Condoleezza Rice on German Reunification: 'I Preferred To See It as an Acquisition'

In a SPIEGEL interview, former United States Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice discusses America's fight for German reunification, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's woes at the time, Chancellor Helmut Kohl's merits and the later mistakes of his successor, Gerhard Schröder.

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SPIEGEL: Madame Secretary, when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, European nations like Great Britain and France were very worried about the prospect of German unification. America was the only country that didn't appear to be concerned. Why not?

Condoleezza Rice: The United States -- and President George H.W. Bush -- recognized that Germany had gone through a long democratic transition. It had been a good friend, it was a member of NATO. Any issues that had existed in 1945, it seemed perfectly reasonable to lay them to rest. For us, the question wasn't should Germany unify? It was how and under what circumstances? We had no concern about a resurgent Germany, unlike the British or French.

SPIEGEL: Because a unified German was in America's strategic interest?

Rice: If you were going to have a Europe that was whole and free, you couldn't have a Germany that was divided. So, with the possibility that Soviet power was going to be receding from Europe, it made perfectly good sense to try to achieve reunification on terms that nobody would have thought thinkable, even four or five years before.

SPIEGEL: When did you start believing that unification might be possible?

Rice: As soon as I saw the stirrings in Eastern Europe in August or September of 1989. We were in Poland and Hungary in July of that year, and it was pretty clear that Communist power was done. We felt that it was eventually going to collapse in East Germany, too.

SPIEGEL: Not very many Germans were even thinking about the possibility of reunification at that early stage.

Rice: I went to Germany in October (shortly before the fall of the wall) for a trans-Atlantic conference, one of these dull affairs that were usually taken up with debates on short-range nuclear missiles. But all of a sudden, this conference was now Germans talking to Germans about the prospects for Germany moving forward, and you could just feel in the air that something fundamental had changed. This was about three weeks before the fall of the wall.

SPIEGEL: Aren't you overstating the early US enthusiasm for the unification project? President Bush openly admitted he was rather indifferent to the question of unification.

Rice: We advisers were trying to push the president to really say something about unification, because as events were unfolding in Eastern Europe it was clear something was going to happen.

SPIEGEL: But he remained silent.

Rice: President Bush Senior was and is a cautious man. He did not want to provoke a response from the Soviet Union.

SPIEGEL: Bush made no official statements about the prospect of a united Germany, not even after the Berlin Wall came down. What did he say in private?

Rice: He was very clear that we Americans were going to stand for unification. In those first comments to press people in the Oval Office, the day the wall fell, he was cautious not out of any view that Germany shouldn't unify but that this was not the time for the American president to make bold statements. In internal deliberations, however, the president never tried in any way to prevent German unification. He was quite comfortable with it.

SPIEGEL: But Americans insisted on full NATO membership for the unified Germany. It was very unlikely that Gorbachev would swallow this. Weren't the Americans trying to block reunification this way?

Rice: No. But we couldn't afford in the end game of the Cold War to make a bad misstep. And a really bad misstep would have been to pull Germany out of NATO, which would have collapsed the most important platform for the American presence in Europe.

SPIEGEL: But who could really believe that the Russians would ever agree to that?

Rice: There were debates in the American foreign policy establishment that maybe both the Warsaw Pact and NATO should go away. But we at the White House never considered the possibility of unifying Germany outside of NATO. It would have meant that at the last minute, with everything going our way, the United States capitulated on the essential thing in terms of the American presence in Europe.

SPIEGEL: Were you concerned that Chancellor Kohl might not agree to German NATO membership?

Rice: The president knew that the one thing he had to do was to get Chancellor Kohl to go out and say that Germany would unify in NATO. After a meeting with him at Camp David in February of 1990, Bush knew that Kohl would agree to this.

SPIEGEL: Did the chancellor have a choice?

Rice: It wasn't explicit that the United States would not support German unification unless Germany were unified in NATO. But we left no doubt in the minds of our German colleagues that we expected Germany to be unified in NATO. As to whether the Soviet Union would accept it, you had to slowly but surely bring the Russians to that perspective.

SPIEGEL: So how could you force the Germans to become a NATO member? Could they not have decided to remain neutral?

Rice: We believed Helmut Kohl did not want to remain neutral. We believed that he wanted to be a member of NATO.

SPIEGEL: But you didn't give him any choice.

Rice: As a foreign policy actor, you have to have a view of your interest and you have to try to pursue it. America's interests were that Germany would be united in NATO.

