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Momentous Day Twenty Years Ago in Berlin

Interviewee: Serge Schmemann, Editorial Page Editor, International Herald Tribune
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
November 5, 2009

On November 9, 1989, East Germany suddenly opened the Berlin Wall, which had been a symbol of oppression since it was erected in August 1961. CFR's Bernard Gwertzman, who was foreign editor of The New York Times at the time, and Serge Schmemann, then-chief Times correspondent in Germany, recalled their role reporting on the swirl of events set in motion by an East German bureaucratic snafu, and the deeper changes already at work in the Soviet bloc. Schmemann, capturing some of the confusion of November 9, said he did not realize the wall was actually opened until later that night when his East Berlin-based assistant walked into his hotel room in West Berlin.

The opening of the wall led to a series of events, including the uniting of the two Germanys on October 3, 1990, the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, and the breakup of the Soviet Union on Christmas Day, 1991. On German unification, Schmemann credits the political skills of German Chancellor Helmut Kohl. "[The division of Germany] was over and Kohl saw that clearly and I think the other major move was that Kohl managed to convince [U.S. President] George Bush, the first George Bush of course, of this as well." Schmemann also noted the crucial role of Mikhail Gorbachev, saying "nothing would have happened without the process that Gorbachev set loose in '85 when he became the head of the Soviet Union."

The communist bloc collapse led to the enlargement of the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to include former Warsaw Pact countries and some of the former Soviet republics. And it has contributed to continued resentment in Russia toward the West, note Gwertzman and Schmemann. "The rapidity with which the East European countries and the Baltic countries were incorporated into both the EU and NATO is really something to be lauded because again there was no choice," said Schmemann. "These were countries that were clamoring, that were still afraid of Russia, that were still not reassured that Russia had also turned the corner even if the reforms had begun from within Russia."


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