In 1989, the world watched as the Berlin Wall – a symbol of oppression at its most blatant – was brought down. The atmosphere was euphoric and everyone who saw those scenes knew that they were watching history being made.
Peter Millar is a British journalist, who had spent several years living in East Berlin, and who found himself literally caught in the middle of the celebrations, stuck at Checkpoint Charlie, trying to make sense of what was happening, while piecing together a story for The Sunday Times.
In this book, he describes the events that led to the wall being built, and what life was like for those on the Eastern side of it. People suddenly found themselves separated from family members, or forcibly ejected from their homes. Living conditions were poor, and the economy crumbled. Unlike most journalists who reported on the Wall and the division of a country, Millar has an on-the-ground view of events, as he lived through them personally. The book also talks about how he initially fell into journalism (almost by accident), and worked in Fleet Street in the 1970s, before he became a foreign correspondent, and found a local public house in East Berlin named Metzer Eck. There, he made some good friends and uncovered a lot of local opinion about life under the rule of the Soviet Union.
The political blunders and deliberate misunderstandings that led up to the demolition of the Berlin Wall are well explained and interesting. Millar discusses how life changed for people on both sides, when Berlin became one city again. He also relates how, some years later, he went to look at his own file kept by the Stasi Police (who spied on the citizens of East Berlin), and discovered who, if any, of his friends had fed information about him to the Stasi. This chapter was the most chilling for me. It was commonplace for microphones to be hidden in the walls of people’s apartments, and for certain citizens to be kept under surveillance from dawn to dusk. A day out for Millar with his wife, when they did nothing more than go to a beach for a picnic, is described in minute-by-minute detail.
Millar is an engaging narrator, with a wry wit. However, his good natured sense of humour never lets the reader forget that this is a story of oppression and dictatorship; that the people described lived their lives under constant watch and distrust. It is written in a chatty tone, but it is about a very serious subject. Highly informative, well researched and extremely interesting.