Letter from Berlin: What Did You Do in the Cold War, Daddy?

By Stan Persky | February 29, 2016

I sort of stumbled back into the Cold War at roughly 10,000 metres above the Atlantic Ocean. I was on the longish flight – I was going to say “hellishly long flight,” but I don’t want reader-trolls to accuse me of self-indulging in “First World problems” — from Vancouver to Berlin (about 18 hours, if you include connections, waiting around, and security checks). I wasn’t planning on pondering the now-distant historical period we call the Cold War (c. 1946-1991), even though I was making a periodic return to Berlin, one of the emblematic capitals of that conflict.
Steven Spielberg, Bridge of Spies (2015)
James Donovan, Strangers on a Bridge (1964; 2015)
Adam Sisman, John le Carre: The Biography (2015)
John le Carre, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1963)
John le Carre, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974)
Or, at least I wasn’t planning to think much about it. Yes, I’d just begun Adam Sisman’s competent and engrossing biography of David Cornwell, a.k.a. John le Carre, the bestselling chronicler in fiction of the Cold War, now 84, and I was hoping to continue reading it on my backlit Kindle machine as an antidote to the numbing hours in flight. But it wasn’t so much the Cold War part of le Carre’s story I was interested in, as in finding out what he’d done as a writer since the dissolution of the Soviet Union a quarter century ago. (Short answer: he kept writing. More about that in a minute.)

Before I get to the Cold War, however, a brief discursus on the matter of entertainment options while getting from one place to another on our imperilled globe and thus further contributing to the planet’s carbon-clogged atmosphere. Reading on long-distance flights, backlit Kindles notwithstanding, is pretty much impossible. As the passenger’s time-zone is changing by 8 or 9 hours, and his or her biological time-clock is being buffeted into jetlag, the interior of the plane is kept largely in darkness, overhead lighting off, portal shades drawn, except for feeding and shopping breaks.

In-flight movies.

In-flight movies.

The darkness is illuminated only by each passenger watching a lighted screen attached to the back of the passenger seat in front of him or her, which usually features a current movie. So, all around you, while trying to read the Kindle with its screen of stolid print, you’re also seeing, out of the corner of your eye, a half-dozen or so moving picture screens of your neighboring air travellers — next to, alongside, and in front of you. And I’m not even mentioning any of the other distracting electronic devices passengers may be operating, from phones to tablets to game machines, often in addition to the movie unwinding in front of them.

The incessant visual flickering defeats the possibility of peaceful reading and, in fact, you find yourself, more or less unconsciously, following the soundless plotlines of a half-dozen movies around you, a surprising number of which appear to consist of periodic explosions of people, vehicles, and landscapes in both contemporary and apocalyptic fairy-tale settings. In the end, in sheer self-defense, I asked the flight attendant to help me (I always have trouble getting the stretchable fabric of the ear phone covers to fit on the ear phones), and soon I was in touch with the digital universe – touch-screening my way through the roster of available films. I tried out bits of various movies.

The worst of them was an apocalyptic sci-fi concoction called The Maze Runner 2: The Scorch Trials, in which a posse of teenage boys, all of Boy Band-level cuteness, and a requisite token girl, rush down endless maze-like corridors firing futuristic electronic weapons at pop-up villains representing a powerful organization called W.C.K.D. (get it?). A close second, in terms of noise and apocalypse vibes, was director Baz Luhrman’s 2013 version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, starring Leonardo DiCaprio (the current Oscar-winning best actor for this year’s much-ballyhooed Western revenge-and-survival film, The Revenant) – I endured about a half-hour of the mock-Fitzgerald, up to the third or fourth production dance number representing the title character’s famously decadent 1920s parties-cum-orgies that foreshadowed the real-life economic apocalypse of the Great Depression.

I think I also saw a few minutes of a French juvenile-delinquent-redemption film, Emmanuelle Bercot’s La Tete Haute (called Standing Tall in English), but I only lasted long enough to notice that the legendary Catherine Deneuve was playing a middle-aged family court judge.


