Twenty-Fifth Anniversary of German Unification

Twenty-Fifth Anniversary of German Unification


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Political History and Theory

from Lessons from History and Lessons from History Series

Experts discuss the unification of Germany and the country's evolution into one of the leaders of the European Union today.

The Lessons from History series uses historical analysis as a critical tool for understanding modern foreign policy challenges by hearing from practitioners who played an important role in a consequential historical event or from experts and historians. This series is made possible through the generous support of David M. Rubenstein.  

RATNESAR: Good afternoon. Welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations. My name is Romesh Ratnesar from the U.S. Department of State. And I’m very pleased to be moderating this panel with this extraordinary group of people on the 25th anniversary of German unification. This is part of a series sponsored by David Rubenstein on Lessons from History. The Council plans to have many more of these events in the coming years in both New York and Washington, D.C. So we’re very pleased to be part of that series.

A few items of business before we begin. This meeting is on the record. And we will have a short discussion between the four of us about some of the lessons and legacies of unification. And then we will turn it over to questions from all of you. I will briefly introduce the speakers here with us, but I think all of you have their introductions in front of you so I don’t want to go into great detail.

But briefly, Mary Elise Sarotte is dean’s professor of history at the University of Southern California. She’s also a research associate at the Center for European Studies at Harvard. And she’s the author of “The Collapse: The Accidental Opening of the Berlin Wall,” which is a terrific read and a great ground-level book and study of the causes of the collapse of the Berlin Wall.

Peter Wittig is the ambassador to the United States from the Federal Republic of Germany. He was previously the German ambassador to the United Nations. And we’re obviously pleased to have him and his experience here to contribute to this conversation.

And, of course, Robert Zoellick is the chairman of Goldman Sachs’ International Advisors. He was previously, as you all know, the president of the World Bank. And perhaps most relevant for this conversation, he was the lead negotiator in the Two Plus Four process for Germany’s reunification, working under Secretary of State James Baker and President Bush.

So I wanted to just open this conversation by talking a little bit about the kind of prevailing historical narrative and historical understanding, at least here in the United States and elsewhere, about the causes of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the unification of Germany, the peaceful resolution of the Cold War. And I think to some extent, we tend to look at these events through the prism of political leaders—Reagan and Gorbachev, Thatcher, Kohl and Bush. Mary, I wanted to ask you as a historian who studied this period extensively, is the right prism through which to understand the events 1989, 1990, 1991? And to what extent were those events driven by decisions taken from the top? And to what extent were they driven by forces from below?

SAROTTE: Great. First of all, I just want to say thank you to the Council. It’s an honor to be on a panel of this caliber. And thank you to all of you for coming.

An event as important as the end of the Cold War, the unification of Germany obviously has multiple causes. And one of the ways that I discuss it with my students—some of whom are here in the room today; I’m glad to see them—is as a process of revolution from above and revolution from below. And without both of those revolutions, you don’t have the end of the division of Germany. So obviously you need to understand the changes instituted by Mikhail Gorbachev, the leader of the Soviet Union, by President Ronald Reagan, his rhetorical power, as you’ve described in your book.

But also the effects of the protest movements from below. Of course, solidarity is a very important protest movement, but within East Germany as well, East German dissidents, the Protestant Churches, some of the Catholic Churches inside East Germany, also nurtured a wave of protest movement. And the East German regime, which wanted to be a hardline regime, was unable to maintain control in the face of these two different revolutions.

And for me, in a sense, the end of the division of Germany, is the moment when those lines cross. The revolutionary—the East German regime is losing its ability to maintain control and the power of the peaceful revolution is rising. And when the peaceful revolution eclipses the East German regime, that’s when the ball comes down. And that’s when the unification of Germany suddenly becomes a realistic possibility, if diplomats can pull it off peacefully and successfully. And I know, of course, that Ambassador Zoellick was one of the crucial players in accomplishing that momentous outcome.

RATNESAR: One of the things that you explore in the book is just how contingent this whole event was, that there was not a great deal of anticipation that things would move as quickly as they did.

SAROTTE: Yes. The East German regime—in some ways, there are some parallels to the North Korean regime today. It was trying to hold out, despite pressure to reform from a big brother. And the East German regime was not interested in opening the Berlin Wall. And indeed, one of the surprises of my research was that it was planning and Tiananmen-style event in Leipzig in October 1989. So there were a number of dangerous moment. I was actually just a teenage exchange student in Berlin in 1989—actually, in West Berlin in 1989, which is how I got interested in this in the first place, by having been there and witnessed so many events.

And at the time, it of course felt like an enormous party. But now as a historian researching that again, I became retrospectively—retroactively scared, because it seemed like there were actually a number of moments where it could have turned violent. And there were a number of lucky breaks that resulted in a peaceful outcome to the upheaval of 1989. But that was not a given. As we saw in China in June 1989, violence was a real possibility.

RATNESAR: That’s a good segue into my next question, which I wanted to ask you, Ambassador. Again, we tend to think about the East German dynamic and the revolution spreading across Eastern Europe. What was the attitude of West Germans towards their brethren in the east, but also toward this whole question of unification and what the burdens would be for West Germany if that were to come about?

WITTIG: Well, first of all, thank you for having me here and thank you to the Council for commemorating 25 years of German unity. I did it in my way, in the residence, a couple weeks ago with 3,000 Washingtonians, which was a great party. And we had Joachim Gauck, our federal president, as a guest, who was an agent of that peaceful revolution at the time.

