On Thursday, November 6, 2014, the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF) hosted Ambassador Frank Elbe, a retired diplomat of the Federal Republic of Germany, and Robert B. Zoellick, chairman of Goldman Sachs International Advisors, for a conversation on “The Legacy of ’89: Uniting Germany,” marking the launch of its Legacy of ’89 series. The series marks 25 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the subsequent unification of Germany, and political transformations across Europe, bringing together intellectuals, former and current government officials, and members of the media for reflection, stocktaking, and innovative policy prescriptive conversations amongst the transatlantic and pan-European communities. Elbe and Zoellick were at the center of the negotiations on German unification after the Wall came down, in their positions as chief of staff for West German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher and as lead U.S. negotiator in the “2+4” process, respectively.
GMF President Karen Donfried welcomed the audience and stressed that “1989 affected almost every aspect of transatlantic reality,” from geopolitics to urban landscapes of post-communist cities, and that the Legacy of ’89 series will be as diverse as the European continent, encompassing the overall legacy of the events of that year and how it continues to affect us today. David Ignatius of The Washington Post, who moderated the discussion, began with an anecdote about a tiny fragment of the Berlin Wall he keeps in his office, which to him serves as a reminder “that people make history.” He also noted that while the United States’ foreign policy is not always perfect, it did something “supremely well” in keeping faith with the idea that Germany and Berlin would not be divided forever.
The discussants first described where they were when they discovered the Berlin Wall had fallen; Zoellick had been in the Philippines and Elbe was in Warsaw. Both Zoellick and Elbe emphasized that unification was not immediately considered after the fall of the Wall, and that there was fear that it would deteriorate into a situation reminiscent of the stifled revolutions in Budapest and Prague. Zoellick qualified this by crediting President George H.W. Bush for positioning the United States in a way that it could support German unification. The discussion then turned to the ramifications of West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl’s subsequent 10-point plan for German unity. Elbe described the nuanced perspectives of the leaders of the United Kingdom and France, who were initially skeptical of a unified Germany; Zoellick stressed the importance of the United States’ role in overcoming those fears, and particularly in its work on the “2+4” format for negotiations. Zoellick argued that after visiting East Germany, he knew its people would continue to be a force in diplomacy, as a stalled unification process could precipitate mass migration or even riots. He explained the viewpoint of the Soviet Union, noting that “we were trying to avoid a Versailles victory, an achievement that planted the seeds of its own destruction.”
Ignatius then turned the conversation toward the present day repercussions of 1989 regarding Russia’s alleged “humiliation” with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Elbe stressed that Moscow’s security concerns were constantly taken into account during every step of Germany’s unification and that while this idea of humiliation came much later, the challenge of explaining to the Russians, who had sacrificed so much in World War II to defeat Germany, that Germany would again be unified was also recognized. He argued that the internal political climate within Russia restricts President Vladimir Putin in his dealing with the West, and stressed that the lesson of the Cuban Missile Crisis was that it was important to keep open lines of communication. Zoellick said he thought that Putin had not planned to go into Crimea ahead of the revolution in Ukraine and had reacted to events getting away with him, but argued that it was important to understand the mindset of Russia’s leadership. He drew differences between Putin and the Soviet leaders at the time, General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev and Minister of Foreign Affairs Eduard Shevardnadze and others, stressing that those leaders had a different view of what they wanted for their country including a good relationship with the West.
For more on the Legacy of ’89, see Ivan Vejvoda’s Transatlantic Take, “Annus Mirabilis: The Road to 1989, and Its Legacy.”