The United States stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the Germans seeking freedom. This is a story of ten days that sealed the partnership between Germans and Americans in the search for German unification.
After the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989 on November 13 the East German parliament (Volkskammer) had voted into office an interim government that would govern until free elections would be held in the spring. Socialist Unity Party (SED) leader Hans Modrow, whose views on Glasnost and Perestroika supported Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, was elected Prime Minister and Christian Democratic Party (CDU) leader Lothar de Maizière became deputy prime minister. He agreed to join that government only if his conditions would be met, most important of which was the elimination of a constitutional provision guaranteeing a leading role for the Socialist Unity (communist) Party, the SED.
On December 1, 1989 in East Berlin, the capital of the German Democratic Republic, U.S. Ambassador Richard C. Barkley, my boss, hosted a dinner in his Nordenstrasse Residence in East Berlin for Senators Claiborne Pell (of Rhode Island) and Richard Lugar (of Indiana). They were to be joined by East German officials and dissidents who had just breached the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989, just three weeks earlier. Disintegration of East Germany was already in full swing. After the Berlin Wall fell euphoria swept across Germany. Finally, the cry of the demonstrators: ‘We are the people’ became ‘We are one people.’
Although throughout East Germany the pace of the revolution was breathtaking, life in the embassy kept pace with events, including this unusual dinner gathering of all the parties. Guests began arriving for the ambassador’s dinner but it was soon evident that something was amiss. None of the government or communist party officials came.
That same December 1 the Volkskammer with our expected guests met in emergency session and, as promised to Lothar de Maizière, voted to remove from the constitution the SED’s monopoly of power. This was a critical victory for the people who had demanded the SED give up its “leading role” of state sovereignty and return sovereignty to the people. This act at the beginning of December, channeled by demonstrators' slogan: "We are the people” and won popular sovereignty. The people would exercise their right of self-determination in the upcoming May 1990 Volkskammer elections.
Sunday morning December 3 the visiting American Senators headed off to visit Berlin-Karlshorst, the historic location where the ‘Unconditional surrender’ of the Wehrmacht on 8 May 1945 was signed.
The Peaceful Revolution was in full swing when I accompanied the senators. On the way through East Berlin I led them through the sites of the on-going revolution – the Lustgarten across from the seat of the Council of Ministers of East Germany where candle-light sit-in demonstrations protested against the SED, down to Alexanderplatz where demonstrations began and then on to the Gethsemane Church site of political protests against arrests of political dissidents. Suddenly, as the bus continued down Karl-Marx Allee we were stopped by the Peoples’ Police. I jumped from the bus to see what the matter was. I confronted a Volkspolizist and argued we had a bus with American VIPs and needed to pass. He apologized for not being in charge. The idea that the police had lost power totally flummoxed me.
Out of the pedestrian underpass came hundreds of East Germans carrying candles and as they lined, they blocked the road. I had a flashback to an encounter I had had with a friend, Ruth Misselwitz, Pastor for the Pankower Lutheran church and leading revolutionary. She had told me of a "human chain" to demand freedom that was planned to span across the entire country. There it was streaming out of the ground in the hundreds. I rushed to the bus and brought the senators to meet with the demonstrators. These Germans in the GDR stood quietly and nervously shuffled in place with their candles eyeing the street for the Stasi, fearing for a crackdown. We gathered with them and asked about the revolution. The senators tried to speak with the demonstrators, who were nervous and silent as they stood with their candles surveying the crowd for the Stasi informants.
Fifteen minutes later just as suddenly the crowd disappeared. The senators climbed back in the bus and proceeded on to Karlshorst. The Cold War world was unraveling.
On the Verge of Civil War
The East German political upheaval was slipping into chaos and all attempts to restore calm were being tried. Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev encouraged Modrow to try to seize the initiative on the German Question – Whither Germany? I attended the parliamentary meeting in the Volkskammer where a future of Germany was outlined by Modrow’s proposal for the two Germanys to form a "Vertragsgemeinschaft" or a ‘treaty community’ for separate, but equal Germanys.
In Brussels that same day, December 3, Chancellor Helmut Kohl and President George H.W. Bush met at the NATO summit to discuss German unification and the just concluded U.S.-Soviet Malta Summit with President Mikhail Gorbachev.
