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Advances Abroad, Struggles Within

Date: October 2000

On that day, the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG), which had been known for 45 years as West Germany, officially absorbed the German Democratic Republic (GDR), or East Germany, reuniting a people who had been split apart politically, culturally, philosophically, and spiritually for decades by a cruel superpower conflict. The event actually began with the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989. Both incidents were transitional points in modern European history.

According to Robert Seitz, then assistant secretary for European affairs, “The fall of the Wall set off forces in Europe which were unprecedented in history.” Ten years later, a tentative economic and political architecture has begun to emerge in Europe, but only time will tell whether German unification has been a net blessing or curse for the twenty-first century.

The Wall’s destruction and German unification seemed to engulf all parties without warning. In 1988, West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl visited the new reformist Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, and was asked afterward about unification. “I do not write futuristic novels like [H.G.] Wells,” he said. “What you ask now, that is in the realm of fantasy.”

In the summer of 1989, Hungary, in open defiance of both Moscow and Berlin, opened its borders to East German refugees who wished to flee through Austria. By September, 40,000 had left, in what the U.S. ambassador called Germany’s “silent crisis.” Aging East German leader Erich Honecker was replaced.

The new leadership, after conferring with Gorbachev, lifted travel restrictions and issued reforms, but momentum had already been lost. On November 9, masses of East and West Germans greeted each other at the Wall. Border guards, without instructions, looked on as both sides began shattering the hated symbol of communist repression. The first step toward unification had been taken.


The fall of the Berlin Wall was a reflexive and spontaneous event, a genuine popular revolt against years of repression. In truth, the GDR simply abdicated in the face of a popular movement out of control. Yet few realized that this was the beginning of the end for the system itself. As East German press spokesman Gunter Schabowski put it, “We hadn’t a clue that the opening of the Wall was the beginning of the end of the republic. On the contrary, we expected a stabilization process.”

Unification would take nearly a year to fulfill and, unlike the crisis that felled the Wall, was a calculated and carefully organized diplomatic process. Despite setbacks over time and quarrels with allies and within bureaucracies, unification realized the strategic goals of both Bonn and … (3088 of 15831 Characters) Read Full Article