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Walls of the World: Berlin, front line of the Cold War between East and West (2)

The head of East Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Hans Modrow, recalls the negotiations to unify Germany, in Berlin, on Oct. 17, 2018. (Mainichi/Merlin Sugue)
(Mainichi)

BERLIN -- "When the Berlin Wall fell, I lost my bargaining chip with West German Chancellor (Helmut) Kohl," said Hans Modrow, who took the place of East German leader Egon Krenz as the top government figure in unification negotiations.

Even at 90 years old, Modrow is still active in the political sphere as the top honorary adviser to the left-leaning successor of East Germany's single ruling Socialist Unity Party (SED). With the wall symbolizing the dignity of the nation having been stripped of its power, East Germany also lost its ability to govern its citizens, Modrow said.

Modrow stood out as a member of the reform faction of the SED, and was nicknamed "virtuous Hans" for his sincere political stance and his simple lifestyle completely disconnected from corruption. But he had a feeling he was already too late.

Torsten Peter, 54, who fled over the Berlin Wall into West Germany in 1988, recalled, "When I entered the West, I received 100 West German marks as 'welcome money.'" People in East Germany knew that there was a wide variety of products on the shelves of shops in the West. If you received West German marks in the West, it was a dream come true. One after the other, people headed west. In 1989 alone, 350,000 people had crossed the border. For East Germany, which only had a population of roughly 16.67 million, it was a significant shift that meant the collapse of society.

For Kohl as well, how to handle the "East German refugees" was also an urgent issue. On Dec. 19, 1989, Kohl visited the main East German city of Dresden at Modrow's invitation. It was clear that the important meeting between the two leaders would decide the fate of East and West Germany. Because of this, the key was which leader would take the initiative.

The craze over West Germany among the people of East Germany had grown to a fever pitch, but Dresden was one of the rare locations were West Germany media couldn't be picked up, and compared to other parts of East Germany, the citizens had not come into contact with much information about the West.

"Modrow thought that the people of Dresden did not favor Kohl," recalled Wolfgang Berghofer, 75, who was the mayor of the city at the time. Therefore, it was deemed the most ideal location to host the West German chancellor. But Berghofer saw things differently.

"I told Modrow: 'This is completely misjudging Kohl's power and popular opinion. It will be a disaster," the former mayor said. His advice proved to be right.

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On that day in December 1989, Kohl gave a speech in front of a church left in ruins after being bombed by the Allied Forces during World War II. It was the symbol of the ideology that East Germans were the victims of the war. Kohl spoke of not leaving behind the people of East Germany, of his goal of unification and "building a house called Germany under the roof of Europe." The people of Dresden, who had not been expected to favor Kohl, reveled in his words and waved the flag that symbolized the modern, unified German state, which was also the West German flag. Unification shifted from the dream of the people into a political goal.

Modrow was now even more at a disadvantage in unification negotiations with Kohl, who also had ties to the heads of other Eastern bloc states. "I wanted to implement unifications in steps," he recalled. In January 1990, he visited Moscow and met with Soviet Union leader Mikhail Gorbachev. He presented his plan for "federation of the nations by a treaty," which would advance the unification of the countries in steps over the period of about four years. Gorbachev approved. Gorbachev wanted the unified Germany to be declared a weapons free zone, and for the new nation to not join the Western countries' North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

However, U.S. President George H.W. Bush sent a letter to Kohl opposing the demilitarization of Germany. By the beginning of February, Kohl visited Moscow under the direction of his right hand man, foreign minister Hans-Deitrich Genscher. There, Kohl met with Gorbachev, and following their summit, Kohl announced that Gorbachev had agreed that the time frame and methods for the unification should be left to the German people. From then on, the pace of negotiations sped up.

In March 1990, East Germany held its very first democratic elections.

(Japanese original by Keisuke Nakanishi, Berlin Bureau)

This is Part 2 in a series.

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