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The Road to Reunification: Remembering the Reintegration of East and West Germany

The road to German reunification was long, turbulent, and beset with political obstacles. Despite the challenges, German reunification represents a major event that ultimately heralded the end of the Cold War. As the German Democratic Republic and the Soviet Union itself unwound, U.S. diplomats in Germany carefully monitored the situation in hopes that reunification was imminent. One such diplomat was Ralph Ruedy, who witnessed the end of the Cold War in Bonn, Germany.

Pro-reunification demonstrations in the city of Leipzig in 1989. Source: (1989) Wikimedia Commons
Pro-reunification demonstrations in the city of Leipzig in 1989. Source: (1989) Wikimedia Commons

Ruedy began to feel that the “handwriting was on the wall” for the end of the German Democratic Republic when, in 1989, Hungary dismantled its border fence with Austria. At this point, thousands of East Germans drove to Hungary so that they could cross the border into the West. Throughout that year, people continued to defect to the West by the thousands, and weekly demonstrations calling for freedom of movement for East Germans began.

In the wake of the mass defections, Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev arrived in East Germany to meet with Erich Honecker, the notoriously authoritarian East German leader. Privately, some in the U.S diplomatic community in Germany were concerned that his proposed reforms would placate the population enough to stop pushing for reunification. As it turned out, they didn’t need to worry. In line with his track record of reform, Gorbachev encouraged Honecker to ease his restrictive regime, but Honecker refused. Before long, Honecker was ousted, and the East German government scrambled to find his replacement. As it turned out, Honecker’s ousture spelled the end of the East German state. On November 9, 1989, massive demonstrations forced the opening of the Berlin Wall, effectively bringing an end to the divide between the two Germanies.

As infamous as the Fall of the Berlin Wall was, there was still much to do to reunify Germany. In 1990, free and fair elections were held in East Germany for the first time, and the process of political, economic, and social integration began. Leaders from both sides spent months drafting a treaty for reunification. In the fall of 1990, the Unification Treaty was signed, and the two Germanies were reunited for the first time in decades.

Ralph H. Ruedy’s interview was conducted by Charles Stuart Kennedy on April 19, 2005.

Read Ralph H. Ruedy’s full oral history HERE.

For more Moments on German Reunification click HERE.

Drafted by Artemis Maria Katsaris

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Excerpts:

“. . . there was a good deal of concern on the American side that Gorbachev was charming the Germans.”

           
East and West Germans gather during the Fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989  Source: (1989) Wikimedia Commons
East and West Germans gather during the Fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 Source: (1989) Wikimedia Commons

A Visit from Gorbachev: Gorbachev made an initial visit to Bonn, as I recall and there was a good deal of concern on the American side that Gorbachev was charming the Germans. That the Gorbachev charm offensive had the danger of splitting NATO or splitting Germany off from solidarity with the alliance and solidarity with the United States. There was a good deal of concern about that…so there was some concern in the embassy and in the American official community in general, folks that were concerned about Germany and the NATO Alliance, that if Gorbachev succeeded what would that mean for the United States and lots of sympathy for Gorbachev among Germans. The Germans I think saw Gorbachev as a breath of fresh air.

Fleeing East Germany: They [East Germans] saw the Iron Curtain falling and they saw what they hadn’t seen since the Berlin Wall went up in 1961—an opportunity to get out. Gradually people, and these were the workers, these weren’t the “intelligencia” (intelligence), they were the workers, they were ordinary citizens jumping in their “Trabant” (East German automobile) and driving across Czechoslovakia and driving into Hungary and driving into Austria. You had these, you know they are all in Austria, what the hell are we going to do with them, bring them back to Germany, long convoys and where are we going to put them in Germany and where are we going to resettle them. Then this became a stream, