The fall of the Berlin Wall and the historical sense

The World This Week

From 1987 to 1990 I worked on Channel Four’s international current affairs TV programme, The World This Week, initially as a researcher, then an assistant producer, researching and producing discussion items about the end of the Iran-Iraq War, perestroika and glasnost, the Tiananmen Square protests and many more of the major international events of the period. Right at the end of my time there I produced weekly discussion items about Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait and then the First Gulf War (August 1990 to February 1991).

I specialised in political events in Asia – from Baghdad to Beijing – so it was my colleagues who covered the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Union, but I watched with informed interest, and was occasionally drafted in to help research and produce news and discussion items as events unfolded.

What struck me then, as I watched the wall come down and thousands then hundreds of thousands travel into the West, and has stayed with me ever since, was how, in just a few days, the entire era of the Cold War into which I’d been born and come to political consciousness, was made redundant overnight.

The Cold War atmosphere

My generation had worried about nuclear Armageddon, about the siting of cruise missiles at Greenham Common, about Reagan with his finger on the button. We had protested on behalf of umpteen dissidents in the Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc. How we celebrated when the dissident poet Irina Ratushinskaya was allowed to leave for the West, or signed petitions to free Andrei Sakharov. How Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s brave example shone to us like a beacon of integrity.

Suddenly, at a stroke, that entire world with all its braveries and defiances, vanished. Suddenly, they in the East could travel over here and/or enjoy Western freedoms and lifestyles to their heart’s content. And they did. Cars, TVs, fridges, rock music, drugs and prostitution flourished. Within a month MacDonalds had opened branches in Moscow and had plans for all the other capitals of Eastern Europe. Mediterranean beaches were suddenly packed with newly rich Russians, covered in bling, trophy wives on their arms, arriving on vast super-yachts as vulgar as any Greek millionaire’s.

The Cold War made stars of dissidents

The cruel oppressions of the communist system had given its writers and artists a peculiar prominence. The best of them could hardly help becoming involved in human rights movements or writing poems and plays and novels which dealt with Weighty Issues of Freedom and Human Dignity. For us in the West, they were not only Nobel-Prize-winning symbols of protest, but their writings had a Seriousness and Weightiness unavailable to us in the West, who were drowning in the thousand lifestyle choices of consumer capitalism. While we lay on some Greek beach worrying about our tans, Václav Havel or Andrei Sakharov were defending Human Dignity.

But when the wall came down, at a stroke ‘they’ turned into ‘us’ – just more people adrift in the vast lifestyle choices of consumer capitalism. The privileged platforms they’d enjoyed by virtue of their persecution evaporated. They stopped being Representatives of their Oppressed People, and turned into old bores.

The fall of Solzhenitsyn

This had all been anticipated in the fate of Solzhenitsyn, who was the Nelson Mandela of his day, a world-bestriding symbol of One Man Standing Up To Tyranny. Except that when he was booted out of the Soviet Union in 1974, and arrived in leafy Vermont, he turned out to be far from the enlightened progressive his Western supporters had hoped for. He turned out to be a deeply conservative Russian nationalist, of a rather scary kind. He turned out to be a grumpy old man who hated mini-skirts and pop music and fast food and 24-hour TV, loathed it, despised everything the West had to offer, and wanted to be left alone in his remote forest to get on with writing his multi-volume epic about the Russian Revolution.

So when the Berlin Wall came down, I realised the entire political structure I had been brought up in was disappearing before my eyes. In a generation’s time every book produced between 1917 and 1989 was going to require footnotes or an introduction explaining what the Cold War was, why there had been this permanent looming sense of fear about nuclear Armageddon, why the fear of your country turning into a police state was no empty rhetoric because there were police states just a few hundred miles away, and who these heroes from the East were. All of it would rapidly stop making any sense, meaning anything or, ultimately, mattering…

The indifference of children

And I was right. My children (born 1997 and 2000) have no idea what I’m on about, no sense of what communism really meant, no sense of how creepy and numbing a real surveillance society really was, no sense of what human rights mean.