But before I come to your question, let me just preface that with a remark on American statecraft, because this is an American audience and I think it needs to be said from a German. I think the way things unfolded in ’89 and ’90 was probably one of the finest moments of American statecraft in the 20th century. The U.S., the administration, and many people had—were more clairvoyant than many Europeans about the way things would unfold. The U.S. administration at the time had a strategic vision. They knew that this freedom movement was unstoppable. So the challenge was to embrace it and steer it in the right direction. And they did an excellent job in sort of management of change, and sort of warming up friends, allies, but also adversaries, to this momentous change that happened. And Bob will probably like that, when I say this was not only great statecraft, but also great diplomatic craftsmanship.

Now, to your question, I think, again, many Americans were more clairvoyant on the unification of Germany, on the emerging revolution than the Germans themselves. If you would have asked people in the summer of ’89, when will Germany reunify? You wouldn’t have heard many positive answers. Only a couple of weeks or months before the head of—you know, the number-one East German ruler said: This wall will stand for another 50 years, and maybe 100 years. So that was a strong statement, but somehow shared also by many West Germans, even as, you know, first signs appeared.


So I remember Vernon Walters, the ambassador at the time, had said, I will witness the fall of the wall during my tenure here. He said this two years before the wall came down. And nobody really believed in him Germany. So don’t underestimate the surprise that we, ourselves, felt when things unfolded that dramatically. I think there were some ideas in the West, mainly by intellectuals, of a kind of a third way now that sort of the wall had fallen, that there was a prospect of unification. Some intellectual proposed that we should have confederation and somehow be a third entity between East and West. But that was not embraced by the people.

I think the West Germans were, in a way, dumbfounded by events. But then they embraced it joyfully. But they wanted basically to take in East Germany into the Western fold. And this is how it worked out. And I think this—was basically a recipe for success, not to go with a third way, but firmly embed the new Germany in the European Union and in NATO. That’s that most of the Germans felt the right way. And I think there we coincided with that American strategic vision.

RATNESAR: Well, Bob Zoellick, you may just want to take a victory lap. (Laughter.) But seriously, I would like you to walk us through the kind of thinking inside the Bush administration as it was witnessing these events of 1989 into 1990. And to what extent were you guided by a strategic framework? And to what extent do you have to sort of adapt as events carried things in a direction that you might not have anticipated?

ZOELLICK: Well, first, let me join my colleagues in thanking CFR for doing this. Almost 20 years ago I had suggested to CFR that it build a historical sort of set of events like this, including some diplomatic historians and others that look at these issues. So I’m really glad that David Rubenstein has supported this.

Let me suggest three thoughts that kind of build off what others have said. First, Mary Elise’s point about revolutions from below and above is a very interesting one. But then to combine it, I guess, with the diplomatic sense, we’ve had a lot of history of revolutions—French, Russian, Middle East. And I think she’s correct, you needed the below and above. But you also needed something that then structured it. So, I mean, one of the revolutions that worked successfully was the U.S., and that probably required the Constitutional Convention and others to frame it. So that’s a—it’s interesting, as students think about this you’ve got the trend lines, but then kind of what’s the effect of human endeavor and diplomacy?

And that’s also very important because on the structure, while it’s natural that people talk about Germany, and my German colleagues would be the first to acknowledge this point, this real question was the unification of Europe. And so this was not just a German issue. This was dealing with anxieties in France and Britain. This was dealing with Poland. This was dealing with the rest of Central and Eastern Europe, the Baltics. So the architecture and strategy had to be one that was European-wide and transatlantic.

Second point relates to, in a sense, what Ambassador Wittig has mentioned and you asked, how was the administration looking at this? You know, it’s very hard for government officials to predict specific events, as we know from 9/11 or Pearl Harbor or others. Lots of research doing in the intelligence community. I do believe it’s possible to anticipate directions and trends and to try to prepare for them. I think in probabilities a little bit so it’s kind of how you can—it won’t always come to pass. So the world that President Bush 41 and Secretary Baker saw in January ’89 was one where you clearly had a Gorbachev phenomenon that was creating ideas of political liberty in Central and Eastern Europe. The Germans were sort of particularly enhanced, sort of great hopes. And part of the job was sort of how do you respond and position to that?

So Ambassador Wittig mentioned Vernon Walters. What’s interesting is, you know, President Bush in May of ’89 gives an interview where he says: We’re comfortable with the idea of—we then called it German reunification as opposed to unification because of the 37 border—but this was a very shocking event to people, but it was part of an idea of signaling kind of the U.S. willingness. What’s been lost in a lot of the historical treatises and I think very important, that same month there was a NATO summit. And Bush comes up—if you go back in the Reagan period, you have a lot of nuclear arms reductions and discussion. That was the arms control agenda. He total shifts it to conventional forces. He comes out with a very bold initiative that talks about reducing and equalizing forces—so bold that his chairman of the Joint Chiefs resisted it, later opposed him because of it.

Bu the idea was multiple. Number one, if we could start to send a signal that Soviet treats might lead, how would you that leave Europe—how would that sort of fit sort of the political climate? It was very important with the Germans, because after the INF treaty negotiations, the double zero, the intermediate range, the only nuclear weapons left were the short-range missiles. And as the German defense minister said, the shorter the missiles, the deader the Germans. So there was a big debate about modernization of the short-range forces, which we could kind of put aside because the focus had been conventional. If conventional succeeded, you would need them to the same degree.