At Glienecke Bridge.

At Glienecke Bridge.

Eventually, I settled on the more sedate Bridge of Spies (2015), director Steven Spielberg’s latest historical study. It’s a film about the half-century ago spy swap of Soviet espionage agent Col. Rudolf Abel for American U-2 surveillance plane pilot Francis Gary Powers, who had been shot down while illegally flying and spying over Russia. For the next two hours plus or so, I was back in the Cold War, the ubiquitous backdrop of my childhood. The climactic exchange in the movie takes place in 1962 on Berlin’s famous Glienicke Bridge, wreathed in spooky winter fog, punctuated by high-beam lighting devices, as the opposing teams of diplomats, secret agents, and prisoners carry out the delicate trade-off.

Glienicke Bridge is a place I know. In the Cold War era, it was the boundary marker between West Berlin’s Grunewald district and, on the other side of the Havel River which it spans, the edge of the city of Potsdam in what was then East Germany (or the German Democratic Republic, as it was formally known). More than that, it was also, apparently, a great place to trade captured spies.

Today, the bridge and the surrounding waterway and shores are bucolic tourist sites, where you can take a Sunday walk. Once you’ve reached the Potsdam side of the bridge, it’s not far to the Cecilienhof Palace, a Tudor Revival manor where the Potsdam Conference of 1945 was held, the occasion on which Stalin, Churchill, and Truman supposedly tied up the loose ends of World War II. In reality, the conference also inaugurated another near-conflagration, one that would last for decades. That the post-war world shaped by the three victorious heads of state didn’t turn into a shooting war, or worse, a truly apocalyptic nuclear war, but instead a lengthy political and diplomatic dance called the Cold War, a “war” that preserved a perilous peace, is one of the reasons for remembering that chilly not-quite-conflict today.

Spielberg’s cinematic re-creation of that high-tide moment of historical tension is “worthy,” stodgy, predictable, patriotic and a bit sentimental – that is, it has all the characteristics of “serious” Spielberg. As filmgoers know, Spielberg has been successfully and profitably making two kinds of movies for the last four decades: through one lens, he conjures up fantasies like Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), E.T. (1982), Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), Jurassic Park (1993) and various other “dreamworks” (to cite the name of a studio Spielberg co-founded). Through the other lens, he makes serious (and “serious”), historical dramas, including Schindler’s List (1993), Saving Private Ryan (1998), Lincoln (2012), and now Bridge of Spies, which picked up a Best Picture nomination at this year’s Academy Awards.  Of Spielberg’s previous somber films, I like Lincoln best, because of playwright Tony Kushner’s politically intelligent script, and Daniel Day Lewis’s Oscar-winning Best Actor performance in the title role. (Lincoln picked up a Best Picture nomination for its year, but unaccountably lost to Ben Affleck’s Argo, as did Quentin Tarrantino’s Django Unchained… but then the Academy is notoriously uneven when it comes to picking Best Picture winners.)

James Donovan's memoir.

James Donovan’s memoir.

The screenplay for Bridge of Spies, by Mark Charman, is based on lawyer James Donovan’s bestselling 1964 firsthand account of the Abel trial and subsequent spy swap, Strangers on a Bridge. Once the project was underway, Spielberg brought in fellow superstar directors/writers Ethan and Joel Coen, to script-doctor Charman’s draft. Presumably, the idea was to give the story a bit more zip and the famous Coen Bros. patina of oddball humour and irony. Donovan, the New York insurance lawyer (and former Nuremberg Trial prosecutor), who both defends Russian spy Rudolf Abel and then is called upon to arrange the Abel-Powers spy-swap a few years later, is played by Tom Hanks in a performance so unflashy that it’s possible not to immediately notice how good it is. His counterpart, British stage eminence Mark Rylance, plays the Soviet espionage agent, and the growing mutual admiration of Abel-Donovan makes it the key relationship in the tale (and earned Ryland a deserved Oscar win for Best Supporting Actor).

