Post Wall, Post Square: Rebuilding the World After 1989 by Kristina Spohr

Banner image: The open Berlin Wall at Potsdamer Platz, 12 November 1989, Press and Information Office of the German Federal Government/Heiko Specht

Go to the profile of Kristina Spohr
Nov 09, 2019
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As the world thinks back to the fall of the Berlin Wall and commemorates the re-establishment of German unity Post Wall, Post Square by Kristina Spohr, a major study based on recently declassified material including from the British, French, German, Russian and United States archives, shows how political leaders grappled with the revolutionary waves of change surging around them – from Warsaw to Bucharest, from Berlin to Beijing – including key decisions, personal struggles and quite unknown emotional moments.

The world could scarcely have been less prepared for the actual ending of the Cold War that came in 1989–91. The Cold War denouement was a largely peaceful process, out of which a new global order was created through international agreements negotiated in an unprecedented spirit of cooperation. The two chief catalysts of change were the new Russian leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, with a new political vision, and popular protest in the streets of Eastern Europe. People power was explosive, but not in the military sense – the demonstrators of 1989 demanded democracy and reform, they disarmed governments that had seemed impregnable and, in a human tide of travellers and migrants, they broke open the once-impenetrable Iron Curtain. The symbolic moment that captured the drama of those months was the fall of the Berlin Wall on the night of 9 November (page 2).

A Full-time Occupation: Activism is Fundamental to the New Social Contract by Micah WhiteCo-creator, Occupy Wall Street and author of The End Of Protest: A New Playbook For Revolution

A Full-time Occupation: Activism is Fundamental to the New Social Contract by Micah White, Co-creator, Occupy Wall Street and author of The End Of Protest: A New Playbook For Revolution

The results were indeed astonishing. By the end of 1990, communist ideology and the command economy had been buried throughout Eastern Europe. Even more notable, divided Germany had become a sovereign, unified state within both EU and NATO. Although these were talked up as victories for the West, they had been accomplished without a war and with minimal civic strife. This remarkably peaceful transition distinguishes 1989–90 from other periods of historical transformation (page 584).

A key part of the explanation for this lack of conflict was the process of cooperative international management by key leaders, including Mikhail Gorbachev, but also Helmut Kohl, and George Bush described in detail in Post Wall, Post Square. In order to understand the paths these leaders took and the decisions they made, Kristina Spohr peers over their shoulders, watching them struggle to understand and control the new forces at work in their world. They explored a range of often-conflicting options in an effort to manage events, impose stability and avoid war. Lacking road maps or shared blueprints for a future world order, they adopted an essentially cautious approach to the challenge of radical change – using and adapting principles and institutions that had proved successful in the West during the Cold War. This was undoubtedly a diplomatic revo­lution, but conducted – paradoxically perhaps – in a conservative manner (page 3). 

Taken as a whole, these managers of change formed a cohort largely from the same generation, born between 1924 and 1931, with the exception of Mitterrand (b.1916). All of them were marked by the memory of a world at war between 1937 and 1945 and thus shared an acute awareness of the fragility of peace. It is noteworthy that most of them (Kohl and Mitterrand were exceptions) also lost power in 1990–2, so they were never obliged to confront in a sustained way – as political leaders – with the fallout from their actions (page 4).

Kristina Spohr accounts for both the personal relationships and courageous, often not very well known decisions that these leaders took in this critical period. Gorbachev and Kohl met in Bonn in June 1989, signing no less than eleven agreements expanding economic, technological and cultural ties and a joint declaration affirming the right of peoples and states to self-determination – a significant step, especially from the German perspective (page 79). 

Gorbachev and Helmut Kohl toast the Bonn Declaration, 13 June 1989
Gorbachev and Helmut Kohl toast the Bonn Declaration, 13 June 1989: Vitaly Armand/AFP/Getty Images

Yet the ‘Bonn Declaration’ was much more. It was the centrepiece of a state visit whose primary importance for the West Germans was the symbolic reconciliation of two nations whose brutal struggle had left Germany and Europe divided. It defined what both deemed to be a new and more promising phase in Soviet–West German relations. This was reflected in the conclusion expressing ‘the deep, long-cherished yearning’ of the two peoples ‘to heal the wounds of the past through understanding and reconciliation and to build jointly a better future’ (page 79, Serge Schmemann ‘Bonn Declaration: “Heal the Wounds”’ NYT 14.6.1989).