Third, it establishes Bush clearly as the leader of the alliance. Margaret Thatcher wasn’t so keen on these ideas. Bush sort of pushes it through. So then he goes to Eastern Europe, he goes to Poland and Hungary. So quite interestingly, by the start of the fall of ’89, he’s already positioned himself as an alliance leader, bold moves, arms control issues. And while you couldn’t predict, you know, he was quite well-aware that this was also a response to what would be the yearnings of the German people. And that goes to the third point, that both of them mentioned in your question. What is interesting, as Mary Elise talks about, is kind of the—how this was driven by the German public. But then there’s a couple interesting diplomatic dimensions to that.

One, which Ambassador Wittig talks about, Baker goes to the Nikolaikirche in Potsdam in December of ’89, almost a month after the wall flamed up. And one of the things we did is we visited some of the very courageous Lutheran ministers, the lay people, and others. And even as kind of they are saying they would like to create a third way, der dritte Weg, in German, they’re honestly admitting that’s not what their parishioners want. Their parishioners want what they see on West German TV. This is a big of a diplomatic light going off for us, because what we realize is that this is not going to be a merger. It’s going to be a takeover. This has implications for the constitutional basis, using Article 23 which had been designed for der Saarländ as opposed to merger.

But there’s another implication, which is that this is now a force. And it’s a diplomatic force that you can use, but also can hurt you. You can use it in the sense is that, look, frankly, other Europeans and the Soviets—you know, yes, Gorbachev unleashed this. Gorbachev was not there trying to drive German unification forward. But what could happen is you could make the point to the Soviets, this is an unstoppable forces. We run into dangers, as Mary Elise mentioned, of all sorts. We have to kind of steer and direct this. But then the other side of it was, of course, the fact that for the U.S., who had—which had some objectives like unify Germany and NATO, we had to do this in a way where we didn’t turn German public opinion against us.

So what’s intriguing in this whole story, even the announcement of the Two Plus Four, which is in early ’90, I felt was important because you were going to have the elections in March of 1999 in the eastern länder. And frankly, these people had never had fair elections. You know, so the rest of us believed that, you know, they’d vote what they wanted, but we—who knows? And I think the announcement of the Two Plus Four signaled that this is for real, the four powers are going to move forward on this. So I think part of it, anticipation, structuring it, but also the key role of Germans East and West as a force in determining the nature of this.

RATNESAR: I wanted to ask a little bit about the personalities of the leaders who were very much at the heart of the drama. So maybe we just start with President Bush. He famously said when the wall came down, he didn’t want to dance on the Berlin Wall. He was famously stoic when asked about it in the Oval Office. But he did move very aggressively on unification and said something to the effect that he didn’t want the Russians to claim victory—snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. And he pushed very hard on unification. What do you make of that? I mean, to some extent the gap between his sort of public reticence and then his private determination and assertiveness to reach the outcome that we did?

ZOELLICK: Yeah, good question. And your question might have been even—either intentional or accidental—you posed the not dancing on the wall versus “but” was your conjunction that you used. They weren’t a “but” they were an “and,” OK, because the key point was to be able to work with Gorbachev and the Soviet Union, he did not want to be seen as dancing on the wall. As you suggest, this cost him politically. There were a lot of your former colleagues in the journalist profession that hammered him on this. But he was quite resilient and committed to the idea that he knew he was going to have to work the diplomacy with Gorbachev. He was trying to build trust with Gorbachev.

Remember, he had seen Gorbachev before he became president in the—up in New York. And he’d seen him as vice president. But he didn’t have a meeting as president until December in Malta. So he was going to see Gorbachev shortly there afterwards. And that meeting in Malta becomes very important in framing Gorbachev’s perception about the United States as kind of working with him with what he was trying to do in the Soviet Union, but also framing the relationships with Germany because at that moment, Gorbachev and the Kohl relationship was a little fractious.

But to take another example that gave a sense of President Bush’s attitude, it’s revealed in this interview that he gives in May, where again in sort of very general language, he says, look, after 40 years you got let a guy get up. They’ve earned their place. So it was very general language, but what it communicated was we trust German democracy. Germany’s an ally. Germany’s a partner and a friend. And while that may—and fortunately, that was the view of much of the American public. It wasn’t the view of some of the elite opinion in Europe, if you go back to the editorials, but it was the American public. And that actually gave us additional sort of freedom in the process.

I think beyond that, what is important is his relationship with Kohl and Baker’s relationship with Genscher, and together their relationship with Shevardnadze and Gorbachev is absolutely critical. There’s a trust. There’s a sharing of information. Some of this has been discussed in some of the books. But to give a little sort of anecdote that will drive this home, perhaps, Genscher actually goes to Shevardnadze and tells a joke, since this is—we’ve got the East German connection—that’s going around Germany about a meeting of Gorbachev, Ronald Reagan, and Ernst Honecker, the head of East Germany. And they’re all summoned to Heaven. And God says, look, I got some good news and some bad news. He said, you know, the good news is, you know—or, he says, I’ve got some—I want to let all of you know as leaders that the world’s going to end tomorrow, and you can do whatever you want.

