Interview with Kohl's Top Aide on German Reunification 'It Was Practically a Miracle'

Rudolf Seiters was a key negotiators during Germany's reunification. In an interview with SPIEGEL ONLINE, Seiters speaks about being an insider to the events of 1989, Europe's 'year of miracles,' resistance to German reunification and why it's wrong to romanticize the GDR today.
Rudolf Seiters (left) was the head of the Office of the German Chancellery under ex-Chancellor Helmut Kohl (right) and a key figure in the process of German reunification.

Rudolf Seiters (left) was the head of the Office of the German Chancellery under ex-Chancellor Helmut Kohl (right) and a key figure in the process of German reunification.

Foto: Bundespresseamt/ picture-alliance / dpa

SPIEGEL ONLINE: When were you first convinced that German unity was on the horizon?

Rudolf Seiters: Neither on Sept. 30, in Prague, nor on Nov. 9. At the time, we assumed that events would follow a very different timeline. The decisive day was Dec. 19, when Chancellor Helmut Kohl addressed hundreds of thousands of people at Dresden's Frauenkirche (Church of Our Lady). There was an unbelievable atmosphere. Black-red-and-gold German flags were fluttering everywhere. In my entire political life, I have never known a state leader to leave a visiting leader alone with his population. That clearly happened because they expected Helmut Kohl to generate applause while they feared the SED (editor's note: the ruling party in communist East Germany) would be greeted with catcalls. It was then that we realized that this regime was nearing its end. We saw a realistic chance for German unity.


Photo Gallery: The Berlin Wall, Then and Now


SPIEGEL ONLINE: Kohl's accomplishments in moving Germany toward unity are indisputable. Still, the decisive step toward reunification was taken not by him but, rather, by (then-President George H.W.) Bush and Gorbachev during a meeting in Washington on May 30. Gorbachev virtually left the GDR out of the Warsaw Pact -- and that opened the door for a reunited Germany to enter NATO. How much can reunification be attributed to Germany's own work, and how much international assistance was involved?

Seiters: At that early stage and under those conditions, we certainly wouldn't have been able to pull German reunification off without that auspicious international framework . Without a doubt, we were also lucky. Solidarity, the Polish trade union, contributed in a major way. We are also grateful to the Hungarians, who were the first to open their borders to East German refugees. And Bush provided unlimited support . It was also important that Helmut Kohl was able to systematically build a close, trusting relationship with Mikhail Gorbachev in 1989 and 1990. That was very, very important.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: But there weren't only supporters of reunification and, in fact, many Western heads of state rejected German unity. Where did you face the most resistance?

Seiters: Margaret Thatcher's stance  is well-known, as are her considerable doubts about and objections to reunification. Giulio Andreotti, the Italian politician, also remarked: "We love Germany so much that we would prefer to have two of them." At a later point, Mitterrand was also one of our closest friends and supporters, but in 1989 he still had doubts about the project. I remember his visit to East Berlin in late 1989.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Is it true that Mitterrand wanted to support the GDR leadership behind Kohl's back?

Seiters: Well, he at least wasn't in any hurry for Germany to be reunited. But then, when he went to East Germany, he was welcomed by Manfred Gerlach, who -- despite the fact that he was the chairman of the Council of State -- was actually not one of the very important figures at all. When Mitterrand returned to Paris, he was feeling deflated and disillusioned.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: What were Germany's neighbors afraid of?

Seiters: In the West, there were fears and worries regarding the prospect of German reunification. Many Europeans believed that, if reunified, Germany would change its political orientation. In his memoirs, Kohl later wrote that he never attended a European summit with such an icy atmosphere as the meeting on Dec. 9 in Strasburg, which was held 14 days after he presented his 10-point plan for overcoming the division of Germany and Europe.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: To counter the prevailing skepticism, Chancellor Kohl always spoke of German unity within the context of the European Union. Do you think this was a tactical move or, rather, the result of his belief in the European project?

Seiters: At that time, we spoke about unity in the Chancellery every single day. For Helmut Kohl, it was always clear that a reunified Germany needed to be intertwined within the broader European process. He viewed German unity and European unity as two sides of the same coin, and that something he was convinced of deep down. Likewise, he strongly believed that, for Europe to move forward, France and Germany had to cooperate closely. He also knew that the smaller European countries needed to be part of it, as well.

'Everything happened amazingly fast'

SPIEGEL ONLINE: What surprised you most back then?

Seiters: In the autumn and winter of 1989, I was surprised by the helplessness of the GDR leadership and its rapid loss of authority. The SED was helpless when it came to the issue of refugees. It was helpless when the Berlin Wall came down, which was not even meant to happen when it did. And it was also helpless in Dresden. Everything happened amazingly fast. When I became head of the Chancellory in Bonn in April 1989, no one knew or even suspected that, in a few months, the Wall would fall and that Germany would be reunified one and a half years later. That was more than surprising; that was practically a miracle.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Helmut Kohl is often criticized for having promised "blossoming landscapes" to East German citizens while not doing enough to overcome the more difficult aspects of reunification. In the midst of these fast-moving events, were you not critical enough of the imminent economic difficulties?

Seiters: At that time, we underestimated the catastrophic ecological and economic legacy of the SED. That applies to all of us -- the Americans, the British, the intelligence agencies and the banks. Officially, at least, the GDR was on the list of the world's 10 leading economic powers. It only later became apparent just how run-down the system really was. And then the Eastern markets crumbled, especially the shipyards on the Baltic Coast and heavy industry in Saxony, Saxony-Anhalt and Bitterfeld.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Was the German mark brought in too early?

Seiters: We had to negotiate on that. The GDR's population wanted monetary union as soon as possible. "If the deutschmark doesn't come to us, we'll come to it" was the demand we heard, and an unambiguous one at that. There were many problems. But today, to use the Chancellor's words, there is an abundance of blossoming landscapes. There are so many beautiful cities in the east. I hope that all Germans from what was once the west will get to see them at least once.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: But the economic productivity in the east remains miles behind that of the western part of the country.

Seiters: German unity is a success story, but we can't turn a blind eye to the important tasks we still have to overcome together. But any remaining problems are not due to German reunification. Instead, they are the rather remnants of a divided Germany. Had we known the extent of the pending bankruptcy of the GDR, we might not haved ruled out the possibility of raising taxes.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Looking back, many east Germans romanticize life in the GDR. Why do you think that's the case?

Seiters: For people in the GDR, everything changed in 1989/90. On the one hand, there was a new sense of freedom and the removal of the dictatorship. On the other hand, there were completely new challenges when it came to the market economy. Bearing responsibility for their personal finances was something that people were simply not used to. I can clearly remember a conversation with Pope John Paul II in which he asked how people who had lived in a dictatorship for decades managed to cope with their rapidly granted freedom. Of course, there is impatience and some disappointment -- which is perhaps partly due to overly elevated expectations. But there is no good reason for nostalgia. The GDR was an unjust state -- and it was bankrupt.

Interview conducted by Gerd Langguth and Claus Christian Malzahn