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Dresden, 1989: When Kohl's visit paved the way to unity

Leonie von Hammerstein
December 19, 2019

Six weeks after the fall of the Berlin Wall, on December 19, 1989, West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl headed to Dresden. With the big questions in flux, it would become an unexpected stepping stone towards German unity.

December 19, 1989, Dresden: Helmut Kohl speaks to a large crowd at the Frauenkirche church site.
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Tightrope act in Dresden - Helmut Kohl's Speech and German Reunification

The atmosphere was tense as the plane carrying Helmut Kohl and his delegation approached Dresden on December 19, 1989. This would be the West German chancellor's first visit to the soon-to-be-former German Democratic Republic (GDR) since the fall of the Berlin Wall.

The declared aim of the trip was a meeting with the GDR head of government Hans Modrow to discuss the future of both German states. Kohl favored unity, but Modrow envisioned a future with "two, independent and sovereign German states."

Later, Kohl would say the speech was the most difficult of his entire political career.

"The people expected a message. Not just those gathered on the square, but across all Germany — East and West," he explained. "But of course millions watched and listened from abroad, where there were also fears which you had to keep in mind."

People climbing the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989.
Either side of the Wall, things were still in flux: it wasn't clear what the future would look like for either of the two Germany's of the timeImage: picture-alliance/akg-images

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Avoid an 'explosive atmosphere'

"It was very quiet in the plane," recalls Dorothee Wilms, who would become the last West German minister responsible for relations with the GDR. "Then Kohl again urged everybody to do all they could to avoid triggering an explosive atmosphere in Dresden."

Kohl was also aware that the victors of the Second World War would also be watching his every move. News that he presented a 10-point plan for German unity a few weeks prior, but had only shown it to the US president, jarred the other former Allied powers. Not only the US, but also the UK, France and the Soviet Union were interested to know what would become of the divided and thus weakened Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

From left to right former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, former US President George Bush, Czech President Vaclav Klaus, former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev, widow of former French President Danielle Mitterrand at Prague Castle ahead of their official dinner to commemorate 10th anniversary of 1989 Velvet Revolution on Monday, Nov. 16, 1999.
Early in what would become the reunification process, allies were still cautious about what might comeImage: Imago Images/CTK/S. Peska

The atmosphere was tense in the GDR as well. At this point, so soon after the wall had fallen, many citizens felt uncertain about future ties with the West. They wondered what would become of their socialist model of society. Polls taken just prior to Kohl's arrival in Dresden indicated that a majority of citizens still opposed German reunification.

Read more:  The day the Berlin Wall came down

Kohl's aim: 'The unity of our nation'

Then, where the day before rights activist Herbert Wagner had told those gathered for a Monday demonstration that Kohl would be speaking — even though it was not listed on the official protocol of the visit — crowds of people began to assemble in front of the Frauenkirche church. "News of the speech spread like wildfire, everybody wanted to be there," Wagner recalls. He was the one to offer Chancellor Kohl the symbolic stage and platform.

Dresden, December 19, 1989: A large crowd gathers near West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl.
If anything, Kohl's greeting outstripped what he was expecting or fearing from this first trip into the EastImage: Imago Images/U. Hässler

The lectern seemed small, as if lost in the large square. Behind it stood the ruins of Dresden's beloved Frauenkirche, which was destroyed by Allied bombs in 1945. The World War II church ruin was left in a demolished state as a reminder and a warning.

"Looking back on that day — the people singing 'unity, unity,' and 'Helmut, Helmut' — you can't help but think that if you, as a politician, cannot speak to the people, cannot answer their questions, you must have followed the wrong calling," says Maike Kohl-Richter, Kohl's second wife, who married the widower ex-chancellor years later. Emotionally, she says, it was "one of the most important days of his life."

Dresden, December 19, 1989: Kohl at the podium during his speech.
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/U. Hässler

Kohl delivered a 15-minute speech, thanking the citizens of the GDR for their courage and for successfully completing their peaceful revolution. He cautioned that Germany's future would have to be negotiated with the country's European neighbors, and then he looked into the future: "My goal, if this historic hour allows it, remains the unity of our nation." The crowd erupted in cheers, singing "A day as beautiful as today," an old carnival song. A visibly moved Kohl bid farewell with the words, "God bless our German fatherland."

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Rights activist: 'If you open your mouth now, they'll kill you'

Looking back 30 years, Herbert Wagner says the way forward for both Germanys became "manifest" in this moment.

"East German citizens did not want a third attempt at socialism. They wanted unity," Wagner concludes.

Yet, despite general enthusiasm, questions remained. Annemarie Müller, a rights  activist  from  Dresden, was at the Frauenkirche that night. She says: "I thought to myself, if you open your mouth now, they'll kill you. There was such euphoria that there was no talking to anyone." Müller, like many in the peace movement, had envisioned a democratic and independent GDR for the future.

Witnessing the Fall of the Wall: Katrin Hattenhauer

Reunification has left scars

For some, the day was a key moment in German history, one that made German reunification possible less than a year later. But for others, questions remain 30 years on. Yes, Germany has been reunified, but does everyone in it – especially in the eastern states – feel valued?

The GDR held its first free and fair elections in March 1990. Social Democratic Party (SDP) politician Markus Meckel was among those elected into the country's first new government and he also represented the GDR in reunification negotiations with the FRG.

Today, he looks upon Kohl's role in the matter with skepticism: "The angle from which we, the GDR government, approached negotiations after 1990, was disastrous. We acted as if German unity was the chancellor's business alone. Ultimately, focus on East Germany's stake in the matter was lost."

Social Democrat Markus Meckel during the campaign for East Germany's first and only democratic election in 1990, just months before reunification.
Looking back, Markus Meckel believes that the new and soon-to-be-defunct East German government handled the negotiations poorlyImage: Imago Images/R. Zöllner

Reunification left wounds that have yet to heal for some. Yet, globally, the peaceful process of German reunification remains a shining example. And in Dresden, thousands of citizens gave Helmut Kohl rousing approval to chart the path forward.

Bad Hersfeld: 30 years after reunification