So Regan goes back on American TV and says, you know, I’ve got good news and bad news. Good news is, God does exist, there’s been a question. Bad news, world ends tomorrow, OK? (Laughter.) So Gorbachev goes on TV and says, I’ve got two pieces of very bad news. That God we didn’t believe in, I’m afraid he does exist. And number two, the world ends tomorrow. And Ernst Honecker gets on and says, two excellent pieces of news. He said, first, you know, that question about East German recognition, it cannot be a question. I was brought up to heaven with two other guys. You know, God believes in East Germany. (Laughter.) Second, he said, that perestroika and stuff we were worried about? Tomorrow it’s over. (Laughter.) But the key point is, Shevardnadze likes this joke so much he says, oh, I got to call Gorbachev. And so he calls Gorbachev and relays the joke. (Laughter.) So that’s a special relationship. (Laughter.)

SAROTTE: You should have told me that when you gave me interviews for my book. I would have used that.

ZOELLICK: I’ve got save some for mine.

RATNESAR: That’s right, you got to save your best material. Ambassador, let’s just quickly talk about Chancellor Kohl, who—again, not an obviously charismatic individual, but someone who had a deep feeling for the people, I think. What was his special role in bringing about the peaceful unification of the two Germanys? And then I think, before we open it up to questions, I wonder if you can reflect a little bit about the evolution of Germany’s role both in Europe and the world as it is now at the forefront of another major global story. And what, if anything, can Germany call upon from its experience to deal with the challenge presented by this refugee crisis?

WITTIG: Well, Helmut Kohl was the right man for this historical moment. He seized this moment. And I think he was more clairvoyant about the way this could unfold than many of his compatriots. He had been on a nosedive in his poll rating before. And he emerged as the leader of Germany after those two years. He had always held a belief that one day German unification, reunification, would happen. He just had not believe it would happen so soon. But he had clung to this belief. And he had, I think, a great feel for moods of the people. So he realized also very early in the day that the East Germans wanted a quick economic union with West Germany. So they wanted the deutschmark. They wanted to have the same standard of living.

And you know, instead of engaging in all kinds of scenarios of a third way, he quickly went to facilitate a free and fair election in East Germany. And there, you could see the East Germans voted for the way that then German unification happened. They voted for the deutschmark, if you, you know, put it in a nutshell. So he was—he was validated by this first election, first free election in East Germany. And then he just sensed that there was a brief window of opportunity, that events were in flux, that this configuration of leaders was fortunate, great friendship with President Bush, a relationship of trust with Gorbachev. But he knew—and, of course, a more skeptical relationship to Margaret Thatcher. And a friendship with Mitterrand, but a skeptical Mitterrand. And so he knew that it was probably a small window of opportunity. So he accelerated events. And I think that, you know, makes him a great statesman, to have taken the right decisions at this critical moment.

Now, your question how this role of Germany after unification evolved? I think Germany got, as the America historian Fritz Stern has said, got its second chance. And the question was, when the track was somehow foreshadowed and Germany was on that track of a unified country, could we earn the trust of our European neighbors? Because, and it’s worthwhile to recall, there was a lot of skepticism and a lot of distrust. Is Germany just too big in this centric geographical position in Europe—just too big? Will it derange and destabilize a Europe? Will it erode the balance of power, this equilibrium—you know, very much the Thatcher thinking, that was widespread. So I think what this government, and then ensuing governments tried to do, is establish Germany as a trustworthy partner.

And I think we did it, you know, with important decisions like recognizing the German-Polish border as eternal, but also being a promoter of German, of European integration. And this was important. The euro was a project to gain trust. We tied our economic future to a European currency. It was a political project. Not many people understood it at the time, or didn’t even at the euro crisis in the U.S. understood it. This was a political project. So we would do anything to safeguard, salvage this political project. And I think we also were rightfully restrained in our military and international role because there you could have aroused some skepticism.

So over time, that evolved. Don’t forget, we were called the sick man of Europe at the end of the ’90s, because we had to tackle this huge economic challenge to integrate the East German—the morose East European economy into the whole of Europe. So the sick man of Europe of what economists called us. Now, in 2013, the economists call us the hegemon of Europe—the reluctant hegemon of Europe. Now, we’re not a hegemon and we don’t want to be a hegemon. But there is apparently a rise of European leadership, driven by events.

And the latest even, and then I’ll stop, is probably in the year 2014, when Russia jeopardized the fundamentals of the post-Cold War order, and annexed the Crimea. And all of a sudden, we were propelled into that leadership role, which has—and she assumed it. And then the euro crisis with Greece was also a moment where Germany had no choice but to lead. So it was an evolution, I think, of a rather subdued leadership role, because of our size, in the ’90s and the first decade of this century, to a not expected, not aspired to, not sought leadership role that we have to, like it or not, exercise right now.

ZOELLICK: Can I just—a real quick follow-up on this. Again, you’ve got a lot of people in the audience who served in Germany and probably knew Kohl. It was interesting when you said you didn’t see him as a charismatic figure. This is a person who could certainly fill a room, physically as well as literally. (Laughter.) And I was reflecting on your choice of words on that just because I do think there was a combination he had that maybe is important in thinking about democratic leaders in the future. On the one hand, and Ambassador Wittig knows this, he was a master party leader. He would know the birthdays, the holidays, the anniversaries of all the CDU leaders, had a real fingerspitzengefühl, fingertip feel for the politics.

But then he had this other quality, and some of my associates here tire of having me reference this in other contexts. He drew this phrase from Bismarck, is the sign of a statesman is someone who recognizes fate as she rushes past, and grabs onto the hem of her cloak. And it’s a little bit—and with Helmut Kohl, when he grabbed on the hem, he could swing it a bit. (Laughter.) So it’s a little bit of this anticipation, but it’s also seizing the moment in advance and kind of driving it forward. So in his own way, I actually felt he was a charismatic leader, but maybe in a different way.

