It’s taken me 20 years to get round to it, but I’ve finally taken a hammer and chisel to the Berlin Wall.
It should have happened back in 1989, of course, but I was characteristically late on the scene when the Wall came down. While my colleague Brian Hanrahan was famously clambering on top of it in the first hours after it ceased to divide Germany, doing the ultimate piece to camera, I was struggling to reach Berlin from the depths of Poland. The journey took 24 hours.
Even then my travails weren’t over. While I was being interviewed live for that evening’s BBC news with the Brandenburg Gate behind me, a careless television engineer pulled the plug on me. So, in front of the largest television news audience in British history, I fizzled out in a few lines of white dots and the news presenter in London, John Humphrys, used the deadliest formula in broadcasting: ‘Well, we seem to have lost John Simpson there…’
I felt awful. I had fought, cajoled, bribed and shouted my way across Eastern Europe, in order to be humiliated in view of a huge audience. As I came away from the live point, shattered, one of my colleagues said sympathetically, ‘We’re going for a wander along the Wall — do you want to come?’
During the 28 years the Wall had existed, the western side had become completely overgrown, the home to a wide variety of wild animals and birds. And when I saw the happiness on everyone’s faces as they stood watching the younger and more energetic spirits bashing away at the Wall with hammers and shouting to the people on the other side, my gloom disappeared. Soon I was shouting and peering through the gaps which were starting to appear. But I didn’t wield a mallet myself.
Most of the Wall has simply vanished. The fragments, preserved like relics in little blocks of transparent plastic, were sold to tourists for foolish amounts of money. Just a few stretches have been left where they were. Some sections were airlifted to Britain, France and America and put on show.
And one section was bought by the Westin Grand hotel in East Berlin. I used to stay there in the pre-1989 days. It was dingy and dark. The rooms were bugged, and men in secret police suits sat in the lobby, making a Milchkaffee last a long time.
Nowadays the Grand is bright and cheerful, there is real cream in the cakes, and the staff are pleasant and helpful. And there’s a piece of the Wall standing outside the main entrance, looking as though it’s under arrest, with people sitting at tables around it drinking coffee. The hotel keeps a helmet, a hammer, a chisel and some goggles behind the bar, so you can bash away at your own section of the Wall and collect the bits for a keepsake. I couldn’t resist, of course.
Nowadays you come across a certain amount of nostalgia for the old East Germany. I’ve even felt it myself. But in reality it was a deeply unattractive place. The secret police didn’t just watch people, they beat them up, forced confessions from them, ruined their lives. They only stopped guillotining enemies of the state in 1968, and after that they shot them. Life was full of shortages – except for the politicians and the secret police.
In order to get from the West to the Grand Hotel in Friedrichstrasse, you had to go through Checkpoint Charlie. That sounds exciting and dangerous today, then it was just scary. On the Western side, everything seemed normal and safe but as you passed into East Berlin, a huge camera lens was trained on you, searching out your thoughts and intentions. And if there was anything wrong with your visa they would keep you in solitary confinement for hours. With hindsight, it was all a bit post-9/11.
In the 1980s, they tidied up Checkpoint Charlie to make it more cheerful. But when I first went through, in 1978, it was intimidating. And after the men with guns had gone through everything you’d brought with you, and confiscated any books they didn’t like, you passed through a creaking gate and found yourself in a darkened street with no cars or taxis and streetlamps suffering permanent brown-out. Nothing was what it seemed.
‘Don’t try telling me that life is better in the West,’ said my minder, on one visit. ‘My husband and I have a good life.’ A few days later, away from the microphones, she broke down. ‘I’ve got to get away from here. There’s no future for our children.’
Eastern Germany has plenty of problems today, but a vicious secret police isn’t one of them. Nor are constant shortages in the shops. Today, there are even nostalgia stores where you can buy the old ersatz coffee to remind yourself of the taste, or visit the punishment cells of the old Stasi, the secret police, without having to confess to anything. ‘Thus,’ says someone in Twelfth Night, ‘the whirligig of time brings in his revenges.’
My revenge was to take a whack at the section of the Berlin Wall outside the Grand Hotel, with the hammer and chisel provided. After 20 years, it felt good.
High Life channel marks the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall with a guide to all you need to know about the city.
John Simpson is the BBC’s world affairs editor and can be seen around the globe on BBC World News, available in 200 countries and territories worldwide, and on selected British Airways flights.