I was there in Berlin on November 9th 1989. There is nothing special about this: it seems that half the world was there with me, although I don’t recall seeing them at the time. Daniel Johnson, the editor of a rival publication, even claims to have asked the vital question at an East Berlin press conference that led to the announcement that the wall was effectively defunct. But I think I am the only British journalist who witnessed that great evening in the company of pony-tailed American pop music impresarios.
The East German regime had been looking vulnerable for several weeks—even since the big East German outflow through Hungary—and we (at the Financial Times where I was working) were taking every opportunity to get into the country to gauge popular feeling. So when the opportunity came to attend a conference on rock music promotion in East Germany at a swanky East Berlin hotel from November 9th to 10th I grabbed it.
The East German government was keenly aware of the importance of rock music in keeping its young people happy and it used to attract a stream of the best bands in the world. It also had quite a thriving rock music industry of its own and was keen to export bands—at least those who could be relied upon to return. As I sat rather bored listening to East German cultural bureaucrats debating with the pony-tailed Americans I remember someone coming into the hall, in the early evening, and saying that the wall had opened.
The pony-tailed ones seemed bemused and indifferent, while the rest of us legged it from the hotel and headed to the wall. The rest is a blur. I was on my own so spent the evening celebrating in various ways with strangers, when I wasn’t worrying about how and when to file copy back to the Financial Times from my hotel room. At one point I remember seeing a couple of young drunk East German soldiers—or were they policemen?—stumbling across Alexanderplatz and thinking to myself that this must indeed be a “revolutionary moment.”
The next day I met an East German friend at one of the crossing points and we went to join some of the people hacking at the wall. I filled my pockets and a small bag with bits of the Berlin Wall. My parents and siblings all received carefully wrapped bits of the wall as Christmas presents a few weeks later. As I had a reputation as a poor present giver they thought I had just picked some stones out of a skip and none of them kept my historic bits of rubble. I have lost my bits too, alas.
It was a fine feeling to have witnessed history, although at the time—as a working journalist—I think I was too preoccupied with filing stories to appreciate the grandness of the historical moment. Indirectly it led me to set up Prospect magazine—how could I go back to an ordinary job at the FT when I had witnessed history being made? But it was also the end of something for me—the moment I lost the knack of being in the right place at the right time. My luck had begun with the great upheaval of the British miners’ strike, which I covered as an FT labour reporter 1984-85. Then I switched over to cover business just as the era of the mega takeover bid was beginning. In the meantime, I had been at the Heysel stadium in Brussels in 1985 to witness the dead bodies piled up on the terraces there, and flew over Chernobyl just as the lid was blowing off in 1986. November 9th 1989 capped it all—but since then I don’t think I have once been able to say Ich war dabei about anything of any great significance.
History may not have ended for the rest of the world, but perhaps Francis Fukuyama was just talking about me. I got married, had a family and started a magazine.
More on 1989 and the fall of communism from Prospect’s archive