In that meeting, Kohl sounded an alarm when he told Bush of potential violence in a collapsing East Germany. He expressed concern about "uncontrolled weapons" in Rostock. Bush reassured Kohl that he had told Gorbachev that the U.S. had no interest in inviting collapse in East Germany. Kohl recalled the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) process that had mandated only peaceful change of borders in Europe and argued that the West should not force Gorbachev into a corner.
A day later, West Berlin’s Mayor Walter Momper publicly warned about those same "uncontrolled" weapons in Rostock and East Germany’s descent into civil war. U.S. Minister Harry Gilmore at the U.S. Mission in West Berlin immediately reported Momper’s analysis of the dangers from deteriorating government control in East Germany and the threat of civil war in East Germany to Washington. Entitled "Momper’s Grim Analysis of the GDR (East German) Situation", the briefing memorandum echoed Momper’s warning about a collapsing East Germany and of the possibility of civil war mentioning uncontrolled Stasi weapons in the Kavelstorf warehouse near Rostock. He suggested that there might be no alternative than to have a 380,000-strong Soviet Army intervention to restore order.
The notorious intelligence arms trade operation of the Stasi was also collapsing. East German State Secretary for Commerce and Foreign Currency Alexander Schalck-Golodkowski had been in charge of foreign arms sales that raised billions of dollars in hard currency over the years to finance the communist regime. When the SED handed over State sovereignty to the people’s popular sovereignty, Schalck-Golodkowski feared lynch justice from his own Stasi would be his fate. He could see himself hanging. Overnight on December 2, 1989, he fled to West Berlin. On December 4 the party sacked more of their own communist leaders, and stripped them of SED party membership. These included Communist Party Chairman Erich Honecker, former East German Prime Minister Willi Stoph, and Stasi chief Erich Mielke.
Far from Berlin, on December 4, the citizens of Erfurt in the heart of the GDR, were the first to attack Stasi offices. That attack occurred at the same time that West Berlin’s Governing Mayor Walter Momper held his secret briefing for the U.S., French and UK Allies in Berlin about those uncontrolled weapons in Rostock, raising concerns that East Germany was spinning out of control.
Momper’s analysis was sound and worrisome. Would disaffected Stasi or the company shock troops (Betriebskampfgruppen), who had helped to build the Berlin Wall in 1961, try to seize the weapons at Rostock? If uncontrolled weapons were to fall into the hands of disaffected Stasi, special police units, or company shock troops, civil war was easily threatened.
As if to prove the heightened danger, the Stasi’s Kavelstorf warehouse was entered by irate local citizens shortly after Schalck-Golodkowski fled to the West. They found there some 24,000 rockets, 60 million rounds of ammunition and small arms, 26,000 handguns, 50,000 hand grenades, 9400 armor-piercing anti-tank weapons and 19.4 tons of explosives all worth millions of dollars.
Momper and Dieter Schröder
Trying to keep the lid on the anger and aggression, on December fourth the East German Military States’ Attorney opened an investigation into the secret arms trade to take charge of Kavelstorf. In this time of disorder, dissidents also worried about violence and issued a call for non-violence, an ‘Appeal for Reason’ that was signed by Ruth Misselwitz, Friedrich Schorlemmer, Gregor Gysi and others and was published by the Neues Deutschland newspaper on December 5.
Despite the warning alert from West Berlin, the U.S. Embassy in East Berlin sent to Washington on December sixth an on-the-ground report responding to the civil war alarm which gave a more reassuring picture of the revolution that "despite the changes born of disorder... the East German government still runs, the people work, the economy functions and the forces of democratic change are organizing for elections. Demonstrations continue peacefully amidst rumors of political violence. The pace of this revolution is breathtaking."
Then on December 6, Egon Krenz stepped down and was replaced by Manfred Gerlach. On December 7 angry Germans in the GDR took over and occupied Stasi offices in Cottbus, Rostock, Suhl and in Dresden. Prime Minister Modrow appeared on television to call for non-violence, recognizing that weapons could lead to an escalation of violence. He laid down a red-line not to be crossed.
Neues Deutschland, the paper of the Socialist Unity Party to my surprise reported on that weekend, December 9-10, Secretary Baker’s comments on the situation in the GDR, with that quote directly from my cable to the State Department, crucially omitting the reference about organizing for elections.
While Momper’s announcement was prescient in many ways, his suggestion that a Soviet Army intervention might be needed to restore order would have escalated the violence and likely triggered other interventions. That possibility was real and President Bush kept track of the escalating events.