The prologue scenes of the film are elegantly staged, as several critics have noted, beginning “with a man in a mirror.” The man is Colonel Abel, “and we see three versions of him in one frame: Abel himself, holding a [paint]brush; his reflected image; and a self-portrait he is carefully painting, in oils. The whole thing is not just a dazzling composition with which to kick off a movie but a formal introduction to the world of espionage – a haven for multiple identities.” (Anthony Lane, “Making the Case,” The New Yorker, Oct. 26, 2015.)

Set in 1957 Brooklyn, halfway in time between the end of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s paranoid anti-communist reign that began at the start of the decade, and the Cuban missile crisis of autumn 1962, making art is both Abel’s hobby and his cover story, which is just about to be blown. Abel sets up his easel at a park bench facing the Manhattan Bridge and, after a few brushstrokes, reaches under the bench, feeling about until he finds a coin stuck to the underside, which he takes home, and slits open along the rim to find a folded slip of paper covered with code.

This is the moment when the FBI, having had Abel under as much fascinated observation as Spielberg’s camera, bursts in to his shabby digs and arrests him. The colonel, good soldier to the very last, asks the agents if he can clean his painting palette before they cart him away, then surreptitiously uses the code-laden bit of paper to wipe the paint off the palette, thus destroying at least one bit of evidence before being jailed. The arrest prepares viewers for the next turn in the story. As Anthony Lane puts it, “The guy needs legal representation, but who will be man enough, or dumb enough, to defend a Red Menace at a time like this?”

That’s where lawyer James Donovan enters the picture, chosen to ensure Abel gets a fair trial at the behest of the local Brooklyn bar association. It’s a thankless task that will bring him faint praise from colleagues, pouty resistance at home from his stereotypical picture-perfect wife (Amy Ryan) and 2.4 kids, as well as public loathing from passengers on the subway when they recognize his picture in the tabloids as a kind of “commie symp” defender of the Soviet enemy. Spielberg fires a couple gunshots through the family windows, but that’s just a fictional punctuation for dramatic effect – Donovan’s book doesn’t report any death threats.

Mark Rylance as Col. Abel (l.), Tom Hanks as James Donovan (r.).

Mark Rylance as Col. Abel (l.), Tom Hanks as James Donovan (r.).

Donovan is strictly straight-arrow (his own memoir tends to confirm the portrayal crafted by Hanks), a sort of updated version of James Stewart in Robert Capra’s Mister Smith Goes to Washington (1939). Indeed, Spielberg’s “serious” movies all tend to be inflected with an upbeat patriotism of days gone by, which makes them seem more than a bit clunky in the cynically ironic present moment. One critic I read complained that this particular Spielberg vehicle could have been made and shown back in the 1950s, that’s how sluggish she found it. Well, Bridge is hardly great cinema, its Oscar nomination was probably more of a nod of respect to its director than an aesthetic judgment, but it’s competent, well-acted, and more important, conjures up a half-forgotten but significant historical moment. In that sense I’m more interested in the lives and times than in film criticism here.

The movie’s “message” is delivered early on. After Donovan’s first meeting with his client in the lock-up, he’s trailed into a cocktail lounge by a CIA agent named Hoffman. Eventually, the agent asks, “Has your guy talked?” “Excuse me?” Donovan asks. The agent persists. When Donovan says, “We’re not having this conversation,” the agent assumes that Donovan means it’s off the record, and nods agreeably, “No, of course not.” “I mean,” insists Donovan, that “we’re really not having it. You’re asking me to violate attorney-client privilege.”

“C’mon, counsellor,” the agent sneers, and tells Donovan to get real. We’re talking about “the security of your country,” the agent tells him. “I’m sorry if the way I put it offends you, but we need to know what Abel is telling you… Don’t go Boy Scout on me – we don’t have a rule book here.”

After ascertaining that agent Hoffman is of German extraction and declaring himself to be of Irish descent, Donovan asks, “What makes us both Americans? Just one thing… The rule book. We call it the Constitution. We agree to the rules, and that’s what makes us Americans. So don’t tell me there’s no rule book and don’t nod at me like that you sonofabitch.” At which point Donovan takes a peanut from the dish, pops it into his mouth and walks out on his CIA minder.

