Ich bin ein truth spinner: how the fall of the Berlin Wall launched Boris Johnson’s career

Europe's World

Citizens' Europe

Picture of Eleanor Doorley
Eleanor Doorley

Communications Assistant at Friends of Europe

Among the many major anniversaries and dates of remembrance that collectively solidify 2019’s reputation as a year of contemplative reflection, the yet-to-be observed commemorations of the Berlin Wall’s fall are likely to stand out as particularly poignant.

Now retreating in the rear-view mirror of history, our distance from the events of November 1989 has surpassed the Wall’s 28-year lifespan – a landmark described as “the most tangible symbol of the Cold War” in the introduction to Peter Schneider’s The Wall Jumper, where for almost three decades, the uneasy proximity of two hostile neighbours was physically embodied in the juxtaposition of “two mutually suspicious, lethally armed economic systems [standing] nose to nose”.

A consideration of the Berlin Wall’s past should not, however, preclude an analysis of its residual significance in our present, a present in which Brexit dominates the zeitgeist. For aside from serving as the catalyst for German reunification, the Wall’s demolition played a decisive – albeit perhaps surprising – role in choreographing the trajectory of a political career that has generated both intrigue and indignation in equal measure: the political career of Boris Johnson.

Emerging onto the Brussels scene in a heady post-Cold War atmosphere wrought by the apparent triumph of liberal democracy over its ideological rivals, Johnson’s entry into journalism coincided with a period of profound political malleability in Europe – a plasticity that enabled him to assume the role of sculptor.

With the blessing of Max Hastings, former editor-in-chief of The Daily Telegraph, the 24-year-old Johnson was dispatched to the Belgian capital in the early months of 1989 and assigned the role of Brussels correspondent, which he held for five years.

Johnson’s exaggerated commentary played well among readers in the United Kingdom

“I saw the whole thing change; it was a wonderful time to be there”, he disclosed to Desert Island Discs host Sue Lawley when he was featured on the long-running BBC radio series in 2005. “The Berlin Wall fell, and the French and the Germans had to decide how they were going to respond to this event.”

Out of this commotion emerged the search for an appropriate reaction to the Iron Curtain’s collapse. A single polity founded on the premise of closer European integration and expansion was envisaged, which would, by extension, attempt to provide an answer to the historic ‘German problem’ that had long plagued European history.

The Maastricht Treaty had yet to be signed, and the prospect of further European integration was far from guaranteed, but the post-Cold War process of European transformation had begun, and Britain would have to decide how it would acclimatise to this new Europe.

Determined to take advantage of this uncertainty, Johnson began to employ his now characteristic opportunism, for personal gain, as he revealed to Sue Lawley: “Everything I wrote, from Brussels, I found I was just chucking these rocks over the garden wall. I’d listen to this amazing crash from the greenhouse next door, over in England. Everything I wrote from Brussels would have an amazing explosive effect on the Tory party and it really gave me this, I suppose, rather weird sense of power.”

Equipped with a penchant for embellishing rumours and manipulating truths, it was not long before Johnson grew a taste for chaos, for which he was later rewarded.

“Johnson’s stories caused a sensation”, acknowledged Sam Knight in The New Yorker, remarking on how he “began to churn out sly, exaggerated stories that cast the European Project as bureaucratically insane”.

Johnson’s exaggerated commentary played well among readers in the United Kingdom, especially those who had never truly been comfortable with the political and cultural aspects of European integration. His articles tapped into the growing mood of Euroscepticism and exploited the internal Conservative Party divisions that bedevilled John Major’s premiership throughout the 1990s.

It would be disingenuous to attribute the label of naiveté to 10 Downing Street’s current resident

Boris Johnson’s place in the spotlight was secure – a celebrated place, as illustrated by his prominent role in the Brexit Referendum and his successful campaign to become Prime Minister.

Exploiting pre-existing divisions has since become a recurring motif of Johnson’s Brexit negotiating strategy, with his unwillingness to denounce the possibility of a no-deal exit from the European Union as unfeasible and his widely criticised decision to prorogue parliament being representative of some recent polarising examples.

For someone like Johnson, contempt for fact may conceal an underlying preference for fiction. Indeed, if one takes into account James Joyce’s hypothesis that all fiction is essentially “fantasised biography”, then it may be reasonably assumed that the bumbling anti-hero who is depicted as winning favour with the highly coveted circles of influence in Johnson’s only published novel, 72 Virgins – a character around whom the whole narrative rotates – is fantasy made manifest.

It would be disingenuous to attribute the label of naiveté to 10 Downing Street’s current resident. In the Berlin Wall’s descent, he saw an opportunity for ascent. After all, the greenhouse was just a stone’s throw away.

Pity the fool who now finds himself in the greenhouse, confronted with the shards.

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