SPIEGEL: So national interests trump the peoples' right to self-determination?

Rice: No. If the Germans had come and said, "We don't want to be a part of NATO," I guess we would have had to accept that.

SPIEGEL: And what would have happened then?

Rice: Fortunately, we didn't have to accept that.

SPIEGEL: But you must have had a Plan B.

Rice: No, there was no Plan B. It was to make Plan A work. We also believed that it was a way to make the French and the British less concerned about German unification, because what was the original purpose of NATO? It was to defend against the Soviet Union, but it was also to give the democracies of Europe a collective security umbrella. No one in the White House was planning for anything but the unification of Germany within NATO.

SPIEGEL: How could you be sure that Gorbachev would agree in the end?

Rice: We couldn't. We had to just work to make it possible for him to accept it. When he came to Washington in May 1990, we actually mentioned the right to self-determination to him. We said the Germans had chosen to become NATO members and should he not accept this?

SPIEGEL: He suddenly did. Did that surprise you?

Rice: I couldn't believe it when Gorbachev made that statement. Right after it happened, during the meeting at the White House, we advisers passed a note to President Bush that said, "Get him to say it again." So President Bush said, and I'm paraphrasing here, "Let me just be sure that we both understand. You have said that under the Helsinki Accords, countries have the right to self-determination concerning your alliances." And Gorbachev said yes again.

SPIEGEL: What do you think caused his change of mind?

Rice: That to me is the most remarkable question. We weren't sure whether Gorbachev wasn't prepared for that particular line of argument and just restated what's true in Helsinki without thinking about its implications for Germany -- or whether he decided he wasn't going to be able to stop it and now was the time to show flexibility. Even his aides were taken aback.

SPIEGEL: Were you concerned he might try to take the statement back?

Rice: That night I went to the Soviet ambassador in Washington and said that in the press conference tomorrow morning President Bush is going to say that President Gorbachev and he agree that countries have the right to self-determination in terms of their alliances. I basically told him, "Call us if you have a problem with that." And I waited all night for them to call and say "No, that's not what he said." They never did. President Bush said the line in the press conference. Gorbachev just stood there.

SPIEGEL: Was he in so much trouble domestically that he just gave up?

Rice: So much was going against the Russians. There is a conversation in 1989 between Egon Krenz (the last East German Communist leader) and Gorbachev that I came across. Krenz says to Gorbachev, "So when are you going to defend the German Democratic Republic?" He calls Gorbachev to inform him that they owe West Germany billions of deutsche marks and they had not known it until now. Basically, it's a request for a bailout. And Gorbachev effectively says to him: I now have to worry about the Soviet Union; you're on your own.

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About Condoleezza Rice
Condoleezza Rice, 55, served as United States President George H. W. Bush's adviser on Eastern European issues during negotiations over German reunification. Under his son, George W. Bush, she served from 2001 to 2005 as national security advisor. During his second term in office, she was appointed to the office of secretary of state. She earned a Ph.D in international studies at the University of Denver. In October, she will publish a memoir about her childhood in Alabama.

