Could German Unification Have Happened Today?

Helmut Kohl brought together his country by acting on principles that currently are under threat — in part because of what he achieved.


Moscow’s Red Square on a dark midwinter night is hardly the first place that comes to mind for a lengthy late-hour stroll. But on February 10, 1990, the chancellor of West Germany, the late Helmut Kohl, led his subordinates on a long, cold walk around the heart of what was then the Soviet capital. The reason? Earlier that day the Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, had given the visiting chancellor what Kohl called the “green light” for German unification. Kohl had announced the news at a press conference that evening, to the surprise of everyone in attendance. Feverishly considering the consequences afterward, Kohl found himself unable to fall asleep. So, with staff in tow, the chancellor instead pounded the vast pavement of Red Square, considering the challenge that would guarantee his place in the history books – if he could pull it off.

Nearly 30 years on, it is easy to view German unification as inevitable and foreordained. Yet it was anything but. Indeed, without Kohl, it might never have occurred. Although the Berlin Wall had de facto disappeared on November 9, 1989, multiple hurdles to unification remained: the fears of European states in both the East and the West of potential resurgent German nationalism; the reluctance of West Germans unwilling to see their prosperous state overrun by refugees and reunification expenses; and the prerogatives of the four powers that still held legal sway over divided Germany as a consequence of Nazi Germany’s unconditional surrender in 1945. Though modified somewhat by various subsequent treaties, in 1990 the U.S., Britain, France, and the Soviet Union still retained undisputed legal authority over, and hundreds of thousands of troops on, German territory. Put bluntly, German unification could not happen without their approval, no matter how many pieces of the Wall people chipped away.

The process of unifying Germany was thus not only a domestic but also a foreign policy challenge. It is a testimony to Kohl’s status as a statesman of the first order that he pulled it off within mere months, before opponents could stop him. But, perhaps inevitably, there was also an ambiguity to his accomplishment. The manner and speed with which he achieved unification – though necessary for success – left a problematic legacy. As James Baker, then U.S. Secretary of State, has written of this time, “almost every achievement contains within its success the seeds of a future problem.” On the occasion of Kohl’s death at the age of 87, it is worth taking a moment to revisit both his achievement and the seeds that it left behind. The historical record shows that Kohl, in unifying his country, adhered to three guidelines, summarized below. These beliefs simultaneously reflected the tenor of his time and now highlight, poignantly, just how different it was from today – in part due to the unintended consequences of his actions.

He Celebrated Walls Coming Down

The opening of the Berlin Wall represented one of the most remarkable accidents in history. Despite repeated calls to tear down the Wall – including from President Ronald Reagan, thirty years ago this month – the dictators in East Berlin knew that, if the Wall went, so too did their authority. It was only through the remarkable bravery of protestors on the ground, the remarkable incompetence of the regime in bungling an ill-advised press conference meant to provide the appearance of reform without the reality, and the remarkable forbearance of the secret police officer in charge at a critical crossing on the night of November 9, 1989, that the Wall actually opened.

But this amazing series of chance events did not guarantee smooth sailing ahead. Once the initial wave of joyous emotion subsided, the fears about, and hurdles to, unification became increasingly apparent. Despite them, Kohl consistently stood on the side of those who celebrated the opening of the Wall and called for national unity. This response emerged partly for personal reasons – he wanted to become the leader who unified his country; who would not? – but, more significantly, for policy reasons. He saw swift political cooperation across the inner-German border leading toward unification as the only sustainable, sensible way to deal with the enormous issues generated by East Germans seeking better lives in the West. And he was right. Although the cost of helping both East Germans and their decrepit state was daunting, united Germany ultimately emerged as the wealthy, powerful, and admired state that it is today.

But if Kohl was right to move quickly in bringing about legal unification, he was wrong to raise expectations by saying repeatedly that the process of bringing East Germans up to Western living standards would be equally as quick. He unwisely promised that there would be only “blooming landscapes” of prosperity across of all Germany. Instead, progress was slow. To cite just one of many sorry statistics, unemployment in former East Germany remained double that of the West well into the 21st century. And, in a bitter echo of Cold War protest marches that had once called for freedom and unity, 25 years after the Wall fell former East German cities witnessed large, resentful, anti-foreigner demonstrations on the same march routes.

He Promoted European Integration

In the initial months of the Trump administration, one of the biggest surprises among European diplomats stationed in Washington was the Trump team’s actively hostile attitude toward European integration. Comparisons of the European Union to the Soviet Union, initially treated as rhetorical excess, soon formed the basis of reports back to European capitals as harbingers of actual policy views, and particularly worrisome ones to a Europe already reeling from the Brexit vote. In contrast, Kohl consistently promoted European integration throughout his life – in his early chancellorship, during the years of unification, even in publications produced during his wheelchair-bound final years of serious illness.

