1989 – A Young Reporter in Berlin

By Daniel Johnson

The Editor leaned back in his chair and drew deeply on his cigar. ‘Nothing ever happens in Germany,’ he said. ‘You’ve got three months to prove to me that we need a bureau in Bonn. Otherwise we’ll close it and make do with a stringer –
like The Times.’
It was 1987 and I was a young leader writer on the Daily Telegraph, with no experience of reporting and few qualifications for the job of foreign correspondent. I did, however, speak German, having lived in Berlin for a year as a Shakespeare scholar in 1979-80. So I packed my bags, moved to Bonn and within a few days found myself covering a story that really excited the Editor, who only really liked stories from Germany that contained the word ‘Nazi’ in the first paragraph.
What saved me was the death of Rudolf Hess, the last of the Nazi war criminals languishing in Spandau Prison. Was it suicide – or murder? I chased the coffin across Germany, searched for the Hess family grave in a Munich cemetery by candlelight, and ended up in the sleepy Bavarian village of Wunsiedel. It was a foreign correspondent’s dream: a murder mystery involving Hitler’s deputy, the Cold War and jackbooted young neo-Nazis marching across the Bavarian countryside.
Next up was a villain of the Red rather than the Brown variety, and this time very much alive: Erich Honecker. Making his first visit to the Federal Republic, the East German leader observed that socialism and capitalism were like fire and water. It evidently occurred neither to Honecker nor to his host, Chancellor Helmut Kohl, that within two years his people would have decided to take him at his word – and opt for anything but his brand of socialism. Dessicated but still as dangerous as in 1961, when he built the Berlin Wall, Honecker had by the late 1980s fostered a cult of personality as grotesque as any in the Communist world. In one issue of the official Communist organ Neues Deutschland devoted to the 1989 Leipzig trade fair, there was a photograph of the party boss on virtually every page. Honecker’s hubris was swiftly followed by nemesis in a form that almost nobody on either side of the Wall expected.
Because I was new to the scene, I was perhaps better placed than old hands to notice the tectonic plates shifting. It began with Franz Josef Strauss’s visit to Gorbachev in December 1987. Though he was by far the most popular figure in both East and West Germany, the Soviet leader remained an enigma. The swashbuckling Strauss (who had fought for the Wehrmacht on the Eastern Front) piloted his own plane to Moscow, impressed Gorbachev and returned with hints that the Soviets would like to do serious business with the Federal Republic. I wrote a piece for the Telegraph predicting that German reunification could happen much sooner than anybody was expecting. Nobody believed me.
I was able to observe another key moment in the process, however, when I accompanied Helmut Kohl to Moscow in October 1988. Two images stuck in my mind. One was the sight of hundreds of so-called Volga Germans returning ‘home’ to a country from which their ancestors had emigrated in the time of Catherine the Great. Kohl may have hoped to rejuvenate the ageing indigenous German population by bribing the Kremlin to let these ethnic German Aussiedler emigrate; if so, he failed. But the other abiding memory of that trip is even more revealing: Alfred Herrhausen, the head of the Deutsche Bank, who was there to offer the disintegrating Soviet economy huge state-backed soft loans. He allowed me to interview him with an FT colleague in his lavish Moscow HQ. The visionary banker was already paving the way for the deal that would set the seal on reunification when Kohl and Gorbachev met in the Caucasus in 1990. By then, however, Herrhausen was dead: killed by a terrorist bomb, the last bloody stunt of the Baader-Meinhof gang.
In the summer of 1989, the Editor asked me to cover Eastern Europe, so I bade farewell to Bonn, Le Carré’s small town in Germany, and returned to London. By November that year, East Germany was in turmoil. Fresh from covering the overthrow of Communist regimes in Poland and Hungary, I begged to go back to Berlin. I arrived just as events reached their climax on November 9. At the celebrated televised press conference given that day by Günter Schabowski, the East Berlin party secretary, I was fortunate to have the opportunity to play my part.
At 6.54pm an Italian journalist, Riccardo Ehrman, asked Schabowski about the new travel law. Schabowski announced that the Politburo had just decided to permit East Germans to leave the DDR. Visas would be issued ‘without delay’. Another journalist asked when this new law would come into effect. ‘Immediately,’ replied Schabowski. Several journalists ran off to report the news.
All this happened in a few minutes. It was now 6.58pm; my turn to ask a question, and I asked the most obvious one that came to mind: ‘Herr Schabowski, was wird mit der Berliner Mauer jetzt geschehen?’ (‘What will happen to the Berlin Wall now?’) Hundreds of thousands of Germans on both sides of the Wall were watching. Schabowski looked nonplussed. He announced that this would be the last question. He repeated my question to himself, adding that ‘the porosity of the Wall from our side does not yet and exclusively resolve the question of the meaning of this fortified state border of the DDR.’ He stumbled over his words. He waffled about peace and disarmament. But he did not answer the question because he had no answer. A Wall between two halves of a country could have no ‘meaning’ if the people were allowed to travel freely. It was over. And by the time Schabowski had finished at exactly seven o’clock, everybody knew it. The pfennig had dropped. That was the moment when the Cold War ended. It was the moment when the Wall – and the Iron Curtain that divided Europe – became history. And it was the moment when Germany became again ‘one people’.
Daniel Johnson
is the Editor of Standpoint, a monthly cultural and
political magazine.