In the late late 80s I ran the London office of the Internationale Gesellschaft für Menschenrechte (IGFM or the International Society for Human Rights) a German headquartered group which focused heavily on helping the victims of communism. We publicised prisoners of conscience in the gulags, provided material aid to dissidents and smuggled samizdat information out of the East as well as printing and distributing the same behind the Iron Curtain. Apparently, according to various left-wing publications, we were a front for the CIA/BND/SIS, if we were they certainly got their money’s worth. Partly because of my background in this world, David Hart, the maverick Thatcher confidante and fixer, hired me as a foreign policy adviser.
One day in October 1989 Hart summoned me to his adjoining office. “Errrraaahhh, you speak German don’t you Paul?” he informed from behind a puff of cigar smoke wafting above his grand office desk. “I want you to go to East Berlin and find out what is really going on, Margaret doesn’t trust the Foreign Office reports.” So it was that I found myself on a flight to Frankfurt the next day, equipped only with schoolboy German, with instructions to hook up with one of Hart’s contacts in Berlin (ex-British Army and now a chauffeur.) In Frankfurt I bumped into someone I knew vaguely via IGFM, an American, who wanted to come with me to Berlin. He wore a trench-coat and could not have looked more like a CIA agent if he had tried. We hired a top-of-the-range Audi and decided to drive via Hanover across the inner German border along the West-East Berlin corridor. We sped along the route unsure if there was a speed limit and certain that whatever it was the East German police would not be able to catch us.
The year before, in 1988, I had been on a “Die Mauer muss weg!” demonstration that had ended up in a pitched street battle between leftists and anti-communists with the West Berlin police looking on benignly as we fought it out in front of Checkpoint Charlie, where the concerned East German border guards had taken off the safeties on their machine guns lest our rioting crossed into their territory. Now the atmosphere was very different. I had no trouble travelling into East Berlin in the back of the chauffeur driven Mercedes Hart had arranged for me. My American friend decided to go his own way.
The Western side of the Wall had a carnival atmosphere, the TV news cameras were in situ at all the main points. I was staying in the Kempinski Hotel Bristol and the bar of the famous luxury hotel was full of American news anchors. In the day I would be driving around East Berlin’s Soviet-style housing blocks locating dissidents and student activists of the opposition and at night I would be drinking with P. J. O’Rourke. It was like a Le Carre novel and I was, in short, having the time of my life aged 22.
A week into November the sense in Berlin was the wall was coming down one way or another. By November 8 West Berliners had begun physically attacking the wall, I bought a pathetically small hammer to become a Mauerspechte (wall pecker). Steel reinforced concrete is tough to break. When I rested, eager hands took the hammer to the task. By the night of the 9th the Wall was coming down and the checkpoints were already overrun with awestruck Ossis being welcomed with open arms.
David Hart arrived in Berlin, eager to sniff the air and I was dispatched across the open border again to bring back someone to give him on the ground intelligence. In a grim concrete block early the next morning I explained in broken German to a confused student leader of the nascent East Berlin Young Christian Democrats that I wanted him to come with me in the limo downstairs to meet my boss in West Berlin. He took some convincing and only relented when I told him what he had to say would be passed on to Margaret Thatcher. Probably.
“So this is capitalism ?” said my new friend, feeling the leather seats of the Mercedes as we glided through the checkpoint to the Kempinski. We sat down to breakfast in Hart’s suite in what was perhaps the most luxurious place for a 100 kilometre or more radius. When the liveried waiters unveiled breakfast from under a silver cloche I could see, even through my epic hangover, that the abundance of breakfast coffee, juices, meats, eggs, cheeses and patisseries was a shocking abundance to our guest from East Berlin. Hart took a puff from his cigar, spread his arms expansively and said: “Welcome to freedom.”