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EDITORIAL
from issue no. 09 - 2009

Twenty years after the collapse of the Berlin Wall

The indispensable pragmatism


Giulio Andreotti retraces the process of German reunification and the political earthquake that hit the communist countries of Eastern Europe. Players and key moments at the end of the East-West bipolar confrontation. An interview


Interview with Giulio Andreotti by Roberto Rotondo


The German Chancellor Helmut Kohl with Italian Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti. Behind them, the Minister for Foreign Affairs Gianni De Michelis and his German counterpart Hans-Dietrich Genscher in Bonn, October 1989

The German Chancellor Helmut Kohl with Italian Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti. Behind them, the Minister for Foreign Affairs Gianni De Michelis and his German counterpart Hans-Dietrich Genscher in Bonn, October 1989

“There was a moment when we got the feeling that the status quo could be changed, that the Wall that had divided East and West for forty years was not so unassailable. We perceived that positive progress was possible, even if fraught with difficulties and questions. Today everything seems clear to the historians, but at that time it was very different”. When the Berlin Wall was demolished by the crowd on 9 November of twenty years ago, Giulio Andreotti was head of the Italian government and was greatly involved in the high-speed process that in just 329 days from the collapse of the Wall led to the unification of the two Germanies. In those tense days Italy had in fact notable political weight, if only by the fact that it held the rotating presidency of the European Community and the CSCE. And Andreotti, who in previous years had been among those who had held back on unification, had become one of its supporters: “Helmut Kohl should say thank you to Italy and in particular to Andreotti that many things went right”, Gianni De Michelis, then Minister of Foreign Affairs recently declared to Limes.
Director, why did you change your mind? “I never had a fixed idea about the reunification of Germany, the basic principle of which was already to be found in the Helsinki agreements of 1975. It was simply that what until shortly beforehand would have been a reckless venture had become a feasible way forward. Some moves derived from factors that initially seemed minor, but then, put together, ended up by strongly influencing the situation”.
But what might have happened if the most symbolic gesture of the end of bipolar confrontation, i.e. the fall of the Wall, had occurred a few years earlier? “I’m no prophet, but opening a debate on unification in the situation before perestroika would have created a huge problem for the Soviet Union. It would have been likely to stir who knows what sort of reaction in other countries, for fear that not only the issue of reunification might be raised, but also the whole post-war German problem. Including that of the border to the east. Perestroika gave to the various controlled countries a sort of ‘loophole’, which enabled them to organize themselves according to their identity. And since East Germany had never had an identity, it was sensible for reunification to take place”. And what were the factors that had changed the situation you mentioned? “They were various. One determinant factor was the introduction by Reagan and Bush of the issue of respect for human rights in the negotiations for the reduction of armaments. Also there was the foolish military campaign in Afghanistan, which had created within the USSR a reason for doubting the system”.
There was a moment when we got the feeling that the status quo could be changed, that the Wall that had divided East and West for forty years was not so unassailable. We perceived that positive progress was possible, even if fraught with difficulties and questions. Today everything seems clear to the historians, but at that time it was very different
Yet to read some statements from political leaders up to a few weeks before that 9 November, what was about to happen was not apparently in any way foreseeable. One example to stand for all: on 2 October 1989 the French President Mitterrand – the words were recorded by Jacques Attali – declared: “Those who talk of German reunification don’t understand anything. The Soviet Union will never accept it. It would be the death of the Warsaw Pact. Who can imagine that?” Andreotti resumes: “Today it’s not important to establish whether the Berlin Wall would soon fall was foreseeable or not. We weren’t engaged in guessing lottery numbers. There had already been signs that gave one to think: the opening of the border between Hungary and Austria had immediately provoked the flight of thousands of Germans from East Germany to West Germany. I have no particular merits or demerits in the matter, but I think that when faced with events of historic import one must first look closely and without preconceptions, taking into account possible developments. We thought we were on the right track, but we were also very worried because there was no algebraic formula to guarantee us that everything would turn out for the best”. What might have happened? “There might have been a helter-skelter that would have made the process in course unmanageable, or a stiffening that would have made the obstacles insurmountable, breaking the East-West dialogue and turning back the clock of history”.
You stated several times that you were for a policy of small steps, but events took on an unexpected pace: “The truth is that history is not to be programmed. Sure, had it been possible to design a gradual transition for all the political changes in the East, very harsh repercussions would have been avoided: from the sudden break up of the federated Yugoslav republics to the maneuvers that brought down Gorbachev, sinking his project for differentiated autonomies within the Soviet Union. But the change had been long awaited and in the moment of occurrence events took over. And for that matter there was truth also in what Gorbachev said on 7 October to President Honecker, who was celebrating the fortieth anniversary of the GDR: ‘Those who react tardily are punished for life’. The East German leaders were convinced that their guest of honor was getting everything wrong, imagining a renewal of the communist system. As they saw it, the Wall would protect them for at least another century from bourgeois contamination. Of course seen in hindsight things are clear, but then there were legitimate views on one side and the other”.

