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

When the Berlin Wall fell in November 1989, nobody expected Germany to be reunified less than a year later. New documents released by the Foreign Ministry in Berlin shed new light on the dramatic negotiations that led to East and West Germany becoming one.


Six weeks before the fall of the Berlin Wall, two people with rich biographies are sitting together at the Kremlin. One is British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who was 63 at the time. She is the daughter of a grocer from Grantham in the East Midlands of England. As a young chemist, Thatcher was part of a team that developed soft ice cream. After getting married, she studied law, entered politics and went on to become the British prime minister.

Her host Mikhail Gorbachev, six years her junior, is from a southern Russian farming family. After working as a combine mechanic in his teens, he eventually became involved in politics and gradually rose through the ranks of the Communist Party. Now he is the party's general secretary and head of the Kremlin.

The two politicians share a common memory of the war against the Germans. The German Luftwaffe bombed Thatcher's hometown two dozen times. Thatcher, a teenager at the time, did her homework under the dining-room table while the sirens howled. Gorbachev, for his part, has never forgotten the horrors and deprivations of World War II: his grandmother's interrogation by German occupiers, the rumors of mass shootings, the stable where he was forced to hide.

It is the fall of 1989, and two time zones farther to the west, thousands of people march through downtown Leipzig every Monday, while more than 6,000 East German citizens are camped out in the embassies of West Germany in Prague and Warsaw, hoping to be allowed to emigrate. The images have circled the globe, and it is clear to leaders Thatcher and Gorbachev that the two Germanys are on the verge of radical change. But which of the two was the first to address the sensitive issue of German reunification? It is a question that members of their respective staffs will passionately debate in later years. What is clear, however, is that the communist and the conservative agree that there will be no minutes taken of their meeting.

'Firmly Against a Unified Germany'

Neither, of course, stick to the agreement -- which is why we today know that Thatcher was the first to say: "I am firmly against a unified Germany." Then, in a reference to French President François Mitterrand, she adds that "one other Western leader" would agree with her on this point. According to the Soviet minutes of the meeting, Thatcher even says that all of Western Europe is on her side. Although NATO counters the claim in its published communiqués, Thatcher tells her host that he should "not take this seriously."

Gorbachev agrees, telling Thatcher that it is a good thing that the two have spoken and that each of them is now familiar with the views of the other on this "delicate subject." He says that he has just as little interest in German reunification as the British do.

Their words couldn't be clearer. The two politicians have formed an alliance against Germany.

The more East Germany progresses toward collapse in the coming weeks, the more solid the alliance of the opponents of reunification seems to become. Politicians and diplomats alike, and not just those of the four victorious powers of World War II, are deeply concerned about the events along the dividing line between East and West.

Rarely is this concern given voice. Indeed, one of the few public utterances opposing German reunification comes from Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, who speculates in an interview that if a reunified Germany, a country in which "the great majority of the German people (once) decided to kill millions of Jewish people," becomes "the strongest country in Europe, and maybe in the world, they will try to do it again." But behind the closed doors of NATO and European Community conferences, the allies make it abundantly clear to the West Germans that they are adamantly opposed to allowing East Germany to perish.

Icy Mood

Italy's Giulio Andreotti, a member of 33 governments and now prime minister for the sixth time, warns against a new "pan-Germanism," Dutch Prime Minister Ruud Lubbers questions the Germans' right of self-determination and French President Mitterrand says that Europe isn't ready for German reunification. The mood among European leaders was "icy," German Chancellor Helmut Kohl later reports, adding that this is something he has never forgotten. The Poles, of course, are not pleased either.

The prevailing opinion was that German reunification shouldn't come about until 1995 at the earliest and preferably much later than that. If, indeed, it was possible at all. The Federal Republic of Germany and the German Democratic Republic (GDR) are the most important nations on the front between NATO and the Warsaw Pact in the Cold War. About 1.5 million soldiers from nine countries face each other along this front -- each side is armed with atomic weapons.

Officially, World War II hasn't even ended; a peace treaty was never signed. The United Nations charter permits any member of the world organization to invade the territory between the Rhine and Oder Rivers should the Germans ever pursue an "aggressive policy."

The East and West Germans cannot make decisions about their borders without the approval of the Allies, nor can they establish a reunified nation and Berlin cannot be established as a national capital without the express approval of the four victorious powers. The Soviets even reserve the right to represent the GDR, if necessary, both internationally and vis-à-vis West Germany -- as if the East Germans were little more than a vassal state.

Not a Single Shot

Indeed, the situation is such that if a German chancellor wants to take an American president on a tour of divided Berlin, he is free to travel to West Berlin with the US president -- but as the American's guest. And, of course, West Germans can only fly to and from West Berlin on airlines operated by the Western powers: Pan Am, British Airways and Air France. The Allies prohibit Lufthansa from offering services between Berlin and West German cities like Hamburg, Cologne or Munich. This is the situation in 1989.

But not for long, and Germans will soon have a word for what takes place in the ensuing 300 days or so: "Madness." Indeed, a divided Germany, which had seemed set in stone, began to dissolve ever more rapidly as the weeks went by. Never before in German history had anything comparable occurred: a shift in the country's borders without a single shot being fired -- and a change that was welcomed by virtually all Germans. Indeed, the country had been dreaming of German unity -- of bringing together the hundreds of individual states that had dotted German territory for centuries -- ever since Napoleon brought the idea of the nation state with him when he crossed the Rhine.

That dream finally became a reality in 1990, and this autumn marks the 20th anniversary of the finale of the German revolution. Yet still one significant question remains that has not yet been fully answered: How did it come to pass? What happened on the international stage that allowed two German nations to become one?

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