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World leaders recall the fall of the Berlin Wall

Mikhail Gorbachev, Margaret Thatcher, George H.W. Bush, and Francois Mitterrand give their account of 1989.

(Page 4 of 6)

Despite all this, and despite the artificial division into East and West, when the Berlin Wall came down in 1989 the German nation existed. In legal terms, the borders were recognized by the outside world. The German Democratic Republic as well as the Federal Republic were recognized as sovereign countries.

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So the issue by 1989 to 1990 was not whether German unification was good or not for France – certainly it was safer to have a Germany of 60 million rather than a nation of 80 million. It was more convenient to have Germany divided.

But there was nothing anyone could do. Not the superpowers. Not the East German military. There was no coup. There was no rioting. The wall just fell. There was a popular revolution in which the people in the streets imposed their views on the whole world.

Thus while Margaret and I shared the same historical fears about a unified Germany, we differed here. I believed it was a done deal that no one could undo. As early as July 1989, I was saying that if Germany wanted to reunify democratically, after a universal vote and peacefully, then it was inevitable. And that is what happened.

In the end, there was a rush to reunification that overruled all treaties. In that process, each of us had a viewpoint we held as more important than the other's.

The US was thinking primarily of NATO. I was thinking primarily in terms of borders. I did not want Germany to become unified without recognizing both its eastern and western borders.

Germany certainly did not know what it should do. When Chancellor Kohl went before the Bundestag in November 1989 and proposed his 10 points on how to cope with what had happened, reunification was not one of the 10. He was thinking then of a confederation between East and West Germany.

Gorbachev: The German question was the nerve center of our European policy. You will recall that the Soviet position after World War II was that Germany should be united – but as a democratic, neutral and demilitarized country. But that did not happen.

When West German President Richard von Weiszacker came to see me when I had first become general secretary and asked about my views on Germany, I told him that as result of the war and the system created after the war, two Germanys were an historic reality. History had passed its judgment. Perhaps Germany would reunify in five or 10 – or 100 – years. That was my position then.

At the same time, the Helsinki Process, begun in 1975, was under way. That consolidated the postwar realities, among them of a divided Germany, and made it possible for us to normalize relations with Europe. We then became engaged in widespread cooperation with West Germany. Together, East and West Germany were our biggest economic and trade partners. The Federal Republic, to my mind, had also settled all those frontier issues President Mitterrand raised by signing treaties with Poland and Czechoslovakia. All this created the groundwork for the movement to a new situation.

Of decisive importance, though, was the launching of perestroika in the Soviet Union. It affected public opinion in all the central and eastern European countries, but especially in East Germany.

When I went to the GDR to participate in the 40th anniversary celebrations in October 1989, there was a torchlight parade organized by the leaders. The marchers were carefully selected from 28 districts around the GDR. They were people who were supposed to be "reliable." But they began to shout slogans demanding democracy and perestroika for the GDR.

The Polish premier came to me and said: "This is the end." This had become the reality. And politicians have to accept realities.

For us, the German reunification issue was the most difficult one. For President Bush and the US administration, the key issue was the future of NATO. And, today, as we see how NATO is being pushed forward instead of a European process of building common institutions, we understand why it was their concern. That is a problem.