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Germany Unbound

He wished to be the chancellor of a liberated not a defeated Germany, said Willy Brandt on the evening of his election victory in 1969. Yet only on October 3, 1990, was Germany liberated. Better still: Germany liberated itself. Not all alone, of course. Every German politician pays tribute to Gorbachev, to the pioneers of emancipation in Eastern Europe, to the Americans, French, and British, without whom, as authors say in their Acknowledgements, this book could never have been written. But it was the Germans who wrote the book.

For all the discontinuities of West German policy since 1949, one can but admire the grand continuity in which all chancellors, from Adenauer to Kohl, all foreign ministers, all federal governments over forty years, now this way, now that, now in the West, now in the East, pursued the cause of German liberation.

Historians will argue whether Adenauer’s integration into the West or Brandt’s Ostpolitik contributed more to the success of the past year. There is much to be said for the claim that the East Central European year of wonders, ‘89, was a late triumph of Adenauer’s “magnet theory”—the idea that the attraction of a free and prosperous West Germany embedded in a free and prosperous Western Europe would sooner or later draw the unfree and impoverished East Germany irresistibly toward it. But could the magnet have exerted its full attractive force if the blocking iron curtain had not first been drawn back by the Ostpolitik which Willy Brandt launched in the late 1960s? And it was not Bonn’s Western but rather its Eastern ties—above all, those to Moscow—which directly permitted the transformation of an East German movement for freedom into an all-German state of unity.

Yet this East German rising for freedom was not contemplated in Bonn’s Deutschlandpolitik. Those in the GDR who contributed most to Germany’s peaceful October revolution—the tiny minority of human and civil rights campaigners—had benefited least from the Federal Republic’s governmental policy toward the GDR. Bonn politicians now ritually celebrate the “peaceful revolution.” Two years ago most of those same politicians would have described it as “dangerous destabilization.” Yes, it was a “dangerous destabilization” that made German unification possible. Without the brave minority that faced down armed police on the streets of Leipzig, Dresden, and Berlin, the ultimate goal of Bonn’s policy would never have been achieved—Gorbachev or no Gorbachev. (The real greatness of this year’s Nobel Peace Prize winner consists in the ability to accept often undesired and unintended faits accomplis—or what Mr. Gorbachev likes to call “life itself.”)

The pioneers of social emancipation and democratization in the GDR were then rapidly overtaken by those who wanted to have done with the GDR altogether. I recorded in these pages the electrifying moment at which, after the opening of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989, the chant of the crowds changed from “Wir Sind Das Volk” (“We Are the People”) to “Wir Sind Ein Volk” (“We Are One People”).1 That translated into a vote heavily in favor of Chancellor Kohl’s Christian Democrats in the March 18, 1990, elections. It was, as I also recorded in these pages, essentially a vote for rapid unification.2

By this time the two parallel sets of negotiations for unification, the “internal” ones, between the two German states (“1+1”), and the “external” ones, between the two German states and the four post–1945 occupying powers (“2+4”), were already under way. Chancellor Kohl, after giving initial consideration to alternative models, such as that of a Vertragsgemeinschaft (“treaty community”) or confederation, had decided by the end of January to go full steam ahead for one federal republic. The votes of the East German population gave him the domestic political strength to do this. It was his political decision, against the advice of most experts, to introduce monetary union on July 1, and to do so with a large degree of one-to-one (DM:GDR Mark) parity. This had traumatic impact on the East German economy—according to West German statistics, industrial output in August 1990 was down 51 percent from that of August 1989—which in turn imparted a desperate urgency to the last months of negotiation.

To describe these seven hectic months of intricate negotiation would require not an article but a compendium. The treaty on unification between the two German states, the Einigungsvertrag of August 31, is a book in itself—243 pages of small print in the official government Bulletin. Formally, they were “1+1” and “2+4” negotiations. In practice they were “1+1/4” and “1+1+1” negotiations. The first and last freely elected East Berlin government was not an equal partner in the German–German talks. The Bonn government basically set the terms of the internal unification, its officials drafting treaties that bore a remarkable resemblance to the finished product. Many East German politicians, and intellectuals in both halves of Germany, were under-standably miffed by this procedure. “Anschluss,” said some. Yet was it not for this that the majority of the people had voted in March? And, despite widespread economic distress, the majority expressed its basic satisfaction with the result, on October 14, in the first elections for the five reconstituted historic Länder (states) of the former GDR. Chancellor Kohl’s CDU was the overall winner everywhere except in Brandenburg (where the Social Democrats’ leader is a prominent Protestant churchman), and secured more than 45 percent of the vote in Saxony and Thuringia.

