Helmut Kohl Pushed, Prodded, Promised in Germany’s March to Unity
BONN, Germany (AP) _ Five years ago today, Chancellor Helmut Kohl won the biggest gamble of his political career by unifying Germany.
Shrugging off skeptics who favored a slow merger, Kohl persuaded the big powers and Germans in East and West to support quick unification of the two German states split by four decades of Cold War.
United Germany marked its fifth birthday with speeches and music in Duesseldorf, the site of the government’s official celebration, and all-night parties in homes and town halls throughout the country.
Reunification is not working out as smoothly as Kohl had hoped. The costs to taxpayers have been enormous and there are psychological and material divisions to overcome as eastern Germany becomes accustomed to capitalism.
But Kohl, known as the ``unity chancellor,″ governs a country with Europe’s mightiest economy and a big voice in international affairs. His domestic prestige has never been higher.
When freedom-giddy East Germans rushed through the Berlin Wall on Nov. 9, 1989, the idea of one Germany was still a distant dream.
But Kohl seized the chance for unification and ran with it.
Nineteen days later, Kohl unveiled a blueprint for united Germany. He didn’t even clear his plan with the four World War II victors who had divided the nation in 1945.
Horst Teltschik, one of Kohl’s closest advisers during the 11-month march to unity, says that until the Berlin Wall fell, the chancellor doubted that Germans would be reunited in his lifetime.
``Unification was always a goal for Helmut Kohl. But he didn’t know he would live to see it and he especially didn’t suspect that he would be given the opportunity to bring it about,″ Teltschik, now on the board of directors of the BMW car company, told The Associated Press.
Change was made possible by the loosening of Moscow’s reins over Communist-ruled central Europe under Kremlin reformer Mikhail S. Gorbachev.
Starting in May 1989, Hungary let East German vacationers pass through its territory to Austria. Hundreds of thousands more went West via Hungary, Poland and Czechoslovakia in the following months. Emboldened by the exodus, pro-democracy demonstrators clogged East German squares and streets.
Erich Honecker, East Germany’s hard-line leader, was ousted on Oct. 18 by the Politburo and replaced by the more moderate Egon Krenz. In an effort to vent public pressure and save the communist state, Krenz opened the Berlin Wall and the inter-German border on Nov. 9.
Teltschik recalled an evening meeting in Kohl’s Bonn bungalow where he advised the chancellor to take the lead and seek reunification. ``He agreed and asked me to elaborate a strategy,″ Teltschik said.
Kohl’s initial decision to go for unity was kept secret from the United States, France, Britain and the Soviet Union _ the World War II victors over Germany. German political allies within the chancellor’s coalition were also kept in the dark.
``There was a danger in consulting beforehand with other people, whoever they might be, because we might have been told to be cautious, or not now, or let’s discuss it later,″ Teltschik said.
In his speech to the West German parliament that Nov. 28, Kohl unveiled his proposal for free elections in East Germany and ``confederative structures″ between the two German states, with full unification the ultimate goal.
Initially opposed were British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, French President Francois Mitterrand and Gorbachev, the Soviet president.
But President Bush backed Kohl, apparently because Americans never fretted as much as Europeans about a reunited Germany, Teltschik said.
Kohl got unity’s blessing from the three Western wartime allies by pledging reunited Germany would remain in NATO and European institutions. Moscow was bought off with promises of German aid.
With the East German economy teetering, Communist leaders agreed to hold the first free elections on March 18, 1990. A coalition allied with Kohl’s western party won the vote.
With Kohl in the driver’s seat, West and East Germany formed an ``economic and monetary union″ in the summer. East Germans traded their Ost marks for the West German currency, merrily buying western cars, TVs and video recorders with their crisp new bills.
Unification was completed Oct. 3, 1990 _ just 329 days after the fall of the Berlin Wall _ and East Germany ceased to exist. Germans celebrated with all-night parties and fireworks.