Steven Spielberg (l.), Tom Hanks (r.).

Steven Spielberg (l.), Tom Hanks (r.).

Spielberg doesn’t bother to explicitly connect the boy scout-like message to contemporary circumstances, but it’s obvious enough. A half-century ago, even in quasi-private conversations, there could well be an unembarrassed insistence on the Constitutionally-mandated right to a “fair trial” for everyone, even enemy agents, whereas at present — ever since Sept. 11, 2001 — the right of habeas corpus has, for all practical purposes, been suspended in the U.S., as alleged enemy combatants have been warehoused in an off-shore prison at a rented base in Guantanamo, Cuba for well over a decade. It’s a fairly modest liberal point, but it acquires some added poignancy in the midst of the current 2016 Republican Party presidential nomination campaign where the leading candidates all blithely propose ditching a variety of Constitutional niceties, including the prohibition on religious tests for citizenship and holding public office.

The rest of the movie is procedural enough that a detailed plot reprise isn’t needed. Abel gets his fair trial, is found guilty, and sentenced to 30 years in prison. Donovan and Abel develop a more than grudging respect for each other, underscored by the running joke in their relationship: when Donovan points out that a lot of people have an interest in sending Abel to the electric chair – it’s only a few years since Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, two Americans who allegedly  betrayed the U.S., were executed — the Soviet agent simply shrugs. When Donovan observes, “You don’t seem alarmed,” Abel wryly replies, “Would it help?” It’s a balloon-puncturing remark he’ll repeat at other pivotal moments.

In fact, Abel escapes the death sentence in part because Donovan approaches the presiding judge before sentencing and argues against capital punishment in this case. Instead, he suggests that at some future time, if an equivalently-ranking American spy were captured by Russia, having Abel alive might come in handy if the respective governments decided on a prisoner exchange. The judge buys the argument. Nor does Donovan end his defense of Abel there. He takes the appeal all the way to the Supreme Court, on the grounds of the illegality of the original search that netted evidence against Abel, and though he loses in the end, it’s by a close 5-4 split decision, indicating there was legal merit to the appeal.

In due course, after the Soviets capture and sentence U.S. spy plane pilot Powers, Donovan is called in by CIA chief Allen Dulles and asked, as a private citizen, to go to Berlin and negotiate a prisoner swap that the Soviets have signalled they’re willing to participate in. Donovan arrives in February 1962, only months after the East Germans have erected the Berlin Wall. Some older Berlin friends, who lived through the period and have seen the movie, tell me there are a few historical mistakes in the film version, but like the fictional bullets in Brooklyn, they seem to be invented bits inserted for the purpose of building cinematic suspense.

In the end, everybody’s on the bridge, the floodlights are on, and the walks-on of history, Abel and Powers, cross paths in the pre-dawn. The exchange takes place not only shortly after the building of the Berlin Wall, but also in the wake of the Bay of Pigs incident, the abortive CIA-sponsored attempt to overthrow the Castro government in Cuba in April 1961. (Donovan, by the way, was again tapped by the U.S. government, this time to negotiate the release of the Bay of Pigs prisoners, which he successfully did in December 1962.)

The Bridge of Spies swap in February 1962 was followed in October of that year by a severe ratcheting up of Cold War tensions during what became known as the Cuban Missile Crisis, an incident in which the Soviet Union attempted to deploy nuclear ballistic missiles in Cuba. The crisis was only averted when Soviet leader Nikita Krushchev appeared to back down in the face of what amounted to credible nuclear war threats by U.S. President John F. Kennedy. It was a moment when a good many ordinary people in North America believed that the world might end in a nuclear bang.

All of the principals in Bridge of Spies, oddly enough, died within a few years of the swap: Abel of lung cancer in the Soviet Union in 1971; Powers in a commercial helicopter crash in 1977, age 48; and Donovan, also prematurely, of a heart attack in 1970, at age 53.