The crowd around a stretch of the Berlin Wall, two days after the historic breach on 9 November 1989 <BR>[© Associated Press/LaPresse]

The crowd around a stretch of the Berlin Wall, two days after the historic breach on 9 November 1989
[© Associated Press/LaPresse]

That 18 November evening in Paris
Among key moments, for scholars and for those who lived the events, is the evening of 18 November 1989 in Paris, nine days after the dismantling of the Wall. The leaders of the twelve countries of the European Community had come together, on Mitterrand’s invitation, to discuss the situation. It was supposed to be for show and instead turned into a historic moment. At the meeting after dinner, Kohl was in trouble: Thatcher was strongly opposed to reunification, Mitterrand spoke of it only as a “historical possibility”, Spain also took that position. You, however, almost by surprise, helped Kohl to resolve the stalemate by saying that “Europe favors and advocates the reunification of Germany”. The Summit concluded with explicit support for Kohl, and ten days later he presented to the Bonn Parliament a ten-point plan for reunification, and things continued to march ahead. Was that evening really a turning point? “I’m not sure whether a single turning point may exist. It was in general a period when the urge was felt to change policies that had also become fixed ideas, and I realized that some development was going to come in any case. So it was better to descend with a parachute than without”. The backing for reunification, however, was not unconditional. What was to become the geopolitical “exchange” implicit in the Maastricht Treaty of 1991 took shape: the European Community accepted the reunification of Germany at a rapid pace, but in the context of a quickening in the process of integration of the German giant. At the heart of the process was to be the single currency, the euro, and Germany was to renounce the mark, a very strong currency that made its influence felt beyond the countries of the European Community. Andreotti resumes: “But at the bilateral Franco-German meeting of 2 November, 1989, Kohl had already told Mitterrand: ‘We must make Europe so as to ensure that Germany is no longer a problem’. The antidote to the fear that some people might have, that a third world war could break out, or that Europe become economically Germanized, was to see the German problem clear-sightedly. It’s true that the first European core, created in Brussels in 1948, was anti-German, but time had passed. Furthermore Kohl and Genscher had set out the reunion process very firmly, framing it in a heightened commitment to participate in joining the EEC, to joining an updated Atlantic Pact and a strengthening of the CSCE. Those two latter links allowed us to connect the inter-German dialogue to relations between Europe and the United States and go in the right direction”.
The EEC, in particular, under the Italian presidency, managed to keep up with the course of events. It took seven years to bring in Spain and Portugal and a few months to absorb East Germany. One of the first initiatives taken was to bring into the European Parliament representatives of East Germany. Andreotti explains: “The fact of having the rotating presidency of the EEC gave Italy a role as interlocutor that it would otherwise have been presumptuous to assume. And I think it was played pretty well. Some forcing of procedure there was, given the short time. But it was a policy of commonsense. Sometimes in national and international politics one gets things wrong precisely because one loses sight of the fact that commonsense is what should guide action. Instead one goes looking for complex, even if learned formulas and motivations, losing sight of the central line of development that one wants to take”.
But do you not mind passing, in common gossip, more as the person who in 1984 said he loved Germany so much he wanted two of them, rather than being counted among those who mostly helped the unification of Germany to take place under the European roof? “Let’s say that I could have spared myself the phrase, because it lent itself to speculation. In 1984 one had to be realistic, one couldn’t expect to easily override the historical, ethnic, cultural and economic difficulties that existed. I could also have spared it because it worked so well, even in literary fashion, that it became the watchword of a certain opposition to unification and I was chastised several times for the thing”.

Mitterrand and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, the most stubborn opponent of German unification <BR>[© Afp/Grazia Neri]

Mitterrand and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, the most stubborn opponent of German unification
[© Afp/Grazia Neri]