And then second real quick point, when we talked about the strategic context of the unification for the U.S. and its relationship to today, look, part of the judgement for the U.S. was, German’s going to become the most important country in Europe. Now, we had our own treaty obligations, we had our own sort of sense of shared interest in Germany democracy and freedom. But there was also an interest calculation that we wanted to stand by Germany at this critical moment because we felt Germany would be an important partner in the future. And indeed, on this trip in May, Bush gives this speech in Mainz called “Partners in Leadership.” And anytime you use leadership in Germany, people get a little sensitive. But the key notion was, we want to build a more—a special link.

And I think this is interesting because for reasons on both sides, and events, I think this is kind of—we’ve lost sight of it, and we’ve taken each other for granted. And exactly as you were starting to ask Ambassador Wittig, if you think about major issues in Europe today—whether it’s Russia-Ukraine, whether it’s refugees, whether it’s the eurozone—it would behoove the United States, I think, to have a deeper type of partnership with Germany. And that means working through some of these issues like the intelligence and the spying and others that have undermined some of the basic trust in the relationship.

SAROTTE: Just to echo Ambassador Zoellick’s excellent points, my understanding of Kohl, of course, is as a historian, through the documents produced at the time. And there, he very much does emerge as a charismatic actor, driving events. And actually, one of the treats for me this year was when the foreign office in Berlin, the Auswärtiges Amt, released a wonderful new collection of documents and published them as well. I recommend this to you if you’re interested in this. And this collection of documents included, among other things, information on the fact that Kohl had more challenges in his own coalition than we’d previously understood, that there was deep-seated tension between Kohl and Genscher about the shape, in particular of European security, after the wall came down.

Clearly, something had to happen, but what? And I am just reading through these documents as quickly as I can, there are a lot of them, but it seems very clear that Genscher was trying very hard to promote a vision of European security based on the Conference for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the CSCE, the precursor to today’s OSCE, and based on a concept of pan-Europeanism, and that that did not sit with Kohl’s emerging vision, which was much more based on the transatlantic partnership and much more based on NATO. And this tension resulted in Kohl not bringing Genscher with him to the Camp David meeting in February at the end of 1990s, which caused a huge protocol problem since Secretary of State James Baker was scheduled to be there. And it was very difficult to have him there if the German peer is not coming.

So this is a really interesting twist now on the story that we’re just coming to understand. The story’s, of course, by no means over. And it’s thanks to your foreign office that these documents are now available and we can look at that. And I mention that because it also has a connection to more recent events, which is that sometimes for a charismatic German chancellor, German leader sometimes the biggest critics can be within the coalition or even within the union. What we’re seeing recently now is the very sharp criticism of Horst Seehofer in the CSU against what Angela Merkel is doing as leader of the Union, whereas she has relative support from the political left. So I think as a historian it shows—these new sources tell me, don’t take for granted that coalition partners agree on everything. And we see that reflected within what’s in the headlines today about the refugee crisis.

ZOELLICK: And just one little addition for the diplomatic lesson here, this—the fact that there were tensions between Genscher and Kohl was apparent on the U.S. side, but there’s also a political reason. And Americans often miss this, because we don’t have coalition systems, is that, you know, if Genscher is going to distinguish the Free Democrats from the CDU, he can’t just be the junior brother of Kohl, right? And some of the Free Democratic foreign ministers have found that this is one of their challenges if you were going to have a party. So in order to understand a coalition system, you need to know that’s going to happen.

But we had a very close relationship with Genscher and his people from the State Department. The NSC and the president, obviously, worked very closely with Kohl and, of course, Teltschik. And I don’t want to overstate it, but—and obviously most of the time the NSC and the State Department were on this quite well-linked, is that sometimes we could kind of help balance the intra-coalition—or the—you know, intra-coalition conflict in Germany.

RATNESAR: Well, let’s open it up to questions. Please wait for the microphone, be brief, and state your name and affiliation when called upon. I saw a hand there in the back. Let’s start—

Q: Thank you. My name is Sonia Schott. I am with the Diario las Americas, a Hispanic newspaper.

My question is, what are the lessons to be learned from the past since there is too much talk right now in Washington about U.S. trying to recover the leadership in the world? So what will be—what is the U.S. expect from Germany facing all these challenges in the world, like China and Russia? And what is Germany willing to play with the U.S.? Thank you.

RATNESAR: Ambassador, do you—

WITTIG: I mean, I focus on the German side of the equation. I would say that, yes, the U.S. expects a certain leadership role of us in Europe. And I think by now we are ready to assume that leadership role. As I said before, it was not a leadership role that we strategically aspired to. We were rather propelled into that role by events, by our economic prowess, and basically by the configuration—the political configurations as they unfolded in Europe.

I think it’s not an easy debate within Germany about participating in international, in particular military operations, when you talk about assuming greater responsibility in international affairs. That is a legacy that we—baggage that we carry from our history. We are sort of very restrained in terms of military interventions. This has evolved slowly but steadily into a more extensive role in international military operations. The latest probably threshold that we crossed was an active participation in the fight against ISIL by sending arms and equipment and training soldiers into a hot war zone in northern Iraq. We’ve never done that before and it shows a new level of sort of international engagement.