As human beings they also developed a real closeness, sharing childhood memories and reflecting on their families’ wartime sufferings: ‘There is not a single family’ in either country, said Kohl quietly, ‘whom the war did not touch’ (page 80, Memcon of Kohl–Gorbachev talks 13.6.1989 (full transcript) DESE doc. 3 pp. 287–92 esp. p. 292; for a shorter Russian extract, see Record of Second Conversation between Gorbachev and Kohl 13.6.1989 MoH:1989 doc. 66 p. 475)

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Gorbachev was welcomed ecstatically in West Germany – the little Rhineland towns, as much as the Ruhr steelworks he visited, were all mobbed with people shouting ‘Gorby, Gorby’. 

On their last evening, after a long and relaxed dinner in the Chancellery bungalow, Kohl and Gorbachev, with only a translator in tow, wandered into the park and down the steps to the Rhine. There they sat on a low wall, chatting occasionally to passers-by, and gazing at the Siebengebirge hills beyond. Kohl never forgot this moment. The two men imagined a comprehensive reordering of Soviet–German relations to be codified in a ‘Grand Treaty’ (See Hannes Adomeit Imperial Overstretch pp. 398–9) that would open new perspectives for the future. But Kohl warned that it was impossible as long as Germany remained divided (pages 80-81). 

Gorbachev was unmoved: ‘The division is the result of a logical historical development.’ Kohl did not let go. On that balmy night, in a haze of wine and goodwill, he sensed a not-to-be-missed opportunity. Pointing to the broad, steadily flowing Rhine, the chancellor mused: ‘The river symbolises history. It’s nothing static. Technically you can build a dam … But then the river will overflow and find another way to the sea. Thus it is with German unity. You can try to prevent unification, in which case we won’t experience this in our lifetimes. But as certainly as the Rhine flows towards the sea, as certainly German unity will come – and also European unity’ (page 81, See Hannes Adomeit, Imperial Overstretch pp. 398–9).

James Baker peers through the Berlin Wall, 12 December 1989
James Baker peers through the Berlin Wall, 12 December 1989: Patrick PIEL/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

The book describes (page 65) how “after pussyfooting around Mikhail Gorbachev for half a year, George H. W. Bush had no choice but to engage”. Bush had been alarmed by the Soviet leader’s peace offensive around Europe, not least because America’s NATO allies appeared to be in the grip of some kind of ‘Gorbymania’ which made them susceptible to Soviet blandishments about arms reduction. His own European tour – to Poland and Hungary ahead of the July G7 meeting in France – had been planned in May but it was now all the more imperative, in order to ‘offset the appeal’ of Gorbachev’s message (page 84, Bush & Scowcroft, A World Transformed p. 115. For Bush’s plans to visit to Poland ‘Bush to Visit Hungary, Poland in July to Show US Support for Their Reforms’ LAT 6.5.1989. See also GHWBPL Telcon of Kohl–Bush call 5.5.1989 Oval Office p. 2).

But that said, Bush did not want his European trip to be about scoring points off Gorbachev. The president had already laid down his own ideological principles in the spring and, far from wishing to mount a ‘crusade’, he was sensitive both to the volatile situation in Eastern Europe and to Gorbachev’s delicate political position at home. He did not intend to ‘back off’ from his own values of freedom and democracy but was acutely conscious that ‘hot rhetoric would needlessly antagonise the militant elements within the Soviet Union and the Pact’. He even worried about the impact of his own presence, regardless of what he said. While wanting to be what he called a ‘responsible catalyst, where possible, for democratic change in Eastern Europe’, he did not want to be a stimulus for unrest: ‘If massive crowds gathered, intent on showing their opposition to Soviet dominance, things could get out of control. An enthusiastic reception could erupt into a violent riot.’ Although he and Gorbachev were jockeying for position, the two leaders agreed on the importance of stability within a bloc that was in flux (page 85, Bush & Scowcroft A World Transformed pp. 115–16).

