. He is still undergoing therapy today.

At the other is Peggy, a young teenager in 1989, who looks back with nostalgia on a carefree youth, holidaying by peaceful lakes, with modest expectations, and unprepared for the cut-throat world of western capitalism. She recalls the mother of her friend bursting into tears at her first sight of the shops in West Berlin’s Europa Centre, bewildered by the choice of shoes and matching handbags. She has my sympathy. When I first came back to England from Moscow and East Germany in the mid-1980s I found myself unable to buy a toothbrush. There was too big a choice. I was used to: “Toothbrush? Da or nyet?” I left my south London Sainsbury’s with a jar of gherkins and frozen prawns, the only items I recognised.

Vaizey quotes the Leipzig psychologist Walter Friedrich describing the dilemma that East Germans faced in 1989-90 as they prepared for unification and were “confronted with textbooks lauding the praises of the West German state, which only months before had been portrayed as an imperialist oppressor. Normality had been turned on its head.”

The same logic would confuse people all over the formerly communist world. Muscovites had been taught that the greatest crime you could commit was to buy an item at one price and sell it at a profit – only to be told in the 1990s that not only was this legal, but it was the basis of social progress. Russian girls decided their ingrained notions of morality meant nothing any more, and prostitution became an attractive and well-paid career choice.

Peter Schneider’s Berlin Now is for those with a knowledge of the city back then and a curiosity about how Europe’s most anomalous, schizophrenic, stultified metropolis from 1945 to 1989 has been transformed into the continent’s most vibrant capital, yet still with an offbeat edginess and sense of self-denial.

Schneider, a “foreigner” from Freiburg, on West Germany’s western edge, represents a particular class of Berliner: those who chose to come and study in West Berlin because the city’s ambivalent and disputed status released them from the otherwise obligatory military service.

He came, and stayed, and became in many ways the archetypal postwar new Berliner, with a keen eye for the reality behind his adopted home’s famed grumpiness, lack of hospitality, rough street accent and above all Schnauze (literally “snout”, for which our closest equivalent is London cockney “attitude”). Having spent formative years in my own twenties in East Berlin, where Schnauze was at its most acute, I recognise Schneider’s gradual understanding of the city that became identified as the Nazi capital, even though it never gave the Nazis a majority (they went from 2.6 per cent of the national vote in 1928 to 18 per cent in 1930, and at their peak got no more than 28.6 per cent in Berlin).

Berliners took life as a series of hard knocks. During the years of partition the city’s true identity, its accent, its cynical view on life, were sheltered in the East from the draft-dodging, cosmopolitan and insular city in the West. Schneider is nostalgic more for West Berlin than the East he hardly knew, but he has embraced the city’s new incarnation.

Berlin Now is stuffed with glorious anecdotes about the rows over architecture, infrastructure, sexuality and morality in a city forced to weld itself together since 1989. High on its list of worries has been how to cope with an influx of “newbies”: rich West Germans, lured to the nation’s new capital and despised by the natives for diluting its character.

I cannot help being drawn to the story of Wolfgang Thierse, the East German who until 2013 was deputy president of the Bundestag, still living in the now über-trendy Kollwitzplatz by dint of a pre-unification lease. The flat that was my first marital home, with 29 Stasi microphones hidden in the walls (Reuters found them when it renovated the place in the 1990s), was just around the corner.

There is no time like the present to recall the point when, in a brief moment of clarity, even the British rejoiced in the new-found freedoms of their fellow Europeans instead of complaining about them. 

The updated edition of Peter Millar’s “1989: the Berlin Wall – My Part in its Downfall” is published by Arcadia Books (£9.99)

Picture: David Parkin
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The humbling of Theresa May

The Prime Minister has lost all authority. The Tories will remove her as soon as they feel the time is right.

Being politicians of unsentimental, ruthless realism, the Conservatives did not linger in the grief stage of their collective disaster after the general election. Disbelief, too, was commendably brief.

Currently, their priority is to impose some sort of order on themselves. This is the necessary prelude to the wholesale change that most see as the next phase in their attempt at recovery, which they all know is essential to their career prospects – and believe is vital to a country whose alternative prime minister is Jeremy Corbyn.

For that reason, talk of Theresa May enduring as Prime Minister until the end of the Brexit negotiations in two years’ time is the preserve of just a few wishful thinkers. Some sort of calm is being established but the party is far from settled or united; there is a widespread conviction that it cannot be so under the present leader.

Elements of the great change have been executed, as Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, May’s former advisers, will testify.

However, this is only beginning, as shown by the debate in the media about how long May can survive in Downing Street. There is dissatisfaction about elements of her recent reshuffle, but it is quieted because few believe that some of the more contentious appointments or reappointments will last more than a matter of months. Her colleagues are also alarmed by the meal she has made of doing what was supposed to be a straightforward deal with the DUP.