It isn’t even ancient history to them – that would imply that it means something, they learned it at school maybe, and all it needs is a bit of digging up and refreshing. It’s worse than that. It just doesn’t exist for them. It’s nothing. The history and politics and endless arguments about communism, socialism and capitalism which I engaged with throughout school and university, which won me awards for political essays or debating society prizes – it’s all gone, vanished as if it never was.

When I reread Solzhenitsyn or Kundera it is like revisiting the lost world of my childhood, the houses where I grew up and which have been demolished to make way for estates or blocks of flats, the grammar school which became a comprehensive and then an academy, where everyone who taught me is long retired or dead.

And I feel like my entire past has disappeared, has turned to smoke and been blown away, and that I am a ghost, still applying the old categories – communism, capitalism, police state, human rights, dissident – to a world which has moved on. I feel like I have been run over by History.

How history works

Maybe that sounds too dramatic. Maybe it’s more accurate to say, that now I feel I know how History works. It confirms something I’d observed before, in other contexts – that old political or cultural or philosophical ideas are rarely decisively disproved – they just become irrelevant to the needs of contemporary society and so disappear from sight.

The student in Foyles

Decades ago, around 2000, I had a project to reread the French theorists of the 1960s and 70s. I ploughed through all of Roland Barthes, tried some Deleuze and Guattari, struggled with Jacques Derrida. I was in Foyles bookshop in London which was still, in those days, a disorganised rabbit warren staffed by poor students, and I came across a typically hairy, bearded student supervising the POLITICAL THEORY section and I asked him if they had any books by Louis Althusser, the notorious French Marxist philosopher. And he replied: ‘Why do you want to read him? He’s just a boring old Marxist,’ – which obviously wasn’t any kind of intellectual rebuttal of Althusser’s elaborate structuralist rereadings of Marx but which made an eloquent point. Old political and philosophical theories are rarely disproved or rebutted; they just become unfashionable, and then irrelevant, and then are forgotten. Until, decades, or sometimes centuries later, when they may be rediscovered and revived, given a shower, a shave and presented in a new suit, if some or other aspect of them seems, now, to address current concerns.

The past is an antique shop

The past – the intellectual and cultural past – is like a vast antique shop, an enormous old curiosity shop, in which hundreds of thousands of obsessives and collectors are rummaging through vast piles of dusty rubbish. In among all the tat and kitsch, and broken furniture, you occasionally find real gems, treasures which suddenly spring to life and explain current problems or anxieties. No-one can predict how or why.

I remember when the writings of Solzhenitsyn and Havel and Kundera were telling us urgent truths about our present. Then all of a sudden they became irrelevant. What help could Charter 77 or Solidarity or Ivan Denisovich give us in a world where state monopolies were sold off to a new class of post-communist oligarchs, where East European mafias established networks of people and drug smuggling across Europe, and where the Eastern nations became prone, not to left-wing tyranny but to the right-wing nationalism which has become more and more powerful?

None. Their individual bravery may remain inspiring. And their writings have historical interest and, in the case of the best literary writing, enduring beauty i.e. psychological penetration and beauty of composition and shape.

But even as I watched the joyful crowds smash down the Berlin Wall with hammers and then with big industrial diggers, I knew I was watching the destruction of an entire mindset, and entire culture, an era of cultural history, and that at the same time as opening up political and economic freedoms from hundreds of millions of oppressed people, it was also demolishing the framework which gave meaning and urgency to so many of the books and films and conversations of my youth, and not only mine – of hundreds of millions of other people. All those urgent thoughts and discussions became ashes overnight.

And then those ashes became invisible, and my children don’t even know they’re there. And that is how History works. By the obliteration of the past.

What historians miss about the past

Officials paid by the state or, at one remove, by universities, are continually categorising and measuring and recording events political and cultural. They create headings and sub-headings as in a thousand official documents and PowerPoint slides and web pages. Anyone can google ‘Berlin Wall’ and read all the facts.

But the atmosphere, the mood, how it felt, the pressure of ideas and issues as presented day-in, day out by TV, radio, newspapers, magazines, books and films and conversations with friends (and enemies) and as they bore down on all of us – the real lived experience, of the external world and inside our imaginations – that is what has been lost, that is what is gone for good, that is what no amount of introductions and footnotes and scholarly exegesis can ever recover.