So there is an expectation, clearly, of the U.S. that we assume an enhanced role in international conflicts and crises, a certain reluctance from the German population to live up to this expectation, and some constitutional restraints. We have a parliamentary army. Every single soldier that we expedite beyond the NATO area has to have a mandate by the parliament. So that’s also a lesson of history, strict parliamentary control of the military. So in a case we are—in a sense we are still a specific case in Europe, in our military restraint. But there is no alternative. When we look at the crises right now, the root cause of this refugee crisis, which is really probably presenting the most serious challenge to Europe since its inception, is Syria. And also there, we need to be part of that coalition of countries that tries hard and probably with a lot of stamina that it needs to come to a settlement in Syria.

ZOELLICK: Could I take a quick cut at this?

RATNESAR: Sure. Actually, let’s take one more question and then we can see whether there’s some overlap.

Q: Thank you. Hope Harrison, George Washington University. Also a historian, so a question for Mary.

You talked about the revolution from above and below. And I don’t know if you had this experience also in Berlin, but a lot of my friends now in Berlin are talking about wanting to study more the side of history of the East German elite letting go. I mean, so many studies have now focused on the peaceful revolution and what the people have done, but there’s increasingly a sense that, you know, it took two. Just as the people were getting more power, people in the elite were increasingly willing to give it up. And I’d be interested in your comments on that?

SAROTTE: Well, did you want to make your comment?

ZOELLICK: Go ahead. Go ahead.

SAROTTE: Well, actually, just to—on the previous question, what does Germany want from the U.S., what does the U.S. want from Germany, I just wanted to add one sentence to Ambassador Wittig’s excellent comments. It’s my understanding, from friends who have dealings with the National Security Council, and I believe there’s at least one member of the National Security Council here today so correct me if I’m wrong—

RATNESAR: Please identify yourself. (Laughter.)

SAROTTE: —that the NSC staffers now routinely ask the question, what will Berlin think? And that question is now common. It was not a few years ago. But now in the wake of what’s going on in Ukraine, in the wake of 2014, which I think hindsight will look like a very, very important year in post-Cold War history, the role of Berlin is rising in importance. So whatever the answers to those questions, what the U.S. wants from Germany and Germany wants from the U.S., it’s clear that there is a dialogue going on.

It’s kind of—it’s kind of strange for me. It seems like—as someone who’s gone back and forth between Germany practically my whole adult life, there seem to be sort of three levels. There’s a kind of popular level, which is, I find, shaped by an uncomfortable level of anti-Americanism. A lot of protests, now particularly against TTIP. So there’s a sort of popular discourse that has at least an anti-American cast rhetorically. Then there’s a level of sort of people who are not really interested in foreign policy at all, kind of a general public—so the first group are people who are writing and publishing, the second groups is more general public.

But then there’s a third level which is the governmental level. And I have the impression that at the governmental level relations are excellent. John Kerry worked closely with the German foreign minister in Iran. The relations are as good as they’ve been in years. The relations are really, really good at the government level. But it’s interesting, because that isn’t percolating through the general popular level, or to the journalistic level. So those are just a few thoughts on the U.S.-German.

Just briefly on this point, which obviously is of concern, yes, I mean, I think—that’s why I like to talk about from above and below, right? As a historian, the only phenomenon I have never seen in history is mono-causality. Important events happen or more than one reason. And that’s why it’s important to understand both the elite level politics and how a regime lets go or now diplomats respond to crucial events, but also the broader processes from the bottom up. So I think that you’re absolutely right, and we can talk more about the details of that, but I think absolutely right that’s an important component.

RATNESAR: Go to the middle of the room, on the right here. The gentleman here in the—yeah. Sorry. We’ll come to you.

Q: Sorry. Steve Flanagan from RAND.

On the theme of letting go, one topic that hasn’t been addressed yet is the Soviet calculus in all of this. Several of the panelists alluded to the importance of the relationships that existed with Gorbachev and the other leaders, with Shevardnadze and his counterparts. But yet, the Russians had—the Soviets had an enormous amount of leverage at the time, still having 300,000 troops occupying Berlin. What is it—what do you look at, in looking at the historical record, Professor Sarotte, but also the two—and Bob Zoellick, as a practitioner—what is it that sort of led the—led the Soviet leadership to finally give it up and recognize that they might face a fairly bloody alternative if they didn’t, and the pressure that was alluded to that they put on Honecker to not have that crackdown in Dresden or Leipzig?

ZOELLICK: Well, look, this is where the seeing it in a larger context. As you know well, Steve, from your work, there’s actually a little parallel here with China. Gorbachev wanted to transform the Communist Party. He felt it was totally ossified and it wouldn’t lead to changes that he needed to have in the Soviet Union. The contrast is Xi, notice, is also trying to transform the Communist Party, but he’s trying to do it from the inside, and actually showed a documentary film about the end of the Soviet Union to all the Chinese cadres saying: Look at what Gorbachev did and how he screwed it up. So we’ll see how that one plays out a little bit too.

But then, secondly—so his way of trying to reform the system, which he knew—this is where the multiple causes. Partly the dual track, the strong nature of the NATO alliance. I’m talking about the dual track decision in terms of missiles and negotiation. Partly economics. You know, $15 a barrel or $10 a barrel oil, as Gaidar’s memoirs demonstrate, was a very powerful effect on the Soviet Union and other—we could discuss a little bit today analogies to today’s circumstance, although there are distinguishing characteristics. And so Gorbachev was very intent on trying to leverage the West. So he didn’t want to have—create a conflict. And I think as an individual, this was tested a little bit in the Baltics in 1990s, but I think he actually did want to move away from the hard-handed sort of Soviet sort of clamp down.