The climate in the party at the moment is one in which everything – jobs, policies and, of course, the leadership – will soon be up for grabs. Debate over “hard” and “soft” Brexits is illusory: anyone who wants to be Conservative leader will need to respect the view of the party in the country, which is that Britain must leave the single market and the customs union to regain control of trade policy and borders. That is one reason why the prospects of David Davis, the Brexit Secretary, are being talked up.

Some of May’s MPs, for all their hard-mindedness about the future, speak of feeling “poleaxed” since the general election. Even before the result changed everything, there was dismay about the bad national campaign; but that, it was felt, could be discussed in a leisurely post-mortem.

Now, instead, it has undermined faith in May’s leadership and credibility. “The social care disaster was key to our defeat,” an MP told me. “It wasn’t just that the policy damaged our core vote, it was the amateurishness of the U-turn.” A more seasoned colleague noted that “it was the first election I’ve fought where we succeeded in pissing off every section of our core vote”.

The limited ministerial reshuffle was inevitable given May’s lack of authority, and summed up her untenability beyond the short term. Most of her few important changes were deeply ill judged: notably the sacking of the skills and apprenticeships minister Robert Halfon, the MP for Harlow in Essex, and a rare Tory with a direct line to the working class; and the Brexit minister David Jones, whose job had hardly begun and whose boss, Davis, was not consulted.

George Bridges, another Brexit minister, who resigned, apparently did so because he felt May had undermined the government’s position in the negotiations so badly, by failing to win the election comprehensively, that he could not face going on.

Much has been made of how Philip Hammond, the Chancellor, was marginalised and briefed against, yet reappointed. Patrick McLoughlin, the party chairman, suffered similarly. Conservative Central Office was largely shut out from the catastrophic campaign, though no one got round to briefing against McLoughlin, who kept his head down – unheard-of conduct by a party chairman in an election.

As a political force, Central Office is for now more or less impotent. It has lost the knack of arguing the case for Conservatism. MPs are increasingly worried that their party is so introspective that it just can’t deal with the way Corbyn is spinning his defeat. “An ugly mood is growing,” one said, “because militant leftism is going unchallenged.” That cannot change until May has gone and the party machine is revived and re-inspired.

***

Nobody in the party wants a general election: but most want a leadership election, and minds are concentrated on how to achieve the latter without precipitating the former. One angry and disillusioned ex-minister told me that “if there were an obvious candidate she’d be shitting herself. But most of us have realised Boris is a wanker, DD isn’t a great communicator and is a bit up himself, Hammond has no charisma, and Amber [Rudd] has a majority of 346.”

On Monday a group of senior ex-ministers met at Westminster to discuss next steps. It was agreed that, with the Brexit talks under way, the most important thing in the interests of restoring order was securing the vote on the Queen’s Speech. Then, May having done her duty and steadied the proverbial ship, the party would manage her dignified and calm evacuation from Downing Street.

Those who agree on this do not always agree on the timing. However, few can make the leap of imagination required to see her addressing the party conference in October, unless to say “Thank you and goodnight” and to initiate a leadership contest. Many would like her out long before then. The only reason they don’t want it this side of securing the Queen’s Speech is that the result, as one put it, would be “chaos”, with a leadership contest resembling “a circular firing squad”.

That metaphor is popular among Tories these days. Others use it to describe the ­apportioning of blame after the election. As well as Timothy and Hill, Lynton Crosby has sustained severe wounds that may prevent the Tories from automatically requesting his services again.

Following the Brexit referendum and Zac Goldsmith’s nasty campaign for the London mayoralty, Crosby has acquired the habit of losing. And then there was Ben Gummer, blamed not only for the social care debacle, but also for upsetting fishermen with a vaguely couched fisheries policy. These failings are becoming ancient history – and the future, not the past, is now the urgent matter – yet some Conservatives still seethe about them despite trying to move on.

“I haven’t heard anyone say she should stay – except Damian Green,” a former minister observed, referring to the new First Secretary of State. Green was at Oxford with May and seems to have earned his job because he is one of her rare friends in high politics. He is regarded as sharing her general lack of conviction.

Older activists recall how the party, in 1974, clung loyally to Ted Heath after he lost one election, and even after he lost a second. Now, deference is over. Most Tory activists, appalled by the handling of the campaign, want change. They would, however, like a contest: annoyed at not having been consulted last time, they intend not to be left silent again.

That view is largely reflected at Westminster, though a few MPs believe a coronation wouldn’t be a problem, “as we don’t want a public examination of the entrails for weeks on end when we need to be shown to be running the country effectively”. Most MPs disagree with that, seeing where a coronation got them last time.