Gorbachev, John Paul II, Thatcher
Browsing through your statements to the press at that time, a concern emerges not to jeopardize the reform processes that were underway in the East. Why that concern? “First, because our trump card was always not to be provocative. We never gave the impression of wanting to attack, even in the years when the Iron Curtain left no room for any dialogue. Then I had confidence in perestroika. I thought it the only way to overcome the enormous difficulties that the Soviets were facing, difficulties exacerbated by the fact that they had opened the windows. Those across the Iron Curtain who opposed perestroika were not acting in the open but using the lever of ethnic rivalries and the tough economic situation, the scarcity of food. Whereas I always thought that Europe is much more balanced when also Russia is an economic power”.
But did Gorbachev feel he could find backing in your policy to help him strengthen perestroika? What emerges is rather that the Russians were indeed hoping for a united Germany, but rather as a buffer between Europe and the Warsaw Pact, a neutral giant with a special political and economic relationship with the USSR. Was that really Gorbachev’s plan? “Among the more likely hypotheses there was also that of a Berlin-Moscow axis, and I declared publicly that axes have never been lucky for anyone. I don’t know if it was Gorbachev’s idea, if in his heart prevailed fear of the new or the desire to be architect or co-architect. He was a very careful, thoughtful person, he wasn’t impulsive. Bear in mind, however, that he was in turn conditioned by a public avowal that frowned on certain changes, and indeed many felt that conceding anything to the opposite side was subversive. I think Gorbachev was very worried, but he had great constructive beliefs and I think in his heart he never disarmed, even when the USSR dissolved with the coup in 1991”.
Sometimes in national and international politics one gets things wrong precisely because one loses sight of the fact that commonsense is what should guide action. Instead one goes looking for complex, even if well-informed formulas and motivations, losing sight of the central line of development that one wants to take
Yet a month ago Gorbachev declared in an interview with la Repubblica, that in the collapse of the Berlin Wall, there were only two heroes: the Russians and Germans. What do you think? “It’s a somewhat restrictive view of things, the fact is that he can’t see them with detachment because he was a mover in the affair, with his own political background, with his own project that he wanted to accomplish. His is not the calm judgment of the historian”.
One of the most significant images of the period following the collapse was the meeting between Gorbachev and John Paul II in Rome, on 1 December 1989: the President of the USSR and the Polish Pope, who, according to a certain interpretation, had defeated communism. A question you have been asked so many times: to what extent did Pope John Paul II influence the political earthquake beyond the Iron Curtain in those years? “Difficult to say. Perhaps it’s an exaggeration to say that the Polish Pope represented the beginning of all the upheavals in Eastern Europe, even though chronologically that’s how it is. In reality, John Paul II always kept separate his origins, to which he was very attached, from his universal mission as Pope. Certainly, compared to the knowledge and training possessed by other great figures of the Church at that time, his past experience put him in a privileged position that enabled him to see farther than others”.
What do you remember of the meeting between Gorbachev and Wojtyla? Among other things during those days the President of the USSR said that the reunification of Germany was ridiculous ... “I repeat that we sometimes forget that all foreign leaders must take into account their own public opinion. We followed that trip with great interest, because, while not confusing the sacred and the profane, we were attentive to the situation of the Church in a way that other countries might not have been. We had some concern about the shift in progress, but we never did anything hostile, even had we been able to do so. There was the hope that there be some acknowledgement of the fact that those, like us, who had moved more quickly in the right direction, could see things better”. Were they happy in the Vatican, worried or nervous about the collapse of the Wall and what was following on from it? “The Vatican is either never nervous or never shows itself to be so. They look at things sub specie aeternitatis, and rightly so, given their millennial history. Stances were taken and articles appeared in L’Osservatore Romano, but I wasn’t party to any special worries”.
How decisive was the fact that in Poland at that time there was a non-communist government, headed by a Catholic, but which never put in doubt its loyalty to the USSR? “In the West there was a certain sympathy for Poland, precisely because it had never gotten ahead of itself; that was certainly one of the factors that prevented some hostile and negative positions. One of the most pressing problems that had to be dealt with was that of the borders to the east of a united Germany, which precisely affected Poland”. Fifty years earlier, the Second World War had come out of there... “True, but on 9 November, when the Berlin Wall fell, Kohl and Genscher were precisely in Warsaw, and the first thing they did was to reassure the Poles that the Oder-Neisse border would never be questioned”.
Thatcher was also a leading figure. The British prime minister, unlike Mitterrand, who from being a skeptic became a supporter of the integration of the new united Germany, never changed her mind and was the most stubborn opponent of unification. She never changed her mind, and that cost her her political career after the Treaty of Maastricht... “Partly because that was her temperament, partly because her vision and her concerns were also legitimate. In retrospect it’s clear that the right road was taken, but at the time one could also believe it was right to be against. We were struck by the choice of unification because it seemed the most practical, it involved us in the present, but it isn’t that we didn’t see the difficulties and risks”. Is Thatcher’s antipathy towards you the product of that period? “I don’t know, maybe it arose out of the fact that she was accustomed to a series of compliments verging on adoration from many politicians, including Italian ones, and a certain Roman coolness of mine could have been interpreted as hostility. But I had nothing against her”.

