Oct 28, 2016
When the Berlin Wall fell and Czechoslovakia’s old regime toppled, the Aussie radio presenter joined the throng to toast the revolution.
1990: Berlin and Prague
Christmas, 1989: I was 25 years old and performing with my comedy group, Doug Anthony Allstars (DAAS), in London. But on the Continent, history was being made: the Berlin Wall had just fallen and cruel regimes in East Germany and Czechoslovakia were being toppled in bloodless revolutions. As soon as the theatre season finished, I caught a flight to see for myself.
I had travelled beyond the Berlin Wall a few years earlier and had been shocked by the weird, oppressive atmosphere that hung over East Berlin. Now the city was reunited and jumping out of its skin with joy.
It was about 10 o’clock at night when I got to the wall; as I approached it, I heard an odd chinking sound, like mining activity, and then I saw thousands of people, even at that late hour, chipping away at the concrete with chisels and pickaxes. The once-fearsome Deutsche Volkspolizei (German People’s Police) stood by, badgering Westerners for cigarettes. I tore off a piece of the wall for myself and pocketed it.
The following day, I was introduced to a student filmmaker from Potsdam, whose protest group had taken over the local secret-police headquarters. He took me on a tour of the building, which was every bit as grim as you’d imagine: hospital-green walls, fluorescent lighting and a row of tiny cells too narrow to stand or lie straight in. There was a small shrine with a candle, dedicated to the victims of faschismus und Stalinismus.
In Prague, the atmosphere was festive. The city was emerging from decades of misery under Nazi then Soviet control. The apparatchiki (Communist Party officials) were out and a dissident playwright named Václav Havel was the new president. It was a real “ding-dong, the witch is dead” moment. Havel was the “Nelson Mandela” of Prague, a man of extraordinary moral courage, who appointed Frank Zappa an unofficial adviser and invited Lou Reed to Prague Castle.
The StB (Czech secret police) were still keeping tabs on “disloyal” citizens, even though their outfit had been disbanded. Public outrage sparked an anti-StB demonstration in Wenceslas Square, which broke out before my eyes one night as I sat drinking Becherovka in a café. I joined the rally and asked the protestors why they were there. An English-speaking woman told me the old regime had maintained its power by destroying trust between its citizens; casual criticism of the government might be reported, improving the career prospects of the informer, as sneaks and sycophants were rewarded.
Later that night, in the Old Town Square, I fell in with some students who were mulling wine over a brazier. I had no Czech and they had no English but we raised glass after glass to Prague, the loveliest city in Europe.
I left with a fresh appreciation of the comparatively gentle nature of Australian life – and of Winston Churchill’s dictum that “democracy is the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time”. ￼