Giving his personal experience of working in Communist Eastern Europe, former Foreign Correspondent Peter Millar entertained, informed and amused a good sized audience in the Pepper Theatre with a graphic account of living as a foreign journalist in East Germany.
Basing his talk on his highly-regarded book The Berlin wall and my part in its downfall, his word picture showed the realities of life in a society where surveillance of the individual was the norm. He was at pains to point out that all as not gloom and doom despite the lack of personal freedom.
“Of course people were poor,” he said. “But there was pretty general acceptance of that because everyone was poor.”
Anecdotes of the surveillance he endured exposed the attention the Stasi (secret police) gave to his movements and revealed some glaring defects. After the fall of the wall Millar obtained access to his Stasi records which gave details of the watch on the flat where he lived and which also served as the Reuter office.
He found that he and his wife were tailed when they drove out of Berlin for a country picnic. He also found records of daily surveillance such as the following.
A car with two occupants parked outside the flat at 7 a.m., he said. They reported that he and his wife were late risers. The car then followed them when they left the flat, with the occupants reporting minute details – his wife was carrying a bag, they went into a store and came out with packages that they took back to the flat.
The final report was timed at 7 p.m. when the car left, the occupants having apparently finished their shift. “Which left us free to go to the neighbouring pub for an evening drink without being followed,” he said.
They may not have been followed but they were still being spied on.
After the fall of the wall, Reuters had the flat scanned for “bugs” and found 37 microphones buried in the walls. They also found that the adjoining flat was not a residence but a Stasi listening post.
East Berlin was the first assignment for Millar after completing Reuters graduate training course. He was unmarried and awaiting the arrival of his fiancé, a fact that enabled him to escape the “honey trap” familiar to almost every foreign correspondent in Eastern Europe at that period.
“The staff, supplied by the authorities, included a very dishy young blonde cleaner,” he said. “She collared me one day and said: “Your predecessor. We lived together like man and wife.”
It was noteworthy, Millar said, that after my fiancé arrived and we married that the enticing blonde was replaced by considerably older cleaner.
Millar was reluctant to give the name of his predecessor but under pressure from the chairman said: “He went on to become head of ITN. You can work it out.”
Event: Friday, August 20, 4-5 pm
Note: Norman Stone was due to appear but cancelled.