Germany's Unlikely Diplomatic Triumph An Inside Look at the Reunification Negotiations

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Part 5: Bonn's East German Trump Card


Kohl and Genscher, in fact, couldn't have wished for better allies than the peaceable East Germans. It was, ultimately, ordinary people from cities like Cottbus, Güstrow and Leipzig who exerted pressure on the world's most powerful leaders.

By the end of January 1990, about 2,000 East Germans were leaving the country each day, most of them young and well educated -- the country's most productive workers. They had had enough of Modrow's half-hearted reforms, his wheeling and dealing with the Stasi and the tricks the SED was pursuing to secure at least a portion of power. The country's planned economy was on the verge of collapse.

It was a welcome trump card for Bonn. Nothing terrified the other big players more than unrest in Germany. And Genscher was extremely adept at leveraging those fears. He was constantly describing the situation in East Germany to his Western counterparts as "extremely unstable" and insisting that "chaos," at the very least, was just around the corner. He even warned that, although there was no sign of "a nationalist mood yet, sentiments could quickly shift if the impression is created that Germany's fate is being negotiated over our heads." He was helped by the modest success achieved by the right-wing extremist party Die Republikaner in the 1989 European elections. Genscher claimed that reunification was the antidote to the developing chaos.

He left out, of course, another possible solution -- flooding East Germany with deutschmarks. That, however, would take the pressure off of Modrow. After all, Bonn needed his approval for any kind of economic or monetary union with East Germany, and the country's suffering economy was a useful bargaining chip.

A Turn in Favor of Germany

By now, even the Americans were starting to get restless. The Germans would have preferred to settle the issue of reunification amongst themselves, says former Secretary of State Baker, "but this was not on." Washington was also stirred up over another piece of news: Oskar Lafontaine, a critic of NATO, was on his way to becoming the Social Democratic candidate for the chancellorship. "Everything we've heard about Mr. Lafontaine makes us anxious," Bush said.

Less than one in five West Germans supported NATO membership for a unified Germany, and the Americans feared a process that could end in US withdrawal from Europe. Given that prospect, the preferable option for the Americans was to fully support the loyal Kohl.

There is no question that Kohl deserves credit for staying the course, refusing to be intimidated by Gorbachev uncooperativeness and securing Washington's support against the Europeans. Kastrup soon noted: "The United States is taking an extremely helpful and constructive position. It assigns great importance to our views in developing its own positions." The poker game was beginning to take a turn.

When Thatcher and Mitterrand conferred on Jan. 20, they complained that a unified Germany would undoubtedly dominate Hungary, Poland and Czechoslovakia, "and that left only Romania and Bulgaria for the rest of us." But they too conceded that the only way to stop reunification was through the application of force, which not even the two anti-Germans wanted: "None of us was going to declare war on Germany," Mitterrand wrote in his notes.

Thatcher's Foul Mood

Mitterrand, at any rate, knew what he wanted for France. He demanded that Kohl agree to introduce the euro earlier and under different conditions than the chancellor had wanted. Thatcher, given her critical stance toward Europe, lacked even this option. From then on, she contributed little more to the game than her foul mood.

Now the ball was in Gorbachev's court. On Jan. 25, the general secretary assembled the decision-makers from the party and the Foreign Ministry, the KGB, the armed forces and the administration in his office on the seventh floor of the Central Committee building. But no one in the group could offer any solutions to his dilemma. "There are no influential forces left in the GDR," Gorbachev complained.

One option for Gorbachev would have been to come to East Germany's aid with hard currency, but that was something he lacked as well because the economic reforms under perestroika had remained ineffective. In the week before the meeting, the Soviet Foreign Trade Bank had been forced to suspend some of its payments to Western firms for imports.

Like all politicians, Gorbachev preferred to defer unpleasant decisions. "I would suggest gaining as much time as possible. The most important thing at this time, no matter what the ultimate goal may be -- reunification, as far as I'm concerned -- would be to prolong the process."

100 Billion Deutschmarks?

In mid-February, when Kohl flew to Moscow for his first visit after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Gorbachev, without hesitation, allowed his most powerful trump card to slip through his fingers in the first round of talks. "The Germans must decide for themselves what path they choose to follow," he told the chancellor.

Teltschik, who was keeping the minutes of the meeting, later wrote that his "hands were flying to write down every word as precisely as possible." But he was rejoicing inside. If Gorbachev had demanded 100 billion deutschmarks for reunification, we would have paid it without question, Teltschik says today.

And why didn't Gorbachev make such demands? Was it because he was a moralist and dreamed of a better world, one in which the Germans are not forced to pay for what is rightfully theirs? Or was he being naïve, an accusation many in Russia continue to level at him today? Or perhaps he was simply not thinking clearly enough?

Gorbachev, as Genscher observed at the time, "is only interested in what is happening at the moment." And at that moment, there was turmoil throughout the Soviet Union, whose ethnic groups were striving for independence. "What can I do?" Gorbachev said at the time. "Azerbaijan and Lithuania, radical reformers on the one hand, social democrats on the other, and the blows are getting more and more painful, the economy is limping along, and the people are running out of energy."

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