Gorbachev had sent Valentin Falin, head of the international department Communist Party and expert on Germany, to visit Berlin and sought his assessment. After consulting Soviet military and civilian officials as well as East German leaders, he proposed establishing a Soviet crisis staff and recommended the Soviet Union to close the Berlin Wall, using as many as a million soldiers if necessary.
While Gorbachev kept his soldiers in their barracks, the Modrow cabinet ordered Admiral Theodor Hoffmann, the Defense Minister, to send the still functioning East German Army (NVA) to Kavelstorf and seize the weapons left uncontrolled by the Stasi. The order also called for Hoffmann to disarm the special police units, the company shock troops and the Society for Sport and Technik (a youth organization that trained with weapons).
Visit by the U.S. Secretary of State to East Germany
Although the threat of violence was ever present, the pace of the revolution was indeed breathtaking; events were happening so fast that the U.S. Embassy diplomats in East Berlin could only send a flow of reports to Washington on many, but not all of the events. Breathtaking was the way to describe the fury of events passing by us.
Others around us were reporting on incidents that seemed to lead to violence or seemed to indicate that the Soviet troops would leave their barracks. Rumors abounded: Was there an assault on a Soviet radio tower in the Harz Mountains? Did the citizens of the village of Buch attack a Soviet tank? Were there skirmishes between Soviet dependents and East Germans over shopping? We in the U.S. Embassy were concerned confrontations between Soviets and East Germans would become violent and set a chain reaction of events of escalating violence. Although rumors flew everywhere, non-violence reigned, so far.
After receiving reports from West Berlin about East Germany, Secretary of State James A. Baker was clearly concerned about a deteriorating situation in East Germany. Baker was also concerned about keeping the reform movement peaceful and keeping changes flowing from the fall of the Berlin Wall in East Germany manageable.
After the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman reported that the Bush administration worried that East Germany’s collapse could have forced a disorganized, de facto unification with West Germany before either Germany's neighbors or the Soviet Union are prepared to accept it.
Shortly after U.S. Embassy East Berlin reported on developments in light of the disintegrating GDR, Secretary Baker was on his way to West Berlin to deliver a speech on U.S. policy on Germany. He was briefed by the State Department Operations Center and in a meeting with the Washington Post editorial board was asked about the fear of civil war in East Germany. He turned to his briefcase and read the summary of Embassy East Berlin’s report on developments in East Germany. The Secretary of State was determined to calm nerves in Washington. He was going to Berlin to do all he could to help keep developments peaceful.
Baker was keenly aware of American responsibility with its allies for “Berlin and Germany as a Whole” from the victory in World War II. That Allied Forces – Four Powers – retained sovereignty remained a legal obstacle for unification. All Four Powers would need to relinquish those rights. Consequently, Baker considered visiting East Germany after his speech in West Berlin to send the message that the United States was serious about its role and its rights for Germany as a whole.
After arriving in West Berlin, Baker called in the two American ambassadors – Richard C. Barkley in East Germany and the Vernon Walters in West Germany – and sought their advice on whether he should visit East Germany while on the current trip. Such a visit would be the first trip by a U.S. Secretary of State to East Germany. It was a difficult decision to take since the U.S. considered East Germany to be an illegitimate, unrepresentative regime, despite the fact that the U.S. had diplomatic relations with the country since 1974.
Ambassador Barkley assured him that his visit would not provoke further instability and argued that fair elections would likely end communist rule as had happened in Poland in June 1989. The Secretary’s visit would reinforce the call for those East German elections planned for May 6, 1990. A visit would also offer a chance to encourage peaceful political change and to explain U.S. policy on unification. Ambassador Walters argued that such a high level visit could strengthen the communist government by giving the SED legitimacy.
After deliberating with the ambassadors, Baker called National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft to discuss the possible visit and obtain President Bush’s approval. He also discussed his planned visit with German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher and Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard A. Shevardnadze.
After assessing the risks and hearing back from Brent Scowcroft, Baker decided to come to East Germany after his West Berlin speech and informed Barkley to arrange meetings. With his marching orders to set up the Modrow meeting, Ambassador Barkley returned to his dinner in East Berlin in time to ask Deputy Prime Minister Christa Luft, who was at the dinner in the Ambassador’s residence, to call Prime Minister Modrow and arrange a meeting. Such a high-level visit prepared in a few hours was painful to arrange and critical to U.S. policy discussions with East Germany.