The external negotiation was basically between the Federal Republic, the Soviet Union, and the United States, in that order. The Bonn government makes no secret of the fact that it was the United States, rather than France or Britain, that was its crucial Western supporter in the whole process. Washington was not just self-evidently more important in talks with Moscow, but also more unreservedly supportive than London or Paris—a fact that has done some damage to the Franco-German “axis.” Yet the central negotiation was that between Bonn and Moscow. In Moscow in February, Chancellor Kohl secured Gorbachev’s assent to unification in one state. In Stavropol in July, he secured Gorbachev’s assent to the full sovereignty of the united state, including its membership in NATO—although a NATO redefined by the “London Declaration” a few days before. Soviet troops would leave Germany by 1994.

In return, the united Germany would have no ABC—atomic, biological, or chemical—weapons and no more than 370,000 men and women under arms; it would make a hefty financial contribution to the repatriation costs of Soviet troops; and it would become, even more than it was already, Gorbachev’s leading Western partner in his desperate attempt to modernize and bring “back [?] to Europe” the Soviet Union. That was the essential German-Soviet deal which opened the door to unification on Adenauer’s terms. To celebrate this remarkable deal, Kohl and Gorbachev appeared in V-necked cardigans and open shirts. Surrounded by men in suits, they peered into a Caucasian river and mused upon the meaning of life itself.

In Europe these days, “sovereignty” is a controversial word—and not just for Mrs. Thatcher or Jacques Delors. When German conservatives celebrate Germany’s recapture of full sovereignty, German liberals (and liberal conservatives) hasten to say, “But of course this is no longer sovereignty in the classical sense,” and “After all, we share sovereignty in the European Community.” So let us put it more precisely. Until October 3, 1990, the Federal Republic had somewhat less freedom of action than the United Kingdom or the French Republic, both de jure and de facto. After October 3, 1990, it has almost precisely as much de jure, and de facto slightly more. Britain and France have no comparable international treaty restrictions on their armed forces. But their relative economic weakness and their geopolitical position give them less room for maneuver than Germany, which is once again the great power in the center of Europe.

The liberation from the bonds of the Western allies’ residual rights over Berlin and “Germany as a whole” is but a marginal advantage by comparison with the liberation from the half-nelson grip of Soviet control over East Germany. At a meeting in Moscow just a few days after unification I heard a very senior German official say simply: “Now we are no longer open to blackmail.” “Are the Russians our brothers or our friends?” asked an old East German joke. Answer: “Our brothers—you can choose your friends.” By 1994, at the latest, the brothers will be gone—and Germany can choose her friends.

October 3 will now officially replace June 17, the anniversary of the East German rising of 1953, as “the day of German unity.” A better description might be “the day of German liberty.” Externally, the new German state is free—and can use its new freedom of action for good or ill. Internally, more than sixteen million men and women are free who until a year ago were not. Of course they have hard times ahead. Of course their new freedom is relative. But one of the messages of the East Central European “1989” is precisely to warn against the confused and exaggerated relativization of values in which all too many German intellectuals so wordily indulged over the last decade.

A few weeks before the great day we had to stay with us in Oxford a young man, Joachim. As the son of a very remarkable Protestant priest in East Berlin, he had been prevented from completing an ordinary secondary schooling. When I visited him in the early summer of 1989, at the rectory behind the Wall, he described to me how small demonstrations to protest against the falsification of the local election results (in May), and the East German leadership’s endorsement of the repression on Tiananmen Square, had been brutally dispersed. Here, in this very garden, the marchers had assembled. There, on that street, they had been pulled away, the police dragging them along the cobbles by their long hair. He was pale, nervous, angry.

In the early autumn of 1989 he wrote me from West Berlin. He had fled across the frontier from Hungary to Austria. (On the first attempt, the Hungarian border guards had caught him and turned him back.) Life in the West seemed to him in some ways poorer than in the East, he wrote, “inwardly poorer.” But he was still glad to be here, “and I hope to remain so.” Yet the separation from his family, just a few miles away in East Berlin, was very bitter. His little brother and sister had insisted that their mother take them to a point near the Wall where, clambering on some stones, they could at least see their big brother, a distant figure waving from a platform on the other side.

Now, in the early autumn of 1990, he was a different man: bronzed, confident, relaxed. He had just been to America for the first time. “That’s great!” he kept exclaiming, colloquially. He was just off to Dublin to improve his English. But he would probably go back to join his family in Berlin for Christmas. Suddenly he was the citizen of a free, prosperous, and—dare one say?—normal country. The word “liberation” has long been tainted in Central Europe, and most especially since the Soviet “liberation” of 1945. But there comes a time when even the most polluted words must be reclaimed. This, in a single life, was liberation.

  1. 1

    The German Revolution,” The New York Review, December 21, 1989. See also the extended account in my The Magic Lantern: The Revolution of ‘89 Witnessed in Warsaw, Budapest, Berlin and Prague (Random House, 1990).

  2. 2

    East Germany: The Solution,” The New York Review, April 26, 1990.

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