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A few years later, I found that my immersion in German thought was unexpectedly useful in my new career of journalism. I was fluent enough in the language and politics to be dispatched to Bonn by the editor of the Daily Telegraph, Max Hastings. "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."

Once installed in Bonn, I gave the Telegraph what it wanted. Stories about Germany rarely made news in Britain unless they contained the word "Nazi" in the first paragraph, so I was fortunate that Rudolf Hess, the last of the Nazi war criminals languishing in Spandau Prison, died within weeks of my arrival. The Hess story was a foreign correspondent's dream: a mysterious suicide — or was it murder? — involving Hitler's deputy, Cold War diplomacy and jackbooted young neo-Nazis in Bavaria. I made the front page and the story had more legs than a centipede. 

Much more important was the visit that autumn of Erich Honecker, the desiccated but still dangerous East German leader. Having scarcely altered his attitude to the West since he had built the Wall in 1961, Honecker had trouble adjusting to the Gorbachev policies of glasnost and perestroika. His motto was that capitalism and communism were like "fire and ice" and his guards would still shoot those so desperate to escape his system that they tried to cross the Wall. Some 5,000 people tried to cross it during its 28-year existence, of whom up to 200 were killed. But the sad truth was that the Wall had done the job it was meant to do: between 1949, when the division of Germany was formalised, and the erection of the Wall in 1961, some 3.5 million people had voted with their feet: an exodus of the brightest and best that the communist German Democratic Republic could not afford. Honecker, the jailer of a third of the German people, pretended that the Wall was a defence against renascent Nazism in the West. The consequence of Honecker's visit was a further normalisation of the division of Germany, at a time when the division of Europe was no longer so rigid. Honecker's detachment from reality was demonstrated by the cult of personality that he permitted: in an edition of the party newspaper Neues Deutschland during the Leipzig trade fair in 1989, his photograph appeared on almost every page. Honecker's hubris was swiftly followed by an unexpected nemesis: within months he had fallen, and the Wall he had built, which seemed so permanent, outlasted him only by weeks.

By the end of 1987 the Bonn bureau was secure, and it was safe to settle down there. Because I was new to the scene, I was perhaps better placed than old hands to notice the political tremors that heralded the revolutionary earthquake to come. In particular, I began to question some of the assumptions of the German political class and, by extension, of the diplomats and journalists in Bonn. One of their assumptions was that German reunification would not happen in our lifetime, because it implied nothing short of an end to the division of Europe. That division, and the ideological gulf that separated the two halves of the continent, was the fundamental axiom of post-war politics. It was literally unthinkable that the process of historical change could suddenly accelerate. But history was not just something that happened in the past: the dispensation that everybody now took for granted had only been created over time. 

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Michael WogeAnonymous
November 23rd, 2009
12:11 AM
You write :"Another journalist (it is unclear who) again asked when the new rules came into force." oh,no -it s very clear : Peter Brinkmann from BILD, the German tabloid. (with engl. transl.)

Cosmin Pascu
November 10th, 2009
11:11 PM
An outstanding article on what has been one of the darkest realities of the oppressive rule of human socialism and communist propaganda. Cosmin Pascu Editor of

Pedro Erik
November 10th, 2009
10:11 AM
Great article! I hope that today cast light to our future, because we live difficult days, socialism is still strong in our schools and in our politicians. Best, Pedro Erik

Claude Adams
November 9th, 2009
8:11 PM
A footnote to Johnson's moving story: I was in the room myself that evening, as a correspondent for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, and I was the only journalist who pursued Schabowksi to his waiting limousine. We had a brief conversation, in English, that went like this. It is verbatim. ME: "Mr. Schabowski, are you really saying that the Wall is now open?" HIM: "We intend to give the people who are in this situation, and which believe that they can't find another way, relief. And on the other hand it is relief for our friends in Czechoslovakia." ME: "Aren't you afraid that there will be a huge exodus as a result of this?" HIM: "Nobody can say what will be the result of this step, you see, but we try to do the best for the people." With that, Schabowski ducked into his waiting car, and left. In fact, of course, the "people" reacted by doing what was best for themselves, and Schabowski and his crew were consigned to the dustbin of history.

November 9th, 2009
5:11 PM
Thank you, sir! Were it not for you, I would still be living in my small village outside Moscow, sleeping each night on a straw mat in a mud hut with too many fleas and too little wood to create heat in this bitterly cold Russian winters, with only a used bottle filled with locally made Vodka for comfort.

Jason Plessas
October 31st, 2009
10:10 AM
Interesting article so far(one minor correction: it was Walter Ulbricht, not Honecker, who erected the Wall in 1961. Honecker didn't become dicator of the GDR 'til 1971, although I think it was he that initiated the 'shoot to kill' policy against attempted defectors) Mr Barbieri's words above are beautiful btw.

Fabio P. Barbieri
October 30th, 2009
12:10 PM
By the summer of 1940, liberty in Europe was confined to the besieged British archipelago; elsewhere it had gone down in flames, except for the remote vastness of North America. People seriously believed that history had condemned what they saw as the West's brief flirtation with representative government. Within fifty years, liberty and representative government were to reach into the most remote corner of Europe and become living realities over vast swathes of the rest of the world. We have seen it happen; and while it is always true that the price of liberty is eternal vigilance, nevertheless I do not fear for it, myself. The history of liberty is only just begun.

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