The historical sense

And it is an understanding of this sense – this sense of how events create a mental atmosphere which bears down on everyone living at a particular time – which I try to reconstruct, which I try to understad, which I try to feel, in my own reading of history.

Understanding that people did not act in 1939 or 1918 or 1870 or 1848 or 1789, with our sense of priorities and rights and expectations, and certainly with no knowledge of what the future held. They acted in the light of the imaginative and cultural atmosphere which made up their entire world.

And I think the true historical sense is the ability to feel your way back into those mindsets or moods or atmospheres, and try to understand what they felt to be at stake. Not what we, now, know to have been at stake. And above all, not to judge them by what we pride ourselves on being our own vastly superior liberal progressive politically correct views.

Back then, there, in Rome in 44 BC, what was at stake when the conspirators decided to assassinate Julius Caesar? What was it that forced some of them to do it, against their wills? What were the forces bigger than their individual lives which they thought were compelling them?

What mattered most to rulers who organised the first crusade? What forces were they struggling to master, what goals were they striving to achieve? What cultural and religious and political assumptions did they all share – assumptions and values which have since evaporated and are so hard to recapture and re-imagine.

Maybe what I’m trying to say is that, having lived through the utter evaporation of a huge, global, political and cultural mindset – and appreciating it for what it was – has helped me understand how quickly and how totally other mindsets have a) dominated their age, to the suppression of all other possibilities – and then b) suddenly evaporated overnight, leaving the survivors blinking in amazement.

The collapse of the English Republic

Something very similar must have happened with the swift collapse of the English Republic after Oliver Cromwell died in 1658. A series of events was set in motion which gathered speed till nobody felt in control – his son Richard succeeded to the role of Protector, prompting rebel groups to rise up, while political factions began conspiring with renewed hope for the return of the king. Political chaos at the centre (London) led General Monck, head of the Parliamentarian army in Scotland, to march south in order to restore order and issue an invitation to Charles II to return. And within a few months Charles was back, marching triumphantly from Dover to London. The monarchy, the House of Lords and the Bishops were all restored, amid scenes of rejoicing and jubilation. Just like the fall of the Berlin Wall.

The Puritans, the Roundheads, the revolutionaries, must have looked on not just in horror but in bewilderment. The enormous cause, justified by God, to which they had devoted their lives, for which they had fought two English civil wars and countless campaigns in Ireland and Wales, had not just been defeated, it had evaporated almost overnight.

Die-hards lingered on, and the consequences of the revolution played out in unexpected ways for the next thirty years or so, but the core of the Good Old Cause disappeared like dew in the sunshine, and their children grew up without a clue what their parents got together to furtively discuss late into the night – the tribulations of the 1620s, and Charles I’s suspension of Parliament, and the arguments over Ship Money, and the heroism of John Hampden blah blah blah.

The whirligig of time

All swept away in the whirligig of time, overnight shunted off to become part of the vast Curiosity Shop of History, where antiquarians and collectors of curios get on with their quiet fossicking, harmless rummagers, not bothering anyone, until, now and then, some previously neglected part of the past, some gem from its vast array of ideas and theories, once again becomes useful, is dusted off and presented to the world to help explain this or that contemporary issue and anxiety, becomes part of the living fabric of contemporary debate and imagination.


P.S. Milan Kundera on the withering of communism

After writing the above I came across this passage in Milan Kundera’s novel, Ignorance:

Josef recalled a very old idea of his, which at the time he had considered to be blasphemous: that adherence to Communism had nothing to do with Marx and his theories; it was simply that the period gave people a way to fulfil the most diverse psychological needs: the need to be non-conformist; or the need to obey; or the need to punish the wicked; or the need to be useful; or the need to march forward into the future with youth; or the need to have a big family around you.

In good spirits, the dog barked and Josef said to himself: the reason people are quitting Communism today is not that their thinking has changed or undergone a shock, but that Communism no longer provides a way to look nonconformist or obey or punish the wicked or be useful or march forward with youth or have a big family around you. The Communist creed no longer answers any need. It has become so unusable that everyone drops it easily, never even noticing.
(Ignorance by Milan Kundera, page 154)

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