In China, the Communists had just massacred the students in Tienanmen Square and won themselves another quarter-century in power. On the other hand, the Poles voted overwhelmingly for Solidarity in June, and by September Hungary had opened its border with the West. But it was the fall of the Berlin Wall on 9 November, 1989, that really opened the flood-gates.
I had been spending a lot of time in the old Soviet Union since 1987, when I visited Moscow after a five-year absence and found the place unrecognisable. People had lost their fear: in the kitchens, and sometimes in the streets, they were saying what they really thought. It was the first time I had gone to Russia without feeling that I had left Planet Earth.
So I went home and told my friendly neighbourhood network that something very big was going to happen. I didn’t know exactly what, but if they gave me a travel budget I’d spend a couple of weeks in the Soviet bloc interviewing people every three months, and when the big thing happened I’d give them an instant radio series on it. Networks had more money and more nerve in those days, so they said yes.
By 1989 I had kind of worked out what was going to happen, but I didn’t know if it could all be done non-violently. The signs were good – I had spent much of the summer in the Soviet Union, and the first big demos had already happened peacefully in Moscow – but where and when the dam would finally break was still anybody’s guess. Then in early September I flew from Moscow to Hungary for a quick look around on my way home.
On the way in to Budapest from the airport, the streets were full of abandoned East German cars, mostly pathetic Trabis that any sensible person would abandon. But still….
The taxi driver explained that Hungary had opened its border with Austria. East Germans were coming down in droves across the “fraternal” Communist country of Czechoslovakia (no visa needed), to travel onwards to Austria and thence to West Germany. So I had the taxi take me up to the Young Pioneer camp in the hills behind Buda that was serving as a transit camp.
Every few minutes a taxi would pull up and East Germans – usually a young couple – would get out. Every hour an enormous coach would drive up and take them all off to the West. And after an hour or so interviewing them as they arrived at the gate, I knew what was going to happen next.
They didn’t see themselves as refugees fleeing to start a new life in the West. They were taking advantage of an opportunity to see the West, and they’d be safe there if things went badly wrong in East Germany, but most fully expected to be home again, in a democratic East Germany, within a year.
When I got on the plane home, I started writing a piece in which I compared East Germany’s Communist regime to a Walt Disney character who had run off a cliff – but wouldn’t actually start to fall until he looked down. And as soon as we landed, I booked a ticket back to Berlin for late October. I was just in time for a great party.
What astonished everyone was the way the old system just rolled over and died. This amazing new technique of non-violent revolution had been working well in Asia since 1986 – the Philippines, Thailand, South Korea, Bangladesh – but taking down a COMMUNIST regime seemed like a much more dangerous and doubtful enterprise, especially after Tienanmen Square.
The party was so great because most people were enormously relieved that it had been so easy. They were fed up to the back teeth with the petty-minded, boring Communist bullies who dominated their lives, and they were sick of being poor, but nobody wanted to die in an old-fashioned revolution. Yet the Communist ideology OBLIGED the believers to launch a civil war rather than surrender power peacefully.
So when it turned out that non-violence worked even against Communists, at least in Europe, people quite rightly felt that they had been very lucky. And as a bonus, the threat of a nuclear World War Three went away. The old NATO alliance still trundles on a quarter-century later, picking up work wherever it can, but it has become the sound of one hand clapping.
There were some problems later on in places like Romania and Russia, but it was a radical, amazingly peaceful revolution in a part of the world that was not best known for its ability to change peacefully. So once the celebrations died down in Berlin I rented a car and drove off to Warsaw to see how the new post-Communist government was doing in Poland.
I parked outside a government ministry right on Nowy Swiat, and while I was inside interviewing the minister somebody broke into my car and stole my bag, including all the interview tapes from Berlin and the piece of the Wall I was bringing home to my daughter. The soldiers who were marching back and forth inside the fence saw it happen, but pointed out that stopping thieves was not their job.
So I reported the theft to the police for insurance purposes, and explained to them that if they spotted a well-dressed man who was limping badly, it was probably the thief. The stolen bag contained the suit I wore for interviewing presidents, but I had mistakenly packed two left dress shoes with it. They didn’t laugh – they had been trained by the Communists, after all – so I drove off down to Prague for the next revolution.
This article is somewhat longer than usual, in case you want to use it as a weekend feature, but it cuts down to the same length as usual. To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3, 11 and 12. (“So…yes”; and “The party…clapping”)