By John J. Metzler
UNITED NATIONS —Thirty years ago this week in 1987, U.S. President Ronald Reagan made his famous challenge while visiting Berlin: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” Alongside the president stood German Chancellor Helmut Kohl.
I had met Kohl a few years earlier while he was campaigning in his native Rheinland. Kohl, a towering but slightly awkward provincial politician, was often described to Americans as an amicable Gerry Ford-type character, evoking our own president of a decade earlier. It was not totally a compliment. Yet through perseverance and fate, this man from a small West German city became a statesman on the world stage not just because of German unity, but because that singular achievement came about in peace, liberty and freedom. Kohl has died last week at the age of 87. His formal election as chancellor came in early March 1983. I vividly recall watching the fog lift over the river Rhine in the great cathedral city of Cologne that Sunday election morning. By evening in the capital Bonn, I had witnessed the landslide of his Christian Democrats and the Free Democrats, which ushered in the opening act of the Helmut Kohl era. His political tenure would continue through 16 years.
Kohl was deeply committed to the Atlantic Alliance. Yet standing shoulder to shoulder with the U.S. in NATO in the early 1980s was not as popular as it was assumed either inside Germany or on the American left, where a loud minority “peace movement” created an atmosphere in which many people viewed the U.S. as looking to start a nuclear war. Kohl stood fast against left-wing political theatrics.
Though the summer and fall of 1989 saw political rumblings in the Soviet empire in Hungary and Poland, even otherwise hard-line East Germany witnessed large and vocal demonstrations against the ruling communist regime.
Yet it was in Berlin where the anvil of freedom would strike against the Soviet imperium. The Joshua trumpet that sounded on Nov. 9, 1989 heralded the historic events which would release a tsunami of liberty sweeping across Central Europe. By the end of that year, it had torn through the old Iron Curtain and had shed the bright light of freedom.
But contrary to the accepted narrative, the fall of the Berlin Wall did not see the immediate demise of the “German Democratic Republic,” whose Stasi and Soviet enforcers did not disappear with the November mist. Kohl advanced a democratic 10-point plan for reunification. Ambitious and costly yes, but one that would integrate 17 million East Germans as equals. Kohn’s miscalculation was that he said basically the old East Germany would need a fresh coat of paint and before long the landscape would be blooming. But decades of socialist mismanagement and repression had created a deeper challenge. Over the past quarter century since, the cost of reunification has been over a trillion dollars in massive infrastructural and social benefit transfers. Kohl was the architect of German unity on Oct. 3, 1990, but the supporting cast included statesmen and women who allowed it to happen. George H. W. Bush, Francois Mitterrand. Margaret Thatcher and Mikhail Gorbachev. In other words, the allies of WWII, who had defeated the Nazi regime in 1945, had to legally sign off on the occupation and allow the reunification of both West and East Germany. The Cold War had ended.