With the summer recess coming up, at least the public’s attention would not be on Westminster if the contest took place mostly during that time: hence the feeling that, once the Queen’s Speech is dealt with, May should announce her intention to leave, in order to have a successor in place before the conference season. It is then up to the party to design a timetable that compresses the hustings between the final two candidates into as short a time as compatible with the democratic process, to get the new leader in place swiftly.

Some letters requesting a contest are said to have reached Graham Brady, the chairman of the 1922 Committee of backbenchers. One MP told me with great authority that there were eight; another, with equal certainty, said 12. Forty-eight are needed to trigger the procedure. However, engineering such a contest is not how most Tories would like to proceed. “She has had an international humiliation,” a former cabinet minister said, “and it is transparently ghastly for her. Then came the [Grenfell Tower] fire. There is no sense our rubbing it in. I suspect she knows she has to go. We admire her for staying around and clearing up the mess in a way Cameron didn’t. But she is a stopgap.”

MPs believe, with some justification, that the last thing most voters want is another general election, so caution is paramount. None doubts that the best outcome for all concerned would be for May to leave without being pushed.

Her tin-eared response to the Grenfell disaster shocked colleagues with its amateurishness and disconnection. “I’m sure she’s very upset by Grenfell,” someone who has known her since Oxford said. “But she is incapable of showing empathy. She has no bridge to the rest of the world other than Philip.” Another, referring to the controversial remark that torpedoed Andrea Leadsom’s leadership ambitions last year, said: “You would get shot for saying it, but not having had children hasn’t helped her when it comes to relating to people. Leadsom was right.”

***

May was quicker off the mark on Monday, issuing a statement condemning the appalling attack at Finsbury Park Mosque swiftly after it occurred, and going there shortly afterwards to meet community leaders. No one could fault her assurance that Muslims must enjoy the same protection under the law as everyone else, or the speed and sincerity with which it was made. She is learning what leadership entails, but too late.

Her administration has become unlucky. This happened to John Major, but, as in his case, the bad luck is partly down to bad decisions; and the bad luck that comes out of the blue simply piles in on top of everything else. Grenfell Tower, lethal and heartbreaking for its victims and their families, was merely more bad luck for the Prime Minister because of her slow-witted response and failure – presumably because shorn of her closest advisers – to do the right thing, and to do it quickly.

But then it turned out that her new chief of staff, Gavin Barwell, had in his previous incarnation as a housing minister received a report on improving fire safety in tower blocks and done nothing about it. That is either more bad luck, or it shows May has dismal judgement in the quality of people she appoints to her close circle. Form suggests the latter.

The idea aired last weekend, that May had “ten days to prove herself”, was a minority view. For most of her colleagues it is too late. It was typical of Boris Johnson’s dwindling band of cheerleaders that they should broadcast a story supporting Davis as an “interim” leader: “interim” until Johnson’s credibility has recovered sufficiently for him to have another pop at the job he covets so much.

They also sought to create the impression that Davis is on manoeuvres, which he resolutely is not. Davis has been around long enough to know that if he wants to succeed May – and his friends believe he does – he cannot be seen to do anything to destabilise her further. It is a lesson lost on Johnson’s camp, whose tactics have damaged their man even more than he was already.

Andrew Mitchell, the former international development secretary and a close ally of Davis, told the Guardian: “. . . it is simply untrue that he is doing anything other
than focusing on his incredibly important brief and giving loyal support to the Prime Minister. Anyone suggesting otherwise is freelancing.” That summed up the contempt Davis’s camp has for Johnson, and it will last long beyond any leadership race.

There is a sense that, in the present febrile climate, whoever is the next leader must be highly experienced. Davis qualifies; so does Hammond, who before his present job was foreign secretary and defence secretary, and who has belatedly displayed a mind of his own since May was hobbled. Hugo Swire, a minister of state under Hammond in the Foreign Office, said of him: “He’s got bottom. He was very good to work for. He is an homme sérieux. I liked him very much and he would calm things down.”

But, as yet, there is no contest. Calls for calm have prevailed, not least thanks to Graham Brady’s steady stewardship of the 1922 Committee, and his success in convincing the more hot-headed of his colleagues to hold their fire. Yet MPs say the 1922 is not what it was 20 years ago: ministers have become used to taking it less seriously.

However, many MPs expect Brady, at a time of their choosing, to go to Downing Street and deliver the poison pill to Theresa May if she is slow to go. Some who know her fear she might take no notice. If she were to play it that way, her end would be unpleasant. As the old saying goes, there is the easy way, and there is the hard way. Remarkably few of her colleagues want to go the hard way but, like everything else in the Tory party at the moment, that could change.

Simon Heffer is a journalist, author and political commentator, who has worked for long stretches at the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. He has written biographies of Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Enoch Powell, and reviews and writes on politics for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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