John Paul II receiving Mikhail Gorbachev in audience on 1 December 1989. It was the first time that a President of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR passed through the Bronze Door of the Vatican

John Paul II receiving Mikhail Gorbachev in audience on 1 December 1989. It was the first time that a President of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR passed through the Bronze Door of the Vatican

The US, NATO and thereabouts
Did the United States press for a speeding-up of the process of unification, or not? Did it seem that they wanted to close, and with a crushing victory, the era of bipolar confrontation with the USSR? “That wasn’t their attitude. We had the feeling that the US thought it was the right way, but I also recorded considerable distrust of the whole affair, not least because of the impact it had on the global stage, from some influential American political think-tanks. There were psychological and practical complications also for them. Hence the message that came was clear and suited us: it’s a staircase that has to be climbed step by step and without jumps”. An important element tying Europe and the US was and is the Atlantic Pact. You repeated several times in that period that going ahead well required redesigning NATO with speed: “What had hitherto been its tasks was changing. I spent seven years as Minister of Defense and I never came across a project that didn’t start from the idea of defending ourselves from an attack from the East”. You saw NATO as a positive element for bringing in East Germany, but in October 1990 you revealed the existence of Gladio, a military structure of the Atlantic Pact, as if to say that the Pact was by then obsolete. Why? “There was a certain contrast between a cultural vision, so to speak, and a practical-political vision of the problem. Neither position was bizarre, but at that moment we found ourselves with a middle way, which certainly wasn’t ‘middle’, because there was also an imbalance between the two positions. As that may be, the last thing I imagined was to be polemically described, years later, as a ‘paleoatlantic’ advocate by some circles that had been long and irreducibly hostile to the Pact, approved by the Italian Parliament not without controversy”.
The year 1990 was also the year when Saddam invaded Kuwait, starting the Gulf crisis. Was that a particularly problematic year? “If I had to go and find a time when things were very simple, I’d struggle to do so. We’ve always had a series of difficulties, and the contrast between things that one judges useful and necessary, and those that can be achieved has always been lively. However when at some historical moment awareness of the contrast has faded, either we have got uselessly ahead of ourselves, or we have marched on the spot when we could have moved ahead”.

The raising of the German flag in front of the Reichstag building in Berlin during the ceremony to celebrate the re-unification of Germany on the night of 3 October 1990 [© Associated Press/LaPresse]

The raising of the German flag in front of the Reichstag building in Berlin during the ceremony to celebrate the re-unification of Germany on the night of 3 October 1990 [© Associated Press/LaPresse]

Pragmatism is indispensable for building Europe today
November 9 is a multiple anniversary: it is the day on which the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, but it is also that of Reichskristallnacht, the day in 1938 when the Nazis began their anti-Jewish pogroms. In 1999 it was the then German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder who said that for Germany 9 November is “the day of renewal, but also the day on which the abyss began”. A joke of history? “The coincidence is there, but we have to get used to looking forward rather than back. Sometimes making comparisons with the past makes co-existence in the present and the positive advancement of international policy, European in particular, more difficult”.
Devoting an inquiry to the feeling of disappointment and discontent that has afflicted the Germans for some years Der Spiegel recently asked: “But on which side did the Wall fall?” Today, according to a survey, 49% of East Germans think that the GDR had more good to it than bad and still feel like second-class citizens. “Certainly, when the Wall fell Germany still had to be made and it’s normal that various mistakes were made and some predictions turned out wrong. But I remain skeptical of polls and I think that, after all, everyone can see that the road taken was the right one”.
The political construction of Europe also seems to be currently at a standstill and euro-skepticism is becoming more widespread. Why? “Probably the optimism of the most ardent went beyond what could be realistically done to date. If we are referring to that optimism one may also be disappointed or displeased. As for those who looked at reality with more objectivity, one can see that some important things have been done, that the road taken was and remains the right one”.
What then are the conditions for making another step forward? “I have no special recipe, the essential thing is, on the one hand, not to get addicted to the status quo, and on the other not to make futuristic and hardly feasible plans. Again today we are in a transitional phase. And one can take every step at a steady pace or with speed, it depends on the situation. What really counts is to give insights a logical basis, that enables them to develop concretely”. Is it an accident that starting from the first historical group (Adenauer, De Gasperi, Schuman) up to the ’seventies and ’eighties (you and Kohl), European integration has been accelerated by Christian Democrats and Catholic politicians? “I’m convinced of the soundness of those religious inspirations, but we must avoid confusing wishes and desires with realities achievable in practice. Because in the widely enlarged Europe it’s a matter of building situations and structures of enormous complexity that even more than in the past must take heed of ideas, the expectations of different cultures and differing loyalties. In short, a certain pragmatism is indispensable today”.


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