How Germany Again Became One Country

“The Berlin Wall has fallen. This is the end of Yalta. The end of Stalin’s heritage and the defeat of Nazi Germany.”

The note was written on 9 November 1989 by Anatoly Chernyaev, international affairs advisor to the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Chernyaev had been a long-time employee of the international department of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and became more aware of the consequences of the fall of the Berlin Wall than anyone else in the circle of Gorbachev’s closest associates. He realised that the question of German reunification would soon be on the agenda. And that the Kremlin had to define the conditions under which it could agree to it.

Chernyaev, an experienced Soviet analyst and expert in international relations, showed an excellent sense of timing. In the same month, on 28 November 28 1989, German Chancellor Helmut Kohl presented a ten-point plan for German unification to the Bundestag. It was a bombshell—the German leader had not warned warn anyone of his intentions, except for his closest associates and the US President George Bush.

Paris and London reacted with outrage—Kohl’s proposal meant questioning the Yalta order, to which the capitals of Western Europe had got used to and even got and even got to like. After all, Yalta secured them a harmless Germany mainly interested in economic development and transatlantic co-operation; a country as quiet, predictable, and even intimate as the capital of the Federal Republic at the time, the sleepy little town of Bonn (which today almost no one except its inhabitants would be able to point out on the map).

Although West Germany even without the GDR and the lands that had been “under temporary Polish administration” since 1945 (as it was termed in Germany) was the most populous country in Europe, its demographic and economic advantage was offset by the provisions of Yalta. Germany, in contrast to the four victorious powers of World War II—the US, the USSR, Great Britain and France—could not possess nuclear weapons and in geopolitical terms was, as Zbigniew Brzeziński put it, an American protectorate.

This is why the vision of absorbing the GDR with 16 million citizens, and thus moving the Bundesrepublik’s border a few hundred kilometers to the east, seriously disturbed French President François Mitterrand and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Both understood that this could upset the balance of power in Europe in favour of united Germany.

The support of the United States proved crucial. The Americans supported the Kohl Plan from the beginning because they saw the reunification of Germany as an opportunity to marginalize the Soviet influence in Eastern Europe and at the same time strengthen their favourite European ally (Germany). On the other hand, they believed that the reunification of Germany should go hand in hand with closer European integration, which they considered to be beneficial to American interests at the time. They, therefore, insisted that Kohl should try to get along with Mitterrand.

The cunning French president realised that he would not stop the reunification on his own if the Americans considered it to be in their interests and the Russians decided to make money from it. He decided to take a gamble and gave the Germans an offer they could not refuse: he would agree to the reunification in exchange for Germany adopting the common European currency, the euro. In this way, the former European Economic Community was soon to become the European Union and Western Europe was to integrate not only economically, but also politically. Mitterrand hoped to tie united Germany to France and at the same time secure Paris’ leading position in the Franco-German tandem.

Helmut Kohl loved the German mark like his own mother, but he thought that (East) Berlin was worth the mass. German Christian Democrats had declared throughout the post-war period that German reunification was their primary goal, and now, at last, an opportunity appeared to achieve this goal. Kohl could not miss this chance, history would not forgive him that. He knew that the support of the USA, the willingness of the Soviets to negotiate, and France’s consent to reunification were essentially enough.

In London, the Iron Lady stayed alone on the battlefield and soon took an English leave, so that no one even noticed. In East Berlin, only East German communists and activists from the former East German opposition protested against reunification, but both groups had little say in the matter. The free elections in March 1990 were won by parties that work together with the West German CDU, Helmut Kohl’s parent party, and they formed the new East German government.

This was a real masterstroke. In less than four months, the German Chancellor secured the support for reunification not only in the capitals of the principal powers, but also in millions of East German homes. The Germans in the GDR (as well as Poles, Hungarians, Czechs and Slovaks) had been fed up with all kinds of experiments, and their only wish was becoming citizens of the dreamed-up West German welfare state as soon as possible.

Kohl promised them this and did not miss his chance. Already in July 1990, the two German states were tied by a monetary union. The East Germans saw real West German marks in their wallets. No one doubted that Germany would unite before the first anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

There Was Only One More Problem to be Solved

The German-Polish border on the Oder and Nysa rivers had existed de facto, but not de jure, that is in accordance with international treaties. The peace conference supposed to guarantee the post-war borders in Europe never occurred. It was hindered by the Cold War and the division of Europe into two warring blocks, that lasted for several decades. Stalin put more trust in his armoured divisions over the Spree than in international law.

In light of this, the guarantee of the inviolability of the Polish western border was in practice provided by Soviet tanks and inter-state agreements that the communist regime concluded in 1950 with the GDR and in 1970 with Germany (Czechoslovakia concluded a similar agreement with Western Germany even later, in 1973). The problem was that, as Prime Minister Tadeusz Mazowiecki put it, these arrangements did not have to be binding for united Germany. And Soviet tanks were to leave the territory of the GDR, Poland and Czechoslovakia within a few years.

No state can afford to be uncertain about its own borders. On 17 July 1990, a chair for the Polish delegation was provided in Paris during the next round of talks on border security. On 3 October 1990, Germany again became one country. On 14 November 1990, the foreign ministers of Poland and Germany signed a border treaty. This was one of the greatest historical achievements of the first non-communist Prime Minister.

It did not help him, however, survive in politics. Less than two weeks later, Tadeusz Mazowiecki lost the fight for the second round of the presidential election to a mysterious visitor from Peru, Stanisław Tymiński.

Perhaps Poles finally felt so secure in their own country that they could even vote for a man from nowhere.

Aleksander Kaczorowski

Aleksander Kaczorowski is an editor-in-chief of Aspen Review Central Europe, former deputy editor-in-chief of Newsweek Polska and chief editor of the Op-ed section of Gazeta Wyborcza. His recent books include biographies of Václav Havel or Bohumil Hrabal. He won Václav Burian Prize for cultural contribution to the Central European dialogue (2016).

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