Reagan Brought Down the Berlin Wall, but It Was George H.W. Bush Who Unified Germany

A united Germany might not have emerged at all without the consummate skill that the late president displayed.

Ronald Reagan is deservedly famous for the ringing challenge he delivered at Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate on June 12, 1987: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” But after the Berlin Wall collapsed on November 9, 1989, it was his successor, President George H.W. Bush, who worked with West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl to harness the energy of the upheavals in the crumbling Soviet empire to deliver on the long-proclaimed promise of German reunification.

On October 3, 1990, East and West Germany ceased to exist, replaced by one country. As Angela Merkel, Kohl’s political protégée and eventual  successor, explained at the G20 summit in Buenos Aires upon hearing the news of Bush’s death, she “probably couldn’t be standing here” if Bush had not played his pivotal role.

In other words, a united Germany might not have emerged at all—or at least not a Germany still firmly anchored in NATO—without the consummate skill that the late president displayed in handling the most difficult assignment any statesman could have confronted at the tail end of the Cold War.

There was not a hint of exaggeration in Merkel’s statement. Her country, along with the United States and all its allies, was extraordinarily fortunate that the leader of the free world at the moment was so well prepared for this assignment. His foreign policy credentials were beyond dispute, given his stints as ambassador to the United Nations and then to China, CIA director, and, of course, Reagan’s vice president. No other recent occupant of the White House has come close to matching his résumé.

The magnitude of the task facing Bush and Kohl is also hard to overstate. Despite formally backing German reunification, most of the country’s neighbors made no effort to hide the fact that they were only paying lip service to that goal—and that, in reality, many of them were horrified by the idea. French writer Francois Mauriac caustically summarized that sentiment. “I love Germany so much that I am glad there are two of them,” he wrote.

In September 1989, just two months before the fall of the Berlin Wall, Britain’s Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher told Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev: “We do not want a united Germany.” She added that such a development would “undermine the whole international situation.” After Kohl announced his 10-point plan to unify his country on November 28, she complained to European leaders: “We beat the Germans twice, and now they're back.”

But the largest obstacle to German reunification was Gorbachev’s Soviet Union. His countrymen had paid the highest price in lives for Nazi aggression, and U.S. Secretary of State James Baker worried that his regime “would not tolerate a revived German threat”—which is how Soviet hardliners would see a reunited Germany. But Bush had already concluded that the unrest in East Germany and the rest of the Soviet bloc meant that such long-held assumptions, at the very least, needed to be reexamined. “I don’t share the concern that some European countries have about a reunified Germany,” he said.

Bush declared he was not “pushing” for speedy reunification. And he sought to assure Gorbachev that he appreciated the Soviet leader’s precarious standing at home where hardliners were infuriated by his liberalization program and overtures to the West. As a result, Bush refused to make any triumphant pronouncements after the fall of the Berlin Wall, ignoring his domestic critics who accused him of timidity for not doing so.

At the Malta summit in December 1990, Bush made sure Gorbachev understood the motivation for his behavior. “I hope you noticed that the United States has not engaged in condescending statements aimed at damaging the Soviet Union,” he told him. He also specifically mentioned the accusations at home that his approach was overly cautious. “I am a cautious man, but I am not a coward; and my administration will seek to avoid doing anything that would damage your position in the world.”

At the same time, Bush left no doubt that his country would back reunification, whatever the objections of some of his allies and Moscow. But he coupled that message with reassurances to Gorbachev about his administration’s support for the Soviet leader’s reform initiatives at home. Gorbachev also left with the distinct impression that Bush would not seek to expand NATO to the east—something that U.S. officials would later hotly dispute.

Gorbachev had repeatedly floated the idea of replacing NATO and the Warsaw Pact with a vague confederation of all the countries in the “common European home.” But this was too reminiscent of Stalin’s proposal for a neutral unified Germany, which Western governments feared would offer Moscow the opportunity to control it. As Bush told French President Francois Mitterrand in April 1990, no organization “could replace NATO as the guarantor of Western security and stability.”

And for all his sensitivity to Gorbachev’s position at home, Bush was completely resolute in his approach to this central issue in his talks with Kohl. “We prevailed. They didn’t,” he told him. “We can’t let the Soviets clutch victory from the jaws of defeat.” At the same time, Bush and Baker sought to convince Gorbachev that it was better to have a united Germany anchored in Western institutions, specifically NATO, than seemingly on its own—and possibly unpredictable in its behavior again. With little maneuvering room, Gorbachev gradually gave in to those arguments.

In pre-1989 West Germany, most people had appeared resigned to living in a divided nation for the indefinite future. Some were even happy with the stalemate, since they had no idea how the country could cope with the economic costs and political fallout of reunification. In his book “The Wall Jumper,” West German writer Peter Schneider mocked the ritualistic rhetoric about reunification. “It’s like watching the 1,011th performance of a repertory play in which actors and audiences both stifle their yawns,” he wrote.

The yawns disappeared when East Germans began running for the exits, triggering the crisis that culminated in the fall of the Berlin Wall. In one poll conducted in the midst of those events, 79 percent of West Germans and 71 percent of East Germans called reunification desirable. It was then that Bush and Kohl took charge of what could have been a chaotic process—and led it to its successful conclusion.

Not that everything went smoothly. The economic costs were even greater than most political leaders had anticipated, and the tensions about NATO expansion have continued into the present. But the overall results were stunningly impressive.

On October 3, 1999, the ninth anniversary of reunification, I watched Kohl greet Bush and Gorbachev at a celebration and reception near the Brandenburg Gate. Kohl was the only leader still in power at that point, but all three were hailed as architects of a political miracle. As recently as 2009, on the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the three men met there again.

Kohl died last year. Now the second of the miracle makers has joined him.