The Fast Track to Reunification
It was the stuff movies are made of and it was a Hollywood actor who would start a steamroller that didn't stop until German reunification. Former movie star and American President Ronald Reagan was determined to weaken the Soviet Union to the point that the world's second superpower would cease to exist -- and he was unloved by many Germans for some of his policies to achieve that goal, particularly the stationing of Pershing missiles in Europe.
Reagan's Soviet counterpart, Mikhail Gorbachev, had become head of the USSR in 1985, and instituted reforms to try and save communism there. Perestroika and glasnost were part of the zeitgeist, words that meant more freedoms for Russians and Eastern Europeans alike. Reagan knew how to take advantage of this. His theatrical demand to tear down the Berlin Wall while visiting the enclave in 1987 was only wishful thinking at the time, but in the next two years history took a turn that only the bravest and most sanguine opponents of communism would have ventured to predict.
East German leaders underestimate the situation
As the wheels of an unstoppable train began rolling, the leaders in East Berlin failed to follow the lead of Gorbachev and some of its Warsaw Pact neighbors by loosening their iron grip on the country. In January 1989, SED party chief Erich Honecker still intoned that the Wall would be standing for another 50, or even 100 years. Yet, the people of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) were becoming restless, with demonstrations on the streets of Dresden and Leipzig, and masses fleeing the country through Czechoslovakia and Hungary.
The East German leadership, finally reading the writing on the wall, tried to stop the bleeding by allowing greater freedom to travel. On Nov. 9, without a shot being fired, without any blood being spilled, the Wall crumbled.
"We've decided today to implement a ruling that allows every East German citizen to exit at border controls in order to travel outside the country," was the misinterpreted announcement by Politburo member Günter Schabowski (photo). In a matter of minutes, the checkpoint stations along the Wall that divided East from West were flooded by East Germans. They were dramatic, tearful scenes that remain branded in the memory of any German old enough to remember.
Reunification process steamrolls ahead
The sudden breakdown of sovereignty did not please everyone at the top levels of the East German leadership. Die-hard communists called for the execution of the SED party heads, who in their eyes was responsible for the collapse of the GDR.
Others wanted to retain an independent, democratized East German state. But these dreams were swept away by "the people," who continued to march on the streets, chanting "We are one people!" making reference to their desire that the two Germanys belong together as one.
West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl recognized that he could take advantage of this window of opportunity, even if he knew it was a window that could close very suddenly and possibly very violently.
"We Germans have learned from history," he assured the rest of Europe and the world. "We are a peace-loving and freedom-loving people. And we will never let our democracy succumb to the enemies of peace and freedom. The love of our fatherland, freedom and being a good neighbor are a part of us."
Talks lead to rapid reunification
As unstoppable as the people of East Germany were when throwing off the communist cloak to reunify with West Germany, so was the acceptance of the event in European capitals. The victors of World War II, and some particularly fervent opponents of German reunification such as British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, went to the negotiating table. At an inconceivable pace considering just what was at stake, namely the reconfiguration of European geopolitics, a treaty was drawn up. Britain, France, the Soviet Union and the USA would withdraw from a reunified Germany.
Germany received total independence for the first time since 1945. In return, it officially recognized the existing border with Poland. The process hit some bumps along the way, for example with the introduction of the German mark to the East in the summer of 1990. In August 1990, though, the East German parliament took the historic vote that would close the book on the German Democratic Republic.
Then Federal President Richard von Weizsäcker, speaking on October 3, 1990, said what would turn out to be prophetic words for the reunified Germany: "No treaty between governments, no constitution, no legislation, will determine how successful this unity will be at a human level. That depends solely on the actions of each and every one of us."