Victor Sebestyen

The GDR was not the Stasiland of grey monotony we imagine

One of the great unsung heroes of modern times is Lt Colonel Harald Jäger, an East German border guard who was the commanding officer at the Bornholmer Strasse checkpoint in central Berlin on that wondrous night of 9 November 1989.  There are heart-rending stories of those who were shot ‘wall jumping’, the near-impossible method of

Why is Ukraine honouring the monsters of the past?

The historian Bernard Wasserstein is admired as a rigorous academic. In his monumental work on the Holocaust and his perceptive study of barbarism vs civilisation in the West, he strove for objectivity and maintained a professorial tone, as if writing of the past from an Olympian height. Wasserstein’s grandparents and aunt were forced to dig

A brave new world – at gunpoint

Of the many books published this year to mark the centenary of the Russian revolution, this is perhaps the most curious. China Miéville is best known as an imaginative and entertaining writer of ‘weird’ (his word) science fiction and magic realism. October is a narrative history of the two 1917 revolutions in Russia, written from

General Anders to the rescue

Until Poland applied to join the EU in the 1990s, the biggest single influx of Poles into this country was in the immediate aftermath of the second world war. Around 200,000 Poles who had fought for the Allies chose to seek refuge here, rather than return to their homeland and face life under Stalin. Many of

The brutal mask of anarchy

In September 1939 Britain went to war against Germany, ostensibly in defence of Poland. One big secret that the British government didn’t know at the time — and not until much later — was that while the Anglo-Polish alliance treaty was being negotiated during the previous months, the Poles had been actively training and arming

What went so wrong for Vaclav Havel?

The unforgettable moment a quarter of a century ago when the Berlin Wall came down was the most vivid drama in that dizzying year of revolutions in 1989 when the Soviet empire fell to its knees. But another event a month later and 250 miles away in Prague was equally poignant. As the playwright/philosopher Václav

A Pole’s view of the Czechs. Who cares? You will

When this extraordinary book was about to come out in French four years ago its author was told by his editor that it was likely to fail miserably. As Mariusz Szczgieł explains, the doubts were reasonable. No one was sure if anybody in the west would be interested in what a Pole had to say

Gavrilo Princip – history’s ultimate teenage tearaway

Amid the vast tonnage of recent books about the first world war this must be the most unusual — and one of the most interesting. The ‘Trigger’ of the title is Gavrilo Princip, the 19-year-old student dropout who shot the Habsburg Archduke Franz Ferdinand on a Sarajevo street corner on 28 June 1914 and began

What price freedom?

One of the best-known contacts for many Western reporters covering Poland and the Solidarity protests of the 1980s was Konstanty ‘Kostek’ Gebert. A fine journalist who usually wrote under the name Dawid Warszawski, he seemed to know everyone in Warsaw, liked to talk late into the night about ideas and gossip, wore his vast learning

City of the dead

Russian officials today, much like the Soviet authorities of a past generation,  encourage a cult of the Great Patriotic War. In the national narrative, this was their Finest Hour, still invoked on significant anniversary days as an example of heroism and sacrifice by politicians such as Vladimir Putin. For Russians the most painful trauma in

The missing millions

The collapse of the Soviet Union spawned an entire genre of literature: the Gulag memoir, produced by victims of the USSR’s concentration camps. A few masterpieces were published in the West, or in samizdat, before the 1980s, for example Evgenia Ginzburg’s renowned Into the Whirlwind and the works of Alexander Solzhenitsyn.But as Soviet-style communism fell

Before and after the Fall

No one here (I mean in Britain, not perhaps in the columns of The Spectator) likes to read anything nice about the Germans. So I shall warn you that there will be some praise for Germany in this review, mixed with the usual level of bashing. If the very thought of this shocks or appals

How many Russians does it take to change a lightbulb?

In 1969, the Slovak writer Jan Kalina published 1001 Jokes, a collection of (mainly) anti-Communist stories which sold out within a couple of days. This was during the permafrost that descended on Czechoslovakia following the Russian suppression a year earlier of the Prague Spring. The ruling regime’s retribution was predictable. Listening devices were placed in

The revolutionary, the president, the playwright

Victor Sebestyen reviews Václav Havel’s new book A troika of heroic Slavic statesmen played the key roles in the last great drama of European history — the collapse of Soviet Communism. They were Mikhail Gorbachev, Lech Walesa and Václav Havel. All are still feted in Western capitals and can command high fees on the international

The clash of the armoured megalosaurs

‘If ‘justice were done’, writes Norman Davies in this fascinating and infuriating work, ‘all books on the second world war in Europe would devote perhaps three quarters of their contents to the Eastern Front.’ In the real world, of course, the victors dispense the justice and write the history afterwards. So it is gratifying that there is a scholar around with the

An elegy for Yugoslavia

The title of this charming book refers to the last summer the author spent in her native city of Belgrade in 1986, just before she married an Englishman and emigrated to London. Twenty-four-year-old Vesna Bjelogrlic, as she then was, picked berries in the hills near her home to make jam. Nearly two decades later, when

The man who plans to run and run

Putin’s Progressby Peter TruscottSimon & Schuster, £17.99, pp. 370, ISBN 0743240057 Vladimir Putin will be re-elected President of Russia on Sunday with a thumping majority. This is the safest prediction it is possible to make in the New World Order where the word democracy can have many different definitions. In Russia the word means whatever