I was among the last generation of people whose politics were shaped by World War II and its aftermath, the long struggle between the USSR and its allies and the USA and its allies. Unsurprisingly given my youthful Friedmanite views, I was a strong anti-communist.
While I was on my student backpacking trip around Europe in late 1985 and early 1986 I decided that I had to see Berlin, the place that more than anywhere in Europe had cold war tensions built into – physically, politically, and emotionally – its daily life. So my apolitical travelling companion and I split for a few days; he went skiing and I went to check out communism first hand.
My first impression, from the East German border police, was surprisingly favourable. They boarded the train to check our travel documents, and (as I recorded in a letter back to my family in Melbourne) offered a greeting at the start and a grin at the end. By the standards of passport checkers around the world, they provided an above-average experience.
Technologically I was less impressed. While we were still on the same train, the ride became much worse due to ‘rotten track’ (as I called it). I was bouncing from side to side. The Mercedes and BMWs I’d seen on West German roads were replaced with Trabants. But I enjoyed the countryside and eventually we made it to West Berlin.
The next morning I went on a guided tour of the city. On our journey was Potsdamer Platz, ‘once the centre of Berlin, now desolate, used by tour bus operators as the place to come and look over the wall’. We went into one of the towers that let Westerners see into the East, and as we looked into the ‘death zone’ – the large space between the main wall at the West Berlin border and the fence around populated East Berlin – quite a few people started to cry. Travelling around Europe you can see much evidence of historical cruelty, but here was a still-functioning system for killing people trying to move about their own city.
My next tour was of East Berlin. The border experience this time was less pleasant; it took us about half an hour to get through Checkpoint Charlie. An East German tour guide got on to ensure that we received the official line. An East Berlin postcard to my parents (stamps with Karl Marx on them) recorded that I was not pleased at having to walk through snow to look at the Soviet War Memorial. My general impression was of drabness – only when it’s not there do you notice how much colour advertising creates in a city – but some credit for trying to reconstruct historic buildings. Of course, we were only seeing what they wanted us to see.
The most bizarre moment occurred as we were walking back to the bus after a cafe stop (a cafe for Westerners, accepting only Deutschmarks – the communists were always short on hard currency). I must have asked the tour guide a question about East Berlin’s telecommunications tower, and she asked me if it could be seen from West Berlin. She was a Berlin tour guide, I’d been there 24 hours, and she’s asking me?? A small absurdity to add to the many much larger ones of life in a divided city.
My letters of the time were pessimistic about Berlin ever being re-united, though I did note that East Berlin’s roads, which were much wider than needed for the light traffic, would turn out to be well designed if the city every became one again. As it turned out, they were needed.
The peaceful collapse of communism in central Europe (with the partial exception of Romania) was by far the most exciting and wonderful thing that has happened in my political life. I was over-joyed that the Berlin Wall was gone and Berliners were free to move about their city again. But I was also glad that I had seen it before it went, and had just a glimpse of life under communism.