And so his relationships with the United States and Germany become very important. Now, you’re exactly right. They had 380,000 troops. They had four-power rights. There’s lots of different things that they could have relied on. And in the diplomacy—by the way, this is one of the things that led to one of the few internal disagreements in the U.S. government at the time when we created the Two Plus Four. Some people thought, oh, if we create the Two Plus Four process, that will give the Soviets kind of a mechanism to stop this. By the way, German public being an ongoing force, which also had to affect Gorbachev’s calculation.

I, and others, believed, look, you know, they’ve got different ways that they could influence things. We’ve got to give them kind of a process. We’ll use the underlying force of German people to keep sort of moving it forward. And you partly have to give them an explanation. So Mary knows this and others here, there was a point where we had been proposing a number of things to meet Soviet concerns. They hadn’t registered. And we simply framed them as nine points as a way of kind of trying to address Soviet concerns. So I think it was a combination of fundamentals in the Soviet Union, Gorbachev’s kind of own personality, the fact that Kohl and Shevardnadze—or, and Baker and others were trying to reach out to him.

There’s an interesting moment, we talked about France, which has now come out in the memcons. This is early in the process, but Mitterrand meets Gorbachev, and is basically testing the idea of, look, can we and Britain and the Soviet Union basically stop this thing? And it’s—and in the memo—and the memcon’s quite fascinating. Gorbachev reacts very negatively because he thinks the French and British are trying to set him up. And he basically—you can see what’s going on his mind is, look, if I have to choose who my friends are, I’m going to choose Germany and the United States. And I’m not going to be the fall-guy for this process. So undoubtedly this was his own view about the transformation of the Soviet Union and relations in the West.

My own perspective, and I think this has probably been borne out by history, for Gorbachev this was a very undefined set of views. When you go look at glasnost and perestroika, he’s making it up as he goes. He had a sense of trend and direction, and then partly events sort of drove this. And one reason why, while in know Germany Gorbachev is a great hero and he deserves credit for some of these things, I’d pause a little bit to say, look, I don’t think that the Soviets woke up in ’89 and said, oh, let’s unify Germany and create European freedom. This is where the events on the ground drove it and this is where, frankly, the diplomacy pushed him through.

And one last point on that is that, you know, the ambassador mentioned this—keep in mind, you know, the wall opens in November. The September of the following year you’ve got the Two Plus Four agreement, unification in October. In August of that same year, you’ve got the invasion of Kuwait. So, you know, my problem is my bosses are getting dragged off to do sort of other things. We never knew how long this would last. We never knew how long the window would be open. By December, Shevardnadze resigns, by next year you’ve got a coup, OK? And we—and Mary Elise’s comments on this are rather, I think, striking.

You know, with hindsight you have this 20/20 vision of how all this kind of worked automatically. I was fearful every day that that there could be some incident with Soviet troops, some Stasi person would decide, oh, I want to create a crisis. That was a constant anxiety in the process, as well as the anxiety that if the Soviets had had greater balance, if they wanted to really muck it up, you know, here’s a proposal, what if they said, oh, OK, it’s a huge concession. We’ll allow Germany in NATO, but on the French model, not in the integrated military command. Hmm? We couldn’t have accepted that. And yet, my guess is the Germany public would have said, well, wait a minute, it seems good enough to us, given, you know, Soviet concession.

So there are lots of diplomatic steps where, frankly, this is where the U.S. and Germany worked as closely as I’ve ever seen in relationships. We were constantly kind of using the momentum of events, but also trying to give the Soviets explanation while, frankly, dealing with our allies and calming them down too.

SAROTTE: Just to actually—

RATNESAR: Why don’t we take one more, because I think we’re almost out of—yeah.

SAROTTE: Just very briefly. Just very briefly. To echo what he said, it’s important to remember Gorbachev did not wake up in 1989, exactly as the ambassador said, and said: I’m going to give up East Germany. No Soviet leader would do that. That—East Germany was purchased with the blood of millions of Soviet citizens and soldiers in World War II. The Soviet leadership, including Gorbachev, saw the Soviet occupation of East Germany as wholly legitimate. The reason he suddenly had to think about giving it up was because the wall came down, which was a colossal accident. The causes that produced the actual opening of the wall were trivial, but its consequences were not. Suddenly, thinking about giving up East Germany had to be on Gorbachev’s agenda, and then there were all these contingent factors at work.

RATNESAR: Madam, you were waiting them.

Q: Thank you. Avis Bohlen, retired State Department official.

I just—I have a question, but I just want to say first of all that I was a minor official in the European Bureau when all these events were going on, and mainly involved in the arms control. And I think I have never been prouder of American diplomacy. At that moment, it was really just fantastic to watch.

ZOELLICK: You’re understating your role as a minor official, but graciously.

Q: Well, anyway—but anyway, I just wanted to add my words to the tribute.

My question is about the unanticipated consequences of unification. And first of all, the integration of Eastern Germany into the West, as Bob said earlier, it was a takeover, it wasn’t really an integration. And I think it turned out to be much more difficult than had been anticipated. And I would appreciate the ambassador’s comments on that. And from an American point of view, Bob, did we overestimate how German gratitude for our support and diplomacy was going to play out in the immediate aftermath in Germany’s relations with other countries, notably France?

