Edge of Europe


The Edge of Europe-Sept 1989
A last look behind the Iron Curtain

ebook published March 2011
20 Chapters 1 Map 141 Pages


Where was the ‘edge’ of Europe? Where – in 1989 – was the ‘middle’ for that matter? In a vague sort of way it all seemed clear. Europe was France, and Germany, and Italy, and Spain. And the Low and Nordic countries, of course. And Britain, and…Yugoslavia? And Turkey? And…..Hungary? And…..Romania?

And what about Turkey – bordering on Syria, Iraq and the Soviet Union? To the south-east, the ‘edge’ must lie in that direction but surely it was not at the back end of the Anatolan plateau where the Euphrates began a journey to the Persian Gulf and Saddam Hussein was the troublesome neighbour over the fence.

What defined the ‘middle’? Wealth? Economic development? Architecture? A common culture? Certainly no common language. The common religion of Christianity, perhaps? A shared history – but of conflict as much as alliance!

A shared decline then? Historical perspectives since World-War II often pointed to this. Europe being eclipsed as a world power in the mid-twentieth century as the United States and Japan took the lead on the economic stage and the Soviet Union flexed its muscles on the military one. ‘Superpower’ was the word trotted out to describe such new players. No-one was quite sure what it meant but the United States was and Britain or France were not. Europe as a customs and trading union of states was still on the bill but in the smaller print somewhere below the names of the leading actors. An old trooper and a fading memory in the onward march of progress.

Was this all wrong? Was Europe really doomed to be overshadowed by the end of the century? Was there a chance that the European Union would cement over the past quarrels and bind together the welter of fifteen or more languages, of assorted currencies, of diverse laws and the fullest possible political spectrum to hold its own in a world of these ‘super powers’. Or would it become a huge heritage park of accordion players, globe theatres, Oktoberfests and bullfights?

And then there was that ‘Iron Curtain’. Was Europe destined now to end at its barbed wire, watch towers and minefields, with the lands to the east gradually merging with the culture of Soviet Russia? Was the line from Stettin to Trieste, which was the approximation of where the armies of the Western Allies had met the armies of the East across the wreckage of Hitler’s Third Reich, to be the new frontier for ever? With this barrier in place, the Cold War and NATO had begun to map out the territory of a new Europe. ‘Inside’ – countries were clearly defined, capitalist and looked west across the Atlantic. ‘Outside’ – countries now forming the satellite edge of the Soviet Union were indistinct, communist and looked east to the central planners of Moscow.

But – in the 1980’s – there began to be an increasing oddity about a Germany cut in half by this artificial eastern edge of Europe. Why was one half of the country any more or any less European than the other? 1989 was a time when – despite glasnost and perestroika rapidly eroding the concept of a monolithic Soviet ‘superpower’ defined by a ring of steel and minefields – a great deal of uncertainty still hovered in the air as to whether the vast force of the Red Army would suddenly be deployed to re-stamp the mould of Stalin on the countries behind the ‘curtain’. Lingering still in the minds of Western military planners was the postscript that, once moving, these forces might not stop until they reached the shores of the Atlantic. Certainly, those newly-glimpsed gaps in the curtain had begun to remind people that another ‘Europe’ might still exist beyond the barbed wire and the watchtowers. A kind of ‘Looking Glass Land’ – greyer, quieter and full of monuments cast in totalitarian concrete. What was being now recalled was that – beyond the barrier – lay not the rolling Russian steppes and the cold deserts of Asia but the old Hapsburg cities of Prague, Budapest and Bratislava. It was always evident that most of that quintessentially central European empire of the Hapsburgs now lay ‘outside’ this re-defined Europe rather than ‘inside’ it. Vienna was, of course, ‘inside’ but only just – less than a hundred kilometres to the east was Bratislava which was ‘outside’. Leipzig was unavoidably part of a shared European history and yet was also ‘outside’. Berlin was half ‘inside’ and half ‘outside’.

But, in September 1989, people were on the move and history was about to change.


A long drive along the ‘edge of Europe’ – a trip to Europe beginning in Italy and emerging from behind the Iron Curtain as the Cold War ended. Italy: Summer Veneto/ Trieste. Yugoslavia: Balkans bridge/ Belgrade Black Market/ Bosnian inflation/ Black Hand in Sarajevo/ overwrought in Ragusa/ mountains in Montenegro/ Macedonian movers. Greece: Philip’s pot/ ladders in Greek Meteora/ Oracles and AcroCorinth/ Athens and Omonia. Turkey: Troy and Gallipoli/ Byzantine Constantinople and new cargoes/ Erdirne rosewater. Bulgaria: distraught refugees/ Festival of Humour/ bread rolls in rural Arbanasi/ a baffled monk/ Romans near Ruse. Romania: a row on the Danube/ Nicolai Ceausescu is hero!/ dark Moscow Nights in Bucharest/ Iron Gates open? Hungary: a bed in Budapest/ broken Hapsburgs. Austria: a breather and Bach. Czechoslovakia: Guns and guards on the Danube/ hushed Prague. West and East Germany: The Trabant and The Wartburg/ ghosts of Dresden/ Berlin Wall 1989/ ‘My name is Michael Caine’.