I had an opportunity to preview a new documentary that will premier on PBS entitled, After the Wall: A World United, which focuses on the political challenges that had to be overcome in order to reunify Germany at the end of the Cold War. It’s a fascinating look at one of the most critical events of the 20th century, and it is definitely a worthwhile view.
The fall of the Berlin Wall is the enduring symbol of the end of the Cold War. What is largely forgotten is that it didn’t actually end there; the event is just remembered that way because the big-picture questions ultimately worked out in the end. For students of diplomacy, After the Wall offers some key lessons.
One of these lessons is the importance of thinking deeply about the ripple effects of political action; as chess-players say, to “see the whole board”. Consider this excerpt from an interview with Condoleeza Rice, former U.S. Secretary of State and a Soviet hand in the George H.W. Bush Administration, regarding news of the fall of the Berlin Wall:
We all rushed over to President Bush the next day and said ‘You must go to Berlin! You must go for Kennedy! You must go for Reagan!’ And he said, ‘What would I do when I got there? Dance on the Wall?’ He said, ‘This is a German moment.’
This was a remarkable decision. There was a bipartisan presidential tradition of going to Berlin to express solidarity with the West German government and demand freedom for all Germans in line with traditional American values; had President Bush gone, few would have begrudged him for joining them in celebration. Shrewdly, Bush understood the importance of not stealing the show. For one thing, it really was a “German moment” – this was the beginning of the end of the country’s imposed bifurcation, the absolute beginning of the new German state, and German citizens were leading the movement. In the second place, Bush knew that he still had to deal with the Soviet Union. He preferred to deal with Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev and didn’t want to weaken his already vulnerable political position at home by throwing the event – an embarrassment for the Soviets – back in their faces. This decision paid important dividends later.
That kind of attention to diplomatic symbolism was a hallmark of the Bush Administration’s foreign policy in the days after the Wall came down. A key example was the question of a new German state’s political alignment. Knowing that a reunified Germany would naturally tilt more to the West than the East, Bush assiduously avoided speaking on behalf of a future German government. Rather than insisting that Germany join NATO, the administration asserted Germany’s right to make its own alliance choices. This achieved the same purpose while making an important statement about German sovereignty – something that hadn’t totally existed since the end of World War II.
Yet another lesson is the importance of individuals to the business of diplomacy. One of the most interesting parts of After the Wall is the way former senior officials recall being surprised by the decisions of their interlocutors. Whether it is Helmut Kohl’s decision to declare a pathway for German unification before discussing it with the White House, ultimately setting reunification in motion and solidifying his place within the effort, or Gorbachev shocking U.S. officials by immediately assenting to allow the future reunified Germany to pick its own alliance membership as was the Bush Administration’s wish, rather than insisting that it take the place of the German Democratic Republic in the Warsaw Pact. These actions smoothed the way for Germany’s peaceful transition into a single state and a member of Europe.
After the Wall does a wonderful job of telling the story of the days between the fall of the Berlin Wall to German reunification by focusing on many of the key issues that that momentous event created. West Germany was prosperous, free and stable. East Germany was also stable, but it was poor and unfree; after communist rule ended there, its state-enforced stability also disappeared. The Germans, the Americans, the Soviets and the other European powers all moved cautiously with the knowledge of Germany’s vital place in geopolitics. What After the Fall shows is how ably diplomats on all sides negotiated this uncertainty to a successful conclusion. I focus on the diplomats here as that is the focus of this blog, but the documentary is also the story of the German people and the enormous challenge of merging what had become two very different societies into one whole again, as well as the social dislocations this effort caused. It’s a powerful story that may be replayed someday soon on the Korean Peninsula.
After the Wall reminds us that peaceful reunification was in no way inevitable; rather, it was the result of skilful diplomacy, sound political leadership and heroic forbearance by the German people. The two Germanys were the epicenter of the Cold War. They developed into two vastly different countries due to their circumstances after the war, and it was not at all certain that they could easily be reunited, especially since they were backed by rival superpowers. Today, Germany is whole and the most powerful economy in Europe. It’s an important story and preamble to the world we live in now.
“After the Wall: A World United” will premiere on Monday, January 17 at 10PM ET on PBS.