America’s role was presented in West Berlin. Providing security and stability in Europe was at the heart of Secretary of State James Baker’s speech in West Berlin on December 12, 1989. He spoke of designing and the gradual establishment of a new architecture for a new era. Although he spoke of new security architecture, Baker also made clear that Europe must have a place for NATO, even if also serving new collective purposes. Baker met with Chancellor Kohl before his speech to emphasize the link in the two country’s policies about Germany. The next day he delivered his speech about U.S. views on a changing Europe, one that explained that as "Europe changes, the instruments for Western cooperation must adapt."
After the Berlin Wall fell President Bush was prepared to implement American support for German unification, and he did so. On this basis, the Secretary of State laid out succinctly the four principles in which President George H.W. Bush at the December 1989 NATO summit reaffirmed America's long-standing support for the goal of German unification. Baker enunciated the four principles that guided U.S. policy.
"One, self-determination must be pursued without prejudice to its outcome. We should not at this time endorse nor exclude any particular vision of unity.
Two, unification should occur in the context of Germany's continued commitment to NATO and an increasingly integrated European Community, and with due regard for the legal role and responsibilities of the Allied powers.
Three, in the interests of general European stability, moves toward unification must be peaceful, gradual, and part of a step-by-step process.
Four, on the question of borders, we should reiterate our support for the principles of the Helsinki Final Act."
Here also on December 13, 1989 Neues Deutschland reported Baker’s speech and call for architecture for the new era, drawing on the four points in his speech, including NATO and EU membership for Germany, but without reference to German unification.
After Baker delivered his speech in West Berlin, he traveled to Potsdam on the outskirts of Berlin. The visit was dramatic and Tom Friedman, writing in the NY Times on December 13, 1989 reported that Baker "[d]irectly after his [West Berlin] speech, slipped into a Mercedes limousine and traveled to East Germany to deliver another message in a previously unannounced round of talks with East Germany's Communist Premier Hans Modrow, as well as with several East German opposition leaders."
The motorcade was indeed quite a sight. On his drive from West Berlin he was escorted by a bevy of West German Mercedes police cars and paddy wagons with sirens blaring and blue lights flashing. Then he came to the border at the famous spy-exchange Glienicke Bridge scene where American U-2 spy plane pilot Gary Powers and Soviet dissident Natan Scharansky were set free.
Once past the Soviet soldier guarding the bridge, the motorcade left the West Berlin escort behind. Baker recalled his motorcade was like a caterpillar shedding its husk as it moved into East Germany. Across the bridge an East German motorcycle policeman and a lonely East German Volkspolizist in his tiny Wartburg car with a dimly lit blue light led Baker from the famous Bridge to the East in Potsdam where he met East German Premier Hans Modrow at the Interhotel Potsdam. I met the Secretary as his motorcade arrived and thought the declining power of East Germany was clearly discernible.
Against this background, East German stability and German unification were certainly on Secretary Baker’s mind when he traveled to East Germany following his West Berlin speech. Calling for elections as well as a non-violent peaceful reform movement, and enunciating U.S. policy that “unification should occur in the context of Germany's continued commitment to NATO and an increasingly integrated European Community, and with due regard for the legal role and responsibilities of the Allied powers” was at the top of his priorities.
Baker achieved his primary purpose of supporting free and fair elections in hearing Modrow reaffirm publicly his promised plans for the then planned May 6, 1990 election in East Germany. Baker rebuffed the idea of economic cooperation for the East German proposed joint ventures until after Modrow conducted those free elections. American policy supported first self-determination, just as the President had proposed to Kohl in early December.
As for unification, Baker explained American policy on German unification as he had in his West Berlin speech, and encouraged Modrow on a peaceful path to reform. Modrow argued unification was not an issue for the East German ruling communist party in early December 1989.
Speaking to reporters after his one-hour meeting with East German Communist Premier Hans Modrow, Secretary Baker said: ''I felt it was important that we have an opportunity to let the Premier [Modrow] and the people of the German Democratic Republic know our support for the reforms that are taking place in this country. We also wanted to make it very clear that we support the process of reform in a peaceful manner, and we are very anxious to see the process move forward in a stable way.''
Baker did hold out some future hope for U.S. investment in response to Modrow’s discussion of East German joint ventures. Baker told Modrow that if East Germany followed in the perestroika/glasnost footsteps of Poland and Hungary, it could expect to receive a sympathetic hearing from the West.
Premier Modrow, who was also concerned about stability in East Germany, said at the same press corps encounter that East Germany "tries in its relations with the United States to be a stable element." Modrow added that East Germany was also "a building block in the "common European home" as Gorbachev sought. Neues Deutschland on December 13 gave front page coverage to the Modrow-Baker meeting, reporting on the American interest in a stabile and peaceful process leading eventually to unification and elections.
After the Modrow meeting Baker met with Manfred Stolpe and Lutheran ministers in the Nikolaikirche in Potsdam. Baker urged those leaders of the peaceful reform movement to keep the movement nonviolent and to approach the issue of German reunification with sober restraint. Perhaps to the surprise of the American delegation, the East German delegation on December 12 made clear that they had no intension of abandoning their quest for the renewal of East Germany in exchange for German unification. Perhaps it was simply still too provocative for the fragile opposition in East Germany to forcefully challenge the right of the GDR to exist. While this existential challenge would come shortly, however,
Free and Fair Elections in East Germany Determine Unification
Anger, dissidence and hope were energetically channeled into the democratic election. In the three months remaining before the March 18, 1990 election, political parties in East Germany campaigned for the first free and fair democratic election in the history of the country. Unification was in the air. I was meeting with candidates and the government and they were nervous but determined to carry out the vote that could give a mandate for a united Germany.
The campaign was wide open and wild. Chancellor Kohl campaigned hard in East Germany, holding a great number of rallies and promising "blühende Landschaften" (flourishing landscapes) after unification.
The West German Social Democratic Party called for unification through negotiations rather than annexation under West Germany’s constitution Article 23. Social Democratic Party (SPD) leader Willy Brandt also spoke of what belonged together would grow together, although SPD party chairman Oskar Lafontaine called for a longer process. Party positions mattered less than the demands from Germans in the GDR who were eager to have a unified Germany.
At issue was the power to decide whether, when and how unification would occur. Under the West German constitution the decision rested in the hands of the Volkskammer, which could vote for unification by joining the Federal Republic of Germany under its constitutional Article 23. That article of the constitution of the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) had earlier been used when the parliament of the State of Saarland had voted in 1955 to join Germany. It was clear that Article 23 worked and could unify Germany.
There were still dissidents to this process who clung to a lost hope for a renewed East Germany. The constitutional process of simply joining West Germany angered them. They campaigned against "annexation" under that constitutional provision. Bündnis ’90 used an essentially untranslatable telephone recording, a voice that let callers know there was no connection under the number called: "ART. 23: Kein Anschluss unter dieser Nummer".
The motto was clever, but the underlying point was that East Germans would decide for themselves in the March 18 election to unify Germany over any opposition from Bündnis ’90 and others. East Germany would join the West German constitution whenever the Volkskammer voted to unify Germany.
On March 18, 1990 as an American Congressional delegation watched the election results I saw the relief in the faces as the people voted for a clear path to unification by giving a coalition of the parties supporting the unification a clear majority. As the night wore on I heard the comment that the long nightmare experienced in East Germany was over.
On August 23, 1990 the Volkskammer voted to accede to the Basic Law of the Federal Republic of Germany and set October 3, 1990 as the day of unification. The final round of Four Powers negotiations in the 2+4 Talks were held in Moscow on September 12, 1989 after the decision to unify Germany was taken by the Volkskammer and on October 2, 1990 the Four Powers suspended their Rights and Responsibilities for Berlin and Germany as a whole.
The United States stood with Germany throughout the 2+4 negotiations, and on November 15, 1990 the Final Treaty on Germany was signed in Paris, along with the Charter of Paris for a new vision of Europe. Thoughts and fears of a civil war in East Germany in December 1989 faded quickly and were by now forgotten. Thucydides’ quote on freedom: "The secret to happiness is freedom... And the secret to freedom is courage" is fitting as the citizens showed courage for freedom, which carried the day in the Peaceful Revolution.
Zitierweise: James D. Bindenagel, The Role of the United States in German Unification. From Diplomatic Dispatches - An American Diplomat in the Capital of the German Democratic Republic, in: Deutschland Archiv, 26.10.2015, Link: www.bpb.de/213549