Motivation: Why The Berlin Assignment came to be written
The reasons behind my writing this novel go back many years, all the way to when I first traveled to Berlin in September 1971. Earlier that year during the spring university break I went on a skiing holiday to Austria and met there my future wife, Regina, who was living in Berlin. She was born there and was studying at the Free University. I was a student at Oxford, not too far away, and we agreed I would visit her in Berlin.
During the week in Berlin that September I began to absorb the reality of the Cold War in a way that I could not do in other place. The Wall by then had been up for a decade, and no matter where you went, inevitably you would run into it. It was a strange wall, unlike most others. This one wasn't built to keep aliens from entering. This one went up to prevent East German citizens from leaving. But there was much more to West Berlin than the Wall. It was a very congenial island of freedom surrounded by a very menacing regime. I visited East Berlin as well, a forbidding place where one sensed one's rights were suspended, going in and coming back out through Checkpoint Charlie.
I began to work hard at improving my German after that visit and went back to Berlin regularly to visit Regina. Through her family and university friends I acquired more and more insight in the nature of that divided city and listened to endless west-east anecdotes, many being stories of escape. In West Berlin you were always meeting someone who had gone through the terrifying experience of being smuggled out of East Germany after payment to organizations you were never sure you could trust.
In 1974 I joined the Canadian Department of External Affairs and married Regina one year later - in West Berlin. Our foreign service life began. Because my German had been steadily improving to the point where I was fairly fluent, we were posted to the embassy in Bonn in 1983. For the next years I studied and prepared diplomatic reports on West Germany and got to know its ways and culture well. As a family we continued to spend holidays regularly in West Berlin, driving there through the special autobahn corridors which people transiting East Germany had to use. Even though the Cold War was easing after Willy Brandt, East Germany continued to give a feeling of being a totalitarian and, from a human rights perspective, a horribly unpredictable place.
In 1989 the Wall came down. In 1992 I was named Consul General in Berlin, my territory being all of former East Germany. By 1992 the gloss had come off Germany's reunification. The economy (and the mood) in East Germany was dismal. This was a society in shock. Reunification took place on the basis of utopian hopes and promises and it was clear it would be a long time before all that would be realized. In the short term, many East German sensed they had lost much, that a kind of western steamroller was flattening them.
In Berlin, the process of re-creating a single city was especially difficult. The divisions of nearly fifty years, almost forty of them by a wall, went deep. The city's physical infrastructure had to be completely overhauled. The social, cultural, economic, artistic, educational and political differences between the two halves required just as much attention. But there was optimism too, a real sense that Berlin could become as important in Europe and as vibrant to the people living or visiting there as it had been in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. There was just this slight matter of getting over one hundred years of history which had served the city badly.
The mood in Berlin, the changes on a massive scale being implemented everywhere, the city's restlessness, the clash of ideas on what it could and should become - this fascinated me. As Consul General I was in a magnificent position to follow all this.
Not long after beginning the process of delving into what Berlin as the crucible for the whole German reunification effort offered, I had a visitor, a retired West Germany diplomat who came from Bonn. I had gotten to know him ten years before and we had agreed to have lunch. We talked about the things going on outside the restaurant. I described what I was witnessing on a daily basis. Berlin was going through yet another unprecedented historical process but, I ventured to add, it would be limited in time. The rebuilding task would end. Berlin would eventually be an important, lively and stimulating city, but it would also be a more predictable, more ordinary city. The special atmosphere of the 1990s would cease. People would always look back to this period as having been unique. My visitor then said to me, "I hope you're keeping a diary. You should write all that down."
Once as a student I tried keeping a diary, but after a few days I knew I would be bad at it and I resolved never to try it again. Even so, my visitor's advice stayed with me. Slowly the idea gained ground that I should write a book about Berlin in the 1990s. For a while I thought it could be an eye-witness kind of book. But then it struck me that I would have more freedom, especially with characters, and in particular characters who symbolized aspects of Berlin and Germany, than any other form of writing would give. I had not written a novel before, but, I thought optimistically, perhaps it would be something one could learn. And so I began. I found it wasn't easy. Writing The Berlin Assignment took a very long time.
People who know me sometimes ask before they read my novel whether it is autobiographical. They never ask this question after they have read it. That's because they know then that I'm not in it. I took great care to make sure than neither I, nor any of the people I knew in Berlin, are in the book. The story and the characters are entirely made up, purely fictional. What is not fictional is Berlin, the descriptions of it and many of the Berlin events which form part of the plot. (To give only one example, the Ronald Reagan - Mikhail Gorbachev scene in the Reichstag where they are honoured by the city of Berlin for their contributions to its reunification (pp. 417 - 420) actually happened. I was there.)
I hope that my novel may be interesting to readers because of its plot and the characters which populate the pages. But more than that, I would like to think that the reader will take away something more lasting, namely a deeper appreciation of a truly fascinating city. As one reviewer put it (Jean Graham), "the city of Berlin is as much a character as any of the cleverly drawn people". This was music to my ears, because that's the main reason I wrote the book - to make Berlin come alive, give it character, present its moods, set out its worries and aspirations. From the beginning, that's what I intended. It would be gratifying to think that in this regard the book can be seen as a success.
Adrian de Hoog