Thirty years ago this month, Rory MacLean – ‘surely the outstanding, and most indefatigable, traveller-writer of our time’ according to John le Carré – walked across no-man’s-land at the start of his journey from Berlin to Moscow. In East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Hungary, Romania and Russia, he met people who hadn’t spoken to a foreigner in decades, who opened their hearts and told him stories of lost years, ruined lives and secret policemen. Stalin’s Nose, the tragi-comedic story of his journey, became a UK top ten and has never been out of print.
Now MacLean has remade that journey, backwards, travelling from Moscow to Berlin and Brexit Britain, trying to understand what went wrong. In Pravda Ha Ha: True Travels to the End of Europe (Bloomsbury) he asks what became of our faith in the healing power of openness, compassion and reconciliation? Why – after that promising dawn – has the Kremlin redoubled its efforts to undermine European unity? And how could so many in the West have fallen for the populists’ lies and spin, dragging democracy to this precarious present moment?
‘Here it began, and ended,’ recalls MacLean in Pravda Ha Ha. ‘Here at the flashpoint of the world rose the BerlinWall, and here it fell away as an historical aberration. Here in 1989 I made a trail of footprints across the smoothed sand of no-man’s-land, believing that Europe had changed for ever.
‘I’d first seen the heinous barrier half a lifetime earlier. At the heart of the continent had been watchtowers, barbed wire and Grenztruppen border guards instructed to shoot fellow citizens who wanted to live under a different system. The sight of that great divide, between a capitalist West and a communist East, had shaken me to the core. I’d stood for hours on the wooden observation platform overlooking Potsdamer Platz and the Brandenburg Gate. I’d stared in silence across the death strip, stunned that a clash of ideas could be set in cement at the centre of a city.
‘Then one cool November night came the most unexpected and joyous moment of the century. Ossis and Wessis, East and West, danced together on the Wall, holding hands, waving sparklers, united in jubilation for the new beginning. Swarms of buzzing Trabants – the cardboard car for comrades belching blue smoke, breaking down, being pushed – circled gangs of soldiers dismantling the concrete slabs. At Checkpoint Charlie the Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich – who had been harassed, intimidated and stripped of his citizenship by the Soviets – played an impromptu Bach suite. Bouquets of flowers covered the windscreens of police vans. British squaddies served cups of scalding tea to the rippling crowd. As they drank and sang, the East Germans glanced back at the barrier, hardly believing they were finally free. Soon the slabs of white concrete would be stacked in neat piles. The barbed wire was coiled into tumbleweed balls. Within a year the entire wall – bar a few token stretches – truly vanished, leaving in its place only a discreet line of paving stones. The two halves of the country were reunited and Germans called the change die Wende. The turning point.’
But today as MacLean discovered, many in former East Germany feel that they’ve been left behind by the change, their anxiety heightened by both the influx of refugees and the aftershock of the financial crisis. As in Russia, Hungary, Poland and the UK, their grievances are exploited by ambitious opportunists who – in their quest for power, in their bigotry – are mutilating truth and trying to hijack democracy.
Of his return to eastern Germany, MacLean writes:
‘Wir sind das Volk, the mob chanted in Leinefelde and Chemnitz. Wir sind das Volk they cried while surrounding a refugee bus in Clausnitz. Wir sind das Volk yelled the thugs as they chased two dozen dark-skinned teenagers through the streets of Bautzen. Thirty years ago Wir sind das Volk – ‘We are the people’ – was a cry for democracy, for freedom, for inclusion. Now the far right has co-opted the slogan, repeating it over and over, exploiting it to exclude those who think differently, who are different.
‘Saxony has a history of neo-Nazi protests. In the last election one in four Chemnitz voters cast their ballot for the anti-immigrant AfD. Dresden is the home of the nationalist movement, Pegida, the so-called Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West. Leinefelde – population 19,617 – is one of hundreds of small eastern towns where far-right groups hold annual festivals, preaching a hate-filled, pro-white gospel. Berlin, only a few hundred miles distant, is another world.
‘But Berlin is not Germany, just as London is not England, as New York and LA are not the United States. Berlin – for the moment at least – is different, a refuge for a reconstituted liberal order.
‘I returned to it by train, the journey taking a couple of hours, and changed onto the U-Bahn. On a bench, on the platform, a young mother waited in silence with her two young sons. She wore a headscarf and voluminous black abaya. The boys sported new Germany football shirts and back-turned caps. All had heavy shadows under their eyes. I guessed that they were newcomers.
‘As a U-Bahn train glided into the station, they seemed to lean back as if in awe. A twenty-something man – the boys’ father – stood apart from them, close to the platform edge. When the train doors opened he nodded and his boys leapt to their feet to dart into a carriage, laughing with sudden excitement. To ride the underground was so much more fun than being driven out of Damascus or Aleppo by Russian bombs, than travelling across the continent in the back of trucks. Their mother – who I imagine had wept throughout the journey in fear for her children – followed them onto the train, taking a seat and gathering her sons around her skirts like a mother hen.
‘But the younger boy, who was not much older than a toddler, was too excited to sit down. As the doors closed and the train jerked forward, he rocked back and forth on his feet, shouting to his father who sat across from the small, tight family. The child was thrilled by the noise of the wheels, by the strobing lights, by the novelty of the smiling faces of the Berlin commuters. His parents and older brother tried to quieten him, hushing him in Arabic. But he would not be restrained and stuck out his short, pink tongue at them.
‘Then his father – in his embarrassment, in jest, in a gesture unseen by me in Germany in all the years I’ve known the country – curled his fingers into the shape of a pistol and took a shot at his son. In a flash the boy responded, firing back at his father with both hands, taking cover behind another seat, imagining the crack and ricochet of gunfire around the now hushed carriage.
No one on the train was smiling now.’
At the end of Pravda Ha Ha, MacLean acknowledges that ‘Thirty years ago I travelled with the certainty of a young man, living by certain principles, prizing certain values. Over the decades those certainties – those ethics – have sustained me, and I’ve continued to live by them as much as possible. But now tolerance, empathy and even the promise of the future are under attack. In 1989 eleven countries had border walls or fences. Today there more than seventy around the world. At the dawn of another new age, I have to find a way to keep faith in them, despite the rise of chauvinism and xenophobia, the echo of marching boots, the exploitation of the dispossessed, and the shadow of Brexit. I need to understand why Europe’s unspeakable past can’t be kept at bay.’
By Rory MacLean
Pravda Ha ha extracts © Rory MacLean 2019
Read The German Riveter in its entirety here.
Find the books from The German Riveter on the Goethe-Institut page.
Rory MacLean is a British-Canadian historian and travel writer. He is the author of more than a dozen books, which have been translated into a dozen languages. A Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, he divides his time between the UK, Berlin and Toronto.