Coincidentally, in the year that James Donovan’s memoir was atop the New York Times’ best-seller list, 1964, the fiction roster was headed by a Berlin-based spy novel, penned by a young British secret service agent writing under the French-sounding nom de plume, John le Carre. The Spy Who Came in From the Cold was the first of what would become a dozen or more bestsellers by the same author over the next four decades.

What made le Carre’s book so attractive – “the best spy story I have ever read,” blurbed Graham Greene – was “its seeming authenticity… this, apparently, was the real world of spying: one in which there were no heroes, and the line between right and wrong was at best blurred,” as le Carre biographer Adam Sisman puts it. Le Carre’s book, says New York Times lead reviewer Michiko Kakutani, “was way more than an international best seller… [it] also helped revolutionize the genre, which until then had been defined by the Manichean unsubtleties of Ian Fleming,” creator of Agent 007, James Bond. Sisman adds, “The moral ambiguities of [le Carre]… are in marked contrast to the unquestioning certainties of the James Bond books. To readers in the early 1960s, accustomed to the messy compromises of the Cold War, they seemed far more truthful.” (Adam Sisman, “From cold war spy to angry old man: the politics of John le Carre,” The Guardian, Oct. 24, 2015; Michiko Kakutani, “Adam Sisman’s ‘John le Carre: The Biography,’” New York Times, Dec. 14, 2015.)

Adam Sisman's biography of John le Carre.

Adam Sisman’s biography of John le Carre.

The first half of Adam Sisman’s John le Carre: The Biography, which canvasses David Cornwell’s bleak childhood, schooling, gradual induction into the cloak and dagger world, and ultimate emergence as renowned writer John le Carre, is dominated by David’s father, Ronnie Cornwell, “a flamboyant and shameless con man who racked up debts… around the world and served prison time for fraud” (Kakutani). Novelist John Banville calls Ronnie “a figure straight out of Dickens… who blighted David’s childhood, and continue[d] to pop up at unexpected and highly inconvenient moments in his adult life, cajoling him, cadging from him and, at one point, even attempting to blackmail him.” As Le Carre later wrote, “How I got out from under Ronnie, if I ever did, is the story of my life.” As if the crooked father isn’t enough, there’s Cornwell’s mother, Olive, who decamped from the family manse when David was five, leaving him to a decade or more of a “hugless” childhood. Both the deception of his father and the desertion of his mother left deep marks on the subsequent “inventions” of a secret agent and professional storyteller. (John Banville, “John le Carre… what makes someone a spy?”, The Guardian, Jan. 15, 2016.)

The spying began in the late 1940s, when David was at school in Switzerland studying German, and was approached by “a country lady in tweeds and sensible shoes,” and her friend, both of whom worked at the British embassy. Invited to come round the next day “for a glass of sherry and a spot of lunch,” David was asked to attend some left-wing meetings and report back on any British citizens he might spot there. When he returned to England and attended Oxford, he continued his clandestine activities as a plant among his fellow students. Eventually, this led to a desk job at spy headquarters, or the “Circus,” as it’s known in le Carre’s novels, and a field posting in Bonn, Germany. Unsurprisingly, le Carre would continue to feel the lifelong moral trauma of his acts of betrayal in a supposedly good cause.

John le Carre.

John le Carre.

I’m happy to concur with the general agreement among critics that Sisman “creates an insightful and highly readable portrait of a writer and a man who has often been as elusive and enigmatic as his fictional heroes” (Kakutani). Sisman skillfully navigates the constraints of writing a biography of a living person who has enjoined him to show “due respect to the sensitivities of living third parties.”