The Road to Reunification
Nov. 9, 1989 -- The Fall of the Wall
The autumn of 1989 saw thousands of East Germans fleeing their country as other Eastern European countries began opening up their borders. Finally, on Nov. 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall was opened up.
Nov. 13, 1989 -- Leadership Change in East Germany
Hans Modrow becomes Minister President of the German Democratic Republic, soon replacing Egon Krenz -- Eric Honecker's predecessor as General Secretary of the ruling Socialist Unity Party (SED) -- as the nation's most influential politician in East Germany.
Nov. 28, 1989 -- Kohl's 10 Points
West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl presents his "Ten Point Program to Overcome the Division of Germany and Europe" to the parliament in Bonn.
Dec. 16, 1989 -- SED Changes Its Name
The SED, the ruling political party in East Germany, changes its name to the PDS, the Party of Democratic Socialism. More than half of the party's original membership of 2.3 million would leave by the end of January 1990.
Dec. 19, 1989 -- 'We Are One People'
Kohl addresses tens of thousands of people in Dresden, East Germany, waving black, gold and red flags and shouting "We are one people" (a variation on the chant "We are the people" shouted at the Monday demonstrations before the fall of the Berlin Wall.)
Feb. 13, 1990 -- East Germany Wobbles
The GDR is on the verge of collapse. In February 73,000 people would leave the country. Kohl and Modrow agreed to talks on a possible currency and economic union.
March 14, 1990 -- Two Plus Four
Senior officials meet for the first of eight sessions of the Two-Plus-Four talks -- so-called because they are attended by the two Germanys and the four Allied powers. In addition, the two German foreign ministers meet four times in the period from May to September 1990.
March 18, 1990 -- Free Elections in the East
The first free elections are held to elect the East German parliament. The CDU-led (Conservative) "Alliance for Germany" wins, with 48 percent of the vote. The PDS receives just 16 percent of the vote. The election results clearly express popular support for reunification.
April 12, 1990 -- A New GDR Government
Lothar de Maiziere (CDU) forms a grand coalition and becomes prime minister of the GDR. He wants to negotiate with Bonn for a rapid accession under Article 23 of the West German constitution. Article 23 allows East German states to apply to join West Germany, simply incorporating the new eastern states and extending the remit of the existing West German constitution to cover them.
July 1, 1990 -- Economic and Currency Union
The economic, monetary and social union cames into force and the Deutschmark becomes legal tender in the GDR. Industrial production grinds to a standstill as a result. The number of unemployed and partially unemployed East Germans soon exceeds the two million mark.
Aug. 22-23, 1990 -- Accession Vote
During a night session, the East German People's Parliament agrees on the accession of the GDR to the Federal Republic, scheduled for October 3.
Aug. 31, 1990 -- Treaty for Unification
Bonn's Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble and East Berlin's State Secretary Günther Krause sign the reunification treaty, which extends the West German legal system to the accession states of the former GDR.
Sept. 12, 1990 -- Two Plus Four Treaty
The Two-Plus-Four Treaty is signed in Moscow. Since the treaty could only come into force after ratification by all parties, the Allied powers suspend all their existing rights in the nation -- Germany becames fully sovereign on October 3.
Oct. 3, 1990 -- Reunification
Germany celebrates the Day of German Unity.
The Response from Abroad
Nov. 18, 1989 -- Thatcher's Borders
British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher declares at a special summit of EC heads of state and government that the question of territorial borders is not on the agenda.
Dec. 4, 1989 -- Bush Backs Germany
US President George H. W. Bush comes out in support of the German people's right to self-determination, provided that a united Germany remains a member of NATO.
Dec. 8-9, 1989 -- Thatcher Blasts Kohl
Thatcher criticizes Helmut Kohl's "Ten-Point Program to Overcome the Division of Germany and Europe" at the European Council in Strasbourg. The majority of Germany's allies fear unification.
Dec. 11, 1989 -- The Allies Send a Message
The ambassadors of the Allied powers meet in the Allied Control Council building in Berlin -- once home to the short-lived administration of Germany run by the four Allies in the immediate post-war aftermath. It is read as a clear warning to Germany.
Dec. 20-22, 1989 -- Mitterrand Visits East Germany
French President François Mitterrand visits East Germany for the first time. He says he wants to establish the "same kind of relationship" as that between France and the West German government in Bonn.
Feb. 10, 1990 -- Gorbachev Tells Germans to Decide
Kremlin leader Mikhail Gorbachev tells West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl that the Germans "have to know themselves which path they want to take." He had previously expressed a similar sentiment to Hans Modrow, East Germany's last Communist premier.
Feb. 12-14, 1990 -- Outrage in Ottawa
On the sidelines of a conference in Ottawa, the four Allied powers accept the suggestion put forward by East and West Germany of negotiating the question of a unified Germany's external borders in six-way talks. The other countries present are outraged.
May 4, 1990 -- The Soviets Ask for Help
Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze asks the West German government in Bonn for a credit guarantee for the first time -- the Soviet Union is on the verge of insolvency.
May 30 - June 3, 1990 -- Gorbachev in Washington
During a visit to Washington, Gorbachev declares that the Germans can choose the nature of their union themselves.
July 5-6, 1990 -- NATO Summit in London
At a NATO summit in London, the organization announces a review of its military strategy and proposes comprehensive disarmament negotiations.
July 15-16, 1990 -- Gorbachev Agrees to Soviet Withdrawal
Gorbachev agrees to a quick withdrawal of Soviet troops from East Germany at a German-Soviet summit in Moscow and the Caucasus.
Oct. 9-12, 1990 -- Treaties with the Soviet Union
Two treaties with the Soviet Union define the terms of the Soviet military withdrawal from East Germany and the transferral of associated costs to the West German government in Bonn.
Nov. 14, 1990 -- Oder-Neisse Line Recognized
The German-Polish Border Treaty recognizes the Oder-Neisse line as the border between the two countries.


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