On his trip to Europe, Bush and his entourage arrived at Warsaw’s military airport around 10 p.m. on 9 July. It was a humid summer evening as they descended from Air Force One to be greeted by a large official welcoming party. Jaruzelski was in the forefront but, for the first time ever during a state visit, representatives of Solidarity were also present. No spectators were allowed near the plane, but en route from the airport to the govern­ment guest house in the city centre, where George and Barbara Bush would be staying, thousands of people lined the streets, three or four deep, waving flags and giving the Solidarity ‘V’ for victory symbol. Others leant from the balconies of their apartments, throwing down flowers onto the passing motorcade. The mood, contrary to Bush’s fears, was that of a friendly welcome, not a political demonstration (page 85, Bush & Scowcroft A World Transformed  p. 116; Maureen Dowd ‘Bush in Warsaw on Delicate Visit to Push Changes’ NYT 10.7.1989). 

Bush with Lech Wałęsa. Gdańsk, 11 July 1989
Bush with Lech Wałęsa. Gdańsk, 11 July 1989: AP Photo/Charles Tasnadi/AP/Shutterstock

The visit also included a speech at the Lenin Shipyard in Gdańsk to address 25,000 dockworkers. Bush considered standing outside the factory gate in front of the monument commemorating the forty-five workers killed by the security forces during the 1970 strikes – three anchors nailed to giant steel crosses – the ‘emotional peak’ of his Polish trip. Bush felt ‘heart and soul, emotionally involved’ as he spoke, with a ‘heady sense’ that he was ‘witnessing history being made on the spot’ (page 87, Maureen Dowd ‘Bush urges Poles to pull together’ NYT 12.7.1989; R. W. Apple Jr ‘A Polish Journey; Bush Escapes Pitfalls in Weathering Tough Economic and Political Climate’ NYT 12.7.1989; David Hoffman ‘Walesa Pleads with Bush for Money to Spare Poland the Fate of Beijing’ WP 12.7.1989; Bush & Scowcroft A World Transformed pp. 120–1. See also Bush’s Question-and-Answer Session With Reporters Following a Luncheon With Solidarity Leader Lech Wałesa in Gdansk 11.7.1989 APP; and Bush’s Remarks at the Solidarity Workers’ Monument in Gdansk 11.7.1989 APP). 

From Isolation to Solidarity: How we toppled communism and what challenges lie ahead by Lech WałęsaFounder, Lech Wałęsa Institute and Former President of Poland

From Isolation to Solidarity: How we toppled communism and what challenges lie ahead by Lech Wałęsa, Founder, Lech Wałęsa Institute and Former President of Poland

Of his visit to Hungary on the same trip, Bush stated said he had come away with ‘this real acute sense’ of the change that was taking place in Eastern Europe – a change he described as ‘absolutely amazing’, ‘vibrant’ and ‘vital’. He declared his determination to ‘play a constructive role’ in that process of change. The meetings, especially with the Hungarian leaders, had been ‘very good, very frank’. Warming up, Bush added, ‘I mean it was with emotion, and it wasn’t your traditional “I’ll read my cards, and you read your cards” kind of diplomacy.’ There had been ‘an intensity to it, a fervour to it’ that, he said, ‘moved me very much’ (page 92,  Bush & Scowcroft A World Transformed p. 126; Bush’s Interview with Members of the White House Press Corps 13.7.1989 APP). 

After his trip to Europe, President Bush drafted a personal letter to Gorbachev to explain how, as he put it, ‘my thinking is changing’. Previously, he explained, he had felt that a meeting between them would have to produce major agreements, especially on arms control – not least because of the hopes of the ‘watching world’. But now, after seeing the Soviet bloc first-hand, holding ‘fascinating conversations’ with other world leaders in Paris, and learning about Gorbachev’s recent visits to France and West Germany, he felt it was vital for the two of them to develop a personal relationship, so as to ‘reduce the chances that there could be misunderstandings between us’ (page 102). 