WITTIG: Well, the unanticipated consequences—maybe the Germans, the West Germans, had underestimated the dismal state of economic affairs in East Germany. And they didn’t realize how costly it would be, that unification—that quick unification, quick economic unification on the basis of the deutschmark. And it, I think, dawned on them that it was really quite a costly affair. Now, I think that if the Germans had known that, they wouldn’t probably not have rescinded their enthusiasm, but it would have gone maybe a little bit of a different way.

Second thing, we probably, in the West—and I’m a Wessi, and I sort of looked at this from a Western perspective—we thought that we could sort of mentality-wise, mindset-wise be more unified in a very brief timespan than we actually did. I mean, there were still some walls in our minds and in our worldviews, even 20 or 25 years afterwards. So the unification on a human level in many respects went well, but there are still differences that remain. One of the sort of upshots of that difficult human unification was that you had a post-communist left party, the PDS, it’s now called Die Linke, which really in a way was a novel element in the political landscape. You had sort of a party that at the beginning clinged to sort of the old East German model of, you know, doing business. So that was something new and that was introduced into the unified political system of Germany, and somehow changed also the party system.

So I would—I would say it played out differently than Germany anticipated. But in hindsight, I would call this one of the huge success stories of Europe, a well-designed and well-rolled out unification. And let’s not forget, this was the nucleus of bringing into the European fold all the East European countries. The enlargement of the European Union, the enlargement of NATO by the East European neighbors is a huge peace project, probably the best peace project in centuries in Europe. Countries that had been at war before several times all of a sudden being part of one—of that one European Union. That’s a—that’s a sea change in history. And that is is—was partly made possible by this German unification.

And last sentence, we are now going through a very, very difficult time in the European Union, where this spirit of being one, the spirit of European solidarity, of the European spirit is putting to the—to a very tough test, to a litmus test, if you will, by the refugee crisis. And we’re worried right now, in Europe, that there will be cracks in that, not only institutional, but also in that mental architecture. And we’re going through a very decisive, key moment for the future of the European Union.

 ZOELLICK: So just a quick though on your first point, Avis. You know, I remember thinking at the time that this was going to take much longer than people had hoped. It’s natural, in the process. An added complexity was you had 40 years of German social democracy, social market economy, with various regulations, that then got imposed on the East. I remember talking to the new minister, president of Brandenburg and saying, you know, if you could experiment with some of the things that are now being discussed in Europe about structural reforms, less regulation, create—it will work better, but it’s inevitable that you’re going to have the same system.

But third on that, I hope you’ve had this opportunity which I’ve had, which is now and then I get a chance to meet some younger East Germans that are now in the professional sphere—Konrad Adenauer-Stiftung, I met the finance ministry, the foreign ministry, and it will warm your heart about the result that you have achieved and the difference that it made for people.

On the idea of kind of U.S. gratitude, you’re an experienced diplomat, as you know, if you’re basing your policy expectations on people having gratitude, you’re probably on the wrong path. (Laughter.) Nevertheless, I’m sure there’s always a sense of that. But I’ll come back a little bit to the other question I wanted to answer, because I’ll connect it in this way. You know, the United States, as you and probably most of the people in this room know, works best when it works with alliances and partners. And that doesn’t mean, as the newspapers suggest, we get to order people around or direct or so on and so forth. You actually kind of have to understand—and the ambassador gave a good explanation of some of the limitations in the process.

So I think part of the effectiveness with Germany is understanding the strengths and weaknesses, just as we have strengths and weaknesses. So one of the points I mentioned is, you know, Germany is dominant in Europe today, but it doesn’t want to be seen as dominating. And you can hear the ambassador talk about that with hegemony. So actually, there’s a role for the United States that can be a companion. Also, of course, Germany’s respectful of European institutions. So we’re not just doing it bilaterally with Germany. You have to do it in the overall structures.

I have a little—this comes back to your point about gratitude—in the German official community, I find actually there is a gratitude. In the public, there’s a little bit of the anti-Americanism that Mary Elise mentioned. But here, you know, if we want to be smart, you know, let’s take TTIP, which she alluded to. We need to understand how that is being perceived in Germany now, and kind of how they see it as removing regulations and standards. And the framework and formulation of this, if it’s going to be successful, will have to be different. I mentioned the spying as another sort of example that I think American public officials kind of underappreciated the sensitivity of this cause.

But let me take one more small example that really drives it home. Look, there have been differences on the U.S. and German side about sort of stimulation policies, OK? And frankly, I used to cringe when I’d see the U.S. government saying, oh, you know, Germans should spend more and so on and so forth. I mean, you know, OK, there’s a debate in the United States and Keynesianism, but in Germany this is like spitting in the wind, OK?

But could you go to Germans and say, you know what, you’re not investing enough, OK, first in the public side or infrastructure. Or maybe your business sector, if you look at the investment numbers, is slipping. So maybe you could use some depreciation—rapid depreciation for your investment tax risk. You can have discussions with the German Finance Ministry on that, and by the way that’s a form of stimulus. So the point of this, going back to the leadership question, is whether it’s Germany or somebody else, to be effective, we kind of have to know where we can sort of understand their limitations, their strengths, and work with them to our sort of mutual end.

RATNESAR: Well, we could continue this conversation for another 25 years, but we are already overtime. (Laughter.) I want to thank our speakers, and please join me in thanking them for this very illuminating conversation. (Applause.)


This is an uncorrected transcript.