Kohl believed firmly in the saying of one of his predecessors, Konrad Adenauer, that German unity and European integration were two sides of the same coin. The chancellor never forgot just how devastating German nationalism had been for the first half of the twentieth century, so he worked hard to make sure that its re-emergence at the end of the second half would take an entirely new form: as an impetus for, rather than as a destroyer of, European cooperation. When the French president, François Mitterrand, indicated that progress in European integration needed to accompany progress on German unification, Kohl wholeheartedly agreed. He worked together with the French leader to expedite integration already in process, most notably on the cause of economic and monetary union.

Yet the two disagreed over the extent to which monetary union also required political union. This disagreement was never truly resolved. As a result, Europe gained a common currency but not a common Treasury or similar institution, which seriously impaired the EU’s ability to deal with the repeated economic crises of recent years.

He Prioritized the Transatlantic Partnership

In contrast to today, both the German and the U.S. leadership in 1990 prioritized their cooperation. This prioritization was apparent in the wake of that fateful February 10, 1990, when Kohl flew to Moscow. There has long been debate over whether the U.S. promised Moscow around this time that NATO would never expand eastward, but the debate has usually missed a key fact: the precipitating event that raised the issue of NATO’s future was the fall of the Berlin Wall and the related question of whether Germany would be willing to abandon NATO in order to gain the right to unify. For a brief window, it was thus not only, and indeed not primarily, what the U.S. but what Kohl had to say to Moscow that mattered. Washington knew this, and collectively sat anxiously by the phone whenever a German-Soviet meeting took place without American participation.

On February 10, Kohl suggested a complicated compromise to Gorbachev: a united Germany would formally stay in the Atlantic Alliance but, despite that, “naturally, NATO could not expand its territory to the current territory of East Germany.” Kohl was echoing similar remarks by Baker, seemingly proposing that Germany be part of NATO in name, but without actual movement of forces eastward beyond the Cold War border. Kohl and Gorbachev also discussed in vague terms how this issue and various other open questions should be solved together “under a European roof.”

Gorbachev subsequently gave Kohl the green light for unification the German had been seeking – but in a convoluted and tentative fashion, and only in spoken remarks, with nothing formalized in writing. Kohl decided to push the envelope by making Gorbachev’s concession sound much more decisive at his press conference immediately afterward. The chancellor’s aides were stunned, and held their breath as they waited to see how Soviet media, still controlled largely by the ruling Communist Party, would report on Kohl’s aggressive, forward-leaning interpretation of what had actually transpired in the meeting room; it was little wonder the German delegation could not sleep that night. To the relief of the Germans, no contradiction emerged from Gorbachev in the days after February 10.

A contradiction did, however, emerge from U.S. President George H.W. Bush, who urged Kohl to come to the U.S. as soon as possible. Meeting at Camp David, Bush made clear that, Baker’s comments notwithstanding, he as president was unwilling to live with a Germany that was de facto half-in, and half-out, of NATO – or to offer assurances about Germany and NATO’s future relationship to Moscow at all. “To hell with that! We prevailed, they didn’t.” Rapidly recalculating, and knowing that speed was absolutely essential, Kohl decided on the spot to follow Bush’s lead, suggesting that negotiations with Moscow could instead come down to “a question of cash.” The West, in other words, could buy the Kremlin’s support for unifying Germany. Bush agreed, pointing out that West Germany fortunately “had deep pockets.” As Robert Gates, then deputy national security advisor, would later put it, a strategy of “bribing the Soviets out” had triumphed. This strategy ultimately worked; the Soviets were, by October, successfully “bribed” out. But the achievement left its problematic seeds in the form of a resentful Russia on the periphery of post-Cold War Europe.

In closing, even this brief overview reveals the tensions between, on the one hand, Kohl’s indisputable accomplishment in unifying Germany quickly, and, on the other, the unintended consequences of that success and the problems it has left for today’s world. And, overshadowing these unintended consequences is of course a new danger to transatlantic relations: Washington itself. In 1990, President George H.W. Bush could successfully request of Kohl that he accede to U.S. wishes because of decades of successful transatlantic partnership, from the Marshall Plan (which also marks an anniversary, the 70th, this month) onward. Kohl cooperated both because of his strong personal relations with Bush but also because he ultimately viewed the U.S. as the more reliable and supportive partner.

In an era of erratic and insulting U.S. behavior, will Berlin always come to the same conclusion? German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s comments last month after President Trump’s visit (about Germany needing to take “its destiny into its own hands”) suggest that she is weighing this very question. Will Germany feel a need to reconsider the relative merits of Washington versus Moscow as partners? If both are unavoidable, problematic, and erratic, where is the right landing point between the rock and the hard place? In Kohl’s mind there was never any doubt that he had to side with the U.S. on all matters of significance. It is a sign of the damage the Trump administration has already inflicted on transatlantic relations that it is now an open question whether current and future German leaders will always come to the same conclusion.

Photo credit: PATRICK HERTZOG/AFP/Getty Images

M.E. Sarotte, a history professor, is the author, most recently, of The Collapse: The Accidental Opening of the Berlin Wall and 1989: The Struggle to Create Post-Cold War Europe, both Financial Times books of the year.

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