The US president thus proposed an informal, no-agenda encounter, ‘without thousands of assistants hovering over our shoulders, without the ever-present briefing papers and certainly without the press yelling at us every 5 minutes about “who’s winning”’ and whether or not the meeting was a success or failure. In fact, Bush added firmly ‘it would be best to avoid the word “summit”’ altogether. He hoped they could meet very soon but he did not want to put Gorbachev under any undue pressure (page 102). 

Monday demonstration on the Leipziger Innenstadtring, October 1989
Monday demonstration on the Leipziger Innenstadtring, October 1989: Press and Information Office of the German Federal Government/Friedrich Gahlbeck

The president’s most constructive relationship was with the German chancellor. For him Germany was, as he declared in May 1989, a ‘Partner in Leadership’. He broadly supported Kohl’s strategy for unification, consulting regularly on its implementation, and was ready to let West Germany take the lead in haggling with Gorbachev, particularly at the Caucasus summit of July 1990. Consequently, the year after the fall of the Wall saw the emancipation of Germany as an international actor. Bush’s hallmark was his belief in the importance of regular personal contact with his fellow leaders, both face to face and over the telephone – to a degree unprecedented among US presidents (page 585). 

This style of diplomacy was applied to adversaries as much as allies. After a hesitant start in the early months of his presidency, Bush also developed a cordial relationship with his Soviet opposite number: ‘I liked the personal contact with Mikhail Gorbachev,’ he later wrote, ‘I liked him.’ (Bush & Scowcroft A World Transformed p. 9)

Bush and Gorbachev on the Maxim Gorky, Malta, 3 December 1989
Bush and Gorbachev on the Maxim Gorky, Malta, 3 December 1989: Jonathan Utz/AFP/Getty Images

As a result, a degree of genuine trust was fostered and this laid the basis for productive statecraft. Bush showed great sensitivity to Gorbachev’s growing political difficulties at home, famously insisting that he would not ‘jump on the Wall’, and treated him as an equal at all their summits. In 1991, the G7 even made Gorbachev an honorary member, as the Soviet economy began in earnest its transition from Plan to market and its opening up to global trade. The US president also consistently tried his best to facilitate ‘most favoured nation’ trading status for the USSR but, when his hands were tied by Congress over the Soviet blockade of the Baltics, he was happy for Kohl to provide financial aid. This was an example of Bush’s policy of working with and through allies (page 585).

Find out more about Post Wall, Post Square: Rebuilding the World After 1989

Post Wall, Post Square: Rebuilding the World After 1989 by Kristina Spohr


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Go to the profile of Kristina Spohr

Kristina Spohr

Helmut Schmidt Distinguished Professor, Henry A. Kissinger Center for Global Affairs, John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies

Dr. Kristina Spohr is the inaugural Helmut Schmidt Distinguished Professor here at the Kissinger Center, a unique position made possible through the generosity of the German Foreign Ministry and DAAD. Dr. Spohr is a specialist in the International History of Germany since 1945 and interested summitry and statecraft as well as in the theory and practice of Contemporary History. She is author and editor of several books, most recently Post Wall, Post Square: Rebuilding the World after 1989, published with Harper Collins in the U.K and under the title Wendezeit: Die Neuordnung der Welt nach 1989 with Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt in Germany in October 2019. Other titles include The Global Chancellor: Helmut Schmidt and the Reshaping of the International Order (Oxford University Press, 2016) and its extended German edition Helmut Schmidt: Der Weltkanzler (WBG/Theiss, 2016) as well as Transcending the Cold War: Summits, Statecraft, and the Dissolution of Bipolarity in Europe, 1970-1990(Oxford University Press, 2016) and Open Door: NATO and Euro-Atlantic Security after the Cold War (Brookings Institution Press, 2019). The Kissinger Center is excited to announce that Dr. Spohr will be continuing her work with us as a part of a fellowship offered through the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) and the Foreign Policy Institute here at SAIS. We look forward to her insights on the exit from the Cold War and her contributions to our grand strategy scholarship.

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