That means that parts of the private life are sketchy – the breakup of le Carre’s first marriage and the relationship to his children get little airing; his activities in the secret service are necessarily hedged in by requirements of confidentiality; even the particular choice of a pen name remains murky; and after all, the subject of the book is, by profession, a fabulator. As Robert McCrum puts it, Sisman is “like a literary Jeeves, quietly correcting his master’s narrative with here a discreet cough, there a raised eyebrow, anon a sharp intake of breath. I counted about 10 discreet formulas for le Carre’s lies, from ‘false memory’ to ‘fictional recreation’ to ‘entertaining mensonge.’” (Robert McCrum, “John le Carre… a man who’s become his own best fiction,” The Guardian, Oct. 25, 2015.)

Le Carre on the cover of "Time."

Le Carre on the cover of “Time.”

The core of the biography is, as it should be, about le Carre the writer, and here Sisman is informative, unobtrusive as a critic, and astute when it comes to his subject’s transformation from Cold War chronicler to “angry old man.” Le Carre is widely recognized as the leading practitioner of the spy novel during the Cold War period. However, George Smiley, the secret service protagonist of most of le Carre’s Cold War novels and his most famous character, is, as Sisman notes, “no cold warrior. Far from relishing the struggle against the east, he is repeatedly troubled by doubt, agonising about whether the anti-communist cause justifies the concomitant human suffering.”

In The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, the protagonist Alec Leamas is just the opposite of a glamorous hero; he is a bedraggled, middle-aged, nearly burnt-out case. At one point he bursts out, “What the hell do you think spies are? Moral philosophers measuring everything they do against the word of God or Karl Marx? They’re not! They’re just a bunch of seedy, squalid bastards like me: little men, drunkards, queers, hen-pecked husbands, civil servants playing cowboys and Indians to brighten their rotten little lives.”

One issue about le Carre’s work that’s occupied considerable critical attention is the question of whether his spy novels “transcend” the genre to become “real literature.” I suspect it’s one of those ponderables whose answer doesn’t much matter. More to the point is that the Smiley novels get better as le Carre presses on. His trilogy of the 1970s, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974), The Honourable Schoolboy (1977) and Smiley’s People (1979) are a marked improvement, in terms of writing, characterization and human complexity, over both his earlier work and that of other writers of political intrigue.

For readers looking for an entrance into le Carre’s work, Tinker Tailor, his account of ferreting out a traitor inside the British secret service, is a good place to start. It skillfully echoes the real-life betrayals of Kim Philby and other secret service double agents, and is exceptionally well-written. Instead of worrying about the place of le Carre’s novels in “literature,” I think it’s enough to recognize that they’re compelling investigations of international politics. As le Carre himself put it, “I was chronicling my time, from a position of knowledge and sympathy. I lived the passion of my time. And if people tell me that I am a genre writer, I can only reply that spying was the genre of the cold war.”

Adam Sisman notes that “it was often said that le Carre lost his subject when the cold war ended.” It was a claim that le Carre refuted in practice by writing a dozen widely-read post-1989 novels. When the Berlin Wall came down and le Carre was asked what he could write about now, he identified, says Sisman, Angola, El Salvador, Sri Lanka, Libya and a half-dozen other festering hot spots where “spooks, arms dealers and phoney humanitarians” were active. One of his next novels, The Night Manager (1993), detailed an undercover operation against one such weapons entrepreneur. “When he delivered his next book, Our Game (1995),” Sisman reports, “one of his publishers asked whether Chechnya was a made-up place; only months later the obscure Russian republic was dominating the international news.”

The Tailor of Panama (1996), an homage to Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana, focused on superpower domination of small states, Single & Single (1999) was about money laundering by Russian mafias, and The Constant Gardener (2001) – which I currently happen to be reading – set in Nairobi, Kenya and surrounding slums, exposes the shady machinations of big drug companies. Le Carre hasn’t run into any shortage of material, continuing to produce novels well into his 80s – his most recent, A Delicate Truth (2013), is about the outsourcing of intelligence work to commercial contractors.

As notable as le Carre’s productivity has been his politicization. Contrary to the “truism that, as they get older, angry young radicals tend to relax into complacent conservatism,” observes Sisman, “John le Carre has travelled in the opposite direction. As he has aged, he has become more angry, not less.” If ambivalence was the dominent tone of the cold war novels, Sisman says, “his more recent books are unabashedly partisan.”

