Saying Goodbye to the 20th Century ; Three Men Sealed the End of the Cold War. This Week, They Met Once Again to Celebrate the 10th Anniversary of the Fall of the Berlin Wall. the Historian and Writer Timothy Garton Ash Joined Them to Reflect on the Events of That Extraordinary Night a Decade Ago

By Ash, Timothy Garton | The Independent (London, England), November 1, 1999 | Go to article overview
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Saying Goodbye to the 20th Century ; Three Men Sealed the End of the Cold War. This Week, They Met Once Again to Celebrate the 10th Anniversary of the Fall of the Berlin Wall. the Historian and Writer Timothy Garton Ash Joined Them to Reflect on the Events of That Extraordinary Night a Decade Ago


Ash, Timothy Garton, The Independent (London, England)


"Helmut!" exclaims Mikhail Gorbachev, leaning across the narrow dinner-table, "I want to drink a toast to you! You are one of the most serious politicians I know."

The giant sitting to my right, Helmut Kohl, raises his glass. Mikhail and Helmut, the two old friends - for that is what they are now - drink to each other, as they have so many times before. Just down the table sits George Bush, the third architect of German unification. Behind the heads of Gorbachev and Bush I have a spectacular view of Berlin from the 18th-floor plate-glass windows of the office block, which was built by the conservative German publisher Axel Springer right next to the Berlin Wall.

Amazing to sit here between the three men who have sealed the end of the Wall, of the Cold War, and of the 20th century. They've come back to Berlin for the 10th anniversary of the fall of the Wall, of course, and, specifically, at the invitation of the Springer Sunday newspaper, Welt am Sonntag, to take part in a conversation about "what really happened" that night, and in the subsequent days and months. I had the privilege of leading the discussion, asking them some of the questions that still remain unanswered. It was an exciting task.

I started by asking Gorbachev what he was doing on the night of 9 November, 1989, when the Wall came down. He has often recounted how he received a phone call from the Soviet Ambassador in East Berlin early the next morning, to give him the sensational news. But where was he on the evening itself? Gorbachev responds with a five-minute lecture about the world- historical significance of the events, and the part the three of them played. Only afterwards, over dinner, do I get the answer to my question: he worked until 10 o'clock that evening and then went to bed. By the time the East German Communist Party leader tried to ring him he was asleep, and his aides refused to put the call through. Rightly, he says. And so, while the Berliners danced on the most famous outer rampart of the Soviet Empire, the emperor slept.

I ask him about the pressures he was under from Soviet generals and officials who thought they should intervene to prevent the keystone of their empire crumbling. Did anyone come directly to him with the proposal to use force? "Nyet," says Gorbachev. Kohl quickly intervenes: "Yes, but the generals were there, and it was you who ensured that reason prevailed."

Gorbachev does acknowledge that, for more than two months after the Wall fell, the Soviet Union was still considering all options. He says the decisive moment came during the meeting he had with Chancellor Kohl in Moscow on 10 February, 1990, when he declared: "It's for the Germans to choose."

Kohl thought at the time that this was a carefully prepared signal, and Gorby now confirms that it was. That was the green light.

I ask all three of them whether they think there are any big secrets still to be uncovered about those great events - and if so, what are they? After all, just 10 years on there are normally some important secrets hidden in the military or intelligence archives, or in the private papers of political leaders. Kohl jokes that 90 per cent of what intelligence services report is false and the other 10 per cent you can read in the newspapers. Seriously, he does not think there are any major secrets left. Bush agrees. Gorbachev gives a slightly different answer. Yes, he says, there probably still are interesting things in the archives about the different positions that different people took up.

Yet the real secret, they all agree, is an open secret: the quality of the personal relations that they had developed between them. Without this, they all say in their different ways, the opening of the Wall and German unification would never have happened as it did - so swiftly and, above all, so peacefully.

That rapidly becomes the central theme of the evening: the importance of what Bush calls "personal diplomacy".

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Saying Goodbye to the 20th Century ; Three Men Sealed the End of the Cold War. This Week, They Met Once Again to Celebrate the 10th Anniversary of the Fall of the Berlin Wall. the Historian and Writer Timothy Garton Ash Joined Them to Reflect on the Events of That Extraordinary Night a Decade Ago
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