A lay-by in Bulgaria
Fifty years ago today I got as close as I’ve ever got to a truly historical event, so it justifies a post. It would count as a reminiscence if I could remember anything about something that happened when I was a bit less than two-months old.
I was with my family, six of us in total, and we were sleeping in an Ace Ambassador caravan in a lay-by in Bulgaria. To understand how we had ended up in this unlikely situation you need to know two things about my father: first, that in his view a holiday was not a holiday unless it involved driving a couple of thousand miles each way (with a caravan attached), and secondly, that he refused point-blank to pay any money for camping sites, toll roads, etc. Apparently this caused less of a problem in the Eastern Bloc than one might imagine, and I can only think that a family of Western caravanners was so spectacularly out of the ordinary anyhow that we could get away with quite a lot.
By the time I was conscious of these holidays, a little after the event I’m talking about here, the destinations had become slightly more mainstream. Greece and Turkey were still a heck of a long way to drive, but didn’t involve crossing the Iron Curtain, unless you count Yugoslavia. Before I was born, though, and for a short time afterwards, my father indulged a fascination for communist Eastern Europe, visiting Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Romania as well as Bulgaria. He had no political sympathy with communism, though he was a (minor) politician, and that might explain the welcome we got in parts of Romania (which had interesting differences with the rest of the Warsaw Pact), especially. I have only one memory of Eastern-Bloc countries, a plague of beetles covering the car one year on the border between Hungary and Bulgaria.
Most aspects of what I’ve been describing now strike me as pretty insane: the huge distances towing a caravan (we had an average of three punctures per holiday), the massive catering operation undertaken by my mother without any help whatsoever from my father, and of course all the time spent touring around the Eastern Bloc. It seems especially foolhardy to me, though I recognise I may be biased, to take a very small baby to a place where, for example, baby food could be quite hard to find. But the holidays I remember were simply amazing. Until the age of 14 I hadn’t spent a single day of the month of August in the U.K., but I’d visited far more historical sites than I’ve ever seen since, and we saw Turkey, in particular, before its tourist industry took off: Gordion, Side, Goreme, Didyma… Since this was before the Iranian Revolution and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, we were often travelling the same route as long-distance lorry drivers (a nice blog about that culture here), and hippies on the overland route. Again, I can’t imagine how a middle-class family in a 14-foot caravan towed by a Volvo looked to them, but we all seemed to get along swimmingly.
But back to that lay-by in Bulgaria. It was nighttime, and we were sleeping, but our sleep on this occasion was interrupted by a terrific noise from the road, the sound of a huge line of very heavy traffic. My father went out to investigate, I think; at any rate the traffic was quickly identified as a line of military vehicles, and it took most of the night to pass our camping place. We must have assumed that we had stumbled into a military exercise, and the next day we continued on our way, into Yugoslavia and up towards Maribor, now in Slovenia, the border town for the crossing into Austria. It was only here that we discovered what had been rolling past us that night in Bulgaria. The night in question was August 20-21, 1968. The military convoy had been heading for Prague, one component of the massive Warsaw Pact forces converging on Czechoslovakia in a surprise invasion. There in our caravan we were the most unlikely witnesses to the suppression of the Prague Spring.
‘Prague Spring’ was the name given to the period of liberalization introduced by the Czechoslovak leader, Alexander Dubček, which he himself famously described as ‘socialism with a human face’. In April 1968 Dubcek had relaxed restrictions on free speech and movement, and on the press; a greater role for market economics was envisaged, and in the longer term democratic elections. In August the Soviet Union under Leonid Brezhnev sent Warsaw Pact forces in to suppress the “counterrevolution”: what we had seen from our caravan was part of the Bulgarian contribution, a fraction of the 200,000 or so troops and 2,000 tanks that entered the country that night. There was some popular resistance — most tragically, a student named Jan Palach burned himself to death in Wenceslaus Square in Prague in January 1969 — but Dubček’s reforms were reversed, liberals were purged from government, and Czechoslovakia would not experience the same freedom until the Velvet Revolution of 1989. In the meantime some 300,000 Czechs and Slovaks fled to the West.
The border between Yugoslavia and Austria presented a dramatic contrast at the best of times, shabby and impoverished towns on the eastern side, prosperous in Austria, like going from black-and-white to colour. But when we reached the border in Maribor in 1968 we encountered something altogether more distressing, a huge gathering of Czechs trying to decide whether to cross into Austria or return to their now occupied country. One effect of the liberalization of Czechoslovakia had been to allow its citizens greater freedom of travel abroad, and Yugoslavia had been a popular destination. Now these tourists were in a state of shock, and faced a terrible quandary. My older sister remembers a woman trying to decide whether to flee to the West or return to her children in Czechoslovakia. My mother felt a compulsion to apologise to the Czechs she met for what she saw as the failure of her country to come to their help twice in one generation, in 1938 and 1968.
In 1989 I visited Prague itself, but missed the moment on that occasion after a stupid argument with my travelling companions about using foreign-currency shops. I left Prague in a huff. The next day, December 10, a government was formed which for the first time contained a majority of non-communist members. A huge, joyful crowd filled Wenceslaus Square; meanwhile I was on a train back to Berlin.