The political turn was evident before 9/11. In a preface to a paperback edition of The Tailor of Panama in spring 2001, he attacked both U.S. foreign policy and the country’s refusal to ratify the Kyoto climate agreement, excoriating a “new American realism, which is nothing other than gross corporate power cloaked in demagogy.” After President George W. Bush declared a “war on terror,” le Carre was horrified by the U.S. establishment of a detention camp at Guantanamo Bay, where prisoners could be held indefinitely without trial. As Bush prepared to invade Iraq, le Carre and his wife participated in the mass public demonstrations protesting the forthcoming military expedition. “America has entered one of its periods of historical madness,” he wrote, but this is “worse than McCarthyism, worse than the Bay of Pigs and in the long term potentially more disastrous than the Vietnam War.”

In his novel Absolute Friends (2003), le Carre writes, no doubt self-reflectively, “It is the old man’s impatience coming on early. It’s anger at seeing the show come round again one too many times… It’s the discovery in his sixth decade, that half a century after the death of empire, the dismally ill-managed country he’d done a little of this and that for is being marched off to quell the natives on the strength of a bunch of lies, in order to please a renegade hyperpower that thinks it can treat the rest of the world as its allotment.”

While the novelist Lev Grossman wrote approvingly that Absolute Friends “is a work of fist-shaking, Orwellian outrage,” others, like John Banville, have argued that le Carre’s politics “has marred his later fiction.” Le Carre admits, “I’ve become more radical in old age than I’ve ever been.” His biographer, Sisman, confirms that the 84-year-old “angry old man shows little sign of calming down.”

As for my own unplanned revisit to the Cold War, the plane safely landed in Berlin, and I was soon at my desk re-reading some John le Carre, and wandering city streets that were once blocked off by the Berlin Wall. Those streets today bear few marks of the events of a quarter-century ago, and even less of the spy swap at the height of the Cold War a half-century past. We’re now at an historically awkward distance from that Cold War, some 25 years after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The elderly recall the Cold War as still living memory (not just abstract history), while many of the young, who these days know very little history, have never heard of the Soviet Union.

Steven Spielberg (l.), Chancellor Angela Merkel (c.), Tom Hanks (r.).

Steven Spielberg (l.), Chancellor Angela Merkel (c.), Tom Hanks (r.).

When Spielberg was filming his Bridge of Spies epic, the current German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, turned up for a photo-op with the Hollywood director at the historic Glienecke Bridge. But most of Mrs. Merkel’s attention these days is directed to the more than one million refugees from Syria and neighbouring lands who have sought safe haven in Germany. Thousands of them are living in hastily contrived temporary shelters in Berlin. The other week, a neighbour of mine, who has been doing volunteer refugee work, invited me to a “welcome dinner” she and her husband hosted for two young Syrian-born Palestinians who are currently studying German at a nearby language school. Both the language training and the welcome dinners are part of an “integration” program for the new residents. There have also been less welcoming right-wing anti-refugee demonstrations and even attacks on refugee shelters elsewhere in Germany.

The German acceptance of the refugees is a humanitarian policy that has required the long-serving Chancellor to put much of her political capital on the line to defend the idea of Germany taking on an historic responsibility that much of Europe has shunned. While Merkel is still opening walls, many of her European Union fellow members have been rebuilding them. The internal discontents of Europe may not amount to a new cold war, nonetheless, one can feel the chill (and the cold shoulder) as much as the compassion.


Berlin, Feb. 29, 2016.


  • Stan Persky

    Stan Persky taught philosophy at Capilano University in N. Vancouver, B.C. He received the 2010 B.C. Lieutenant-Governor's Award for Literary Excellence. His most recent books are Reading the 21st Century: Books of the Decade, 2000-2009 (McGill-Queen's, 2011), Post-Communist Stories: About Cities, Politics, Desires (Cormorant, 2014), and Letter from Berlin: Essays 2015-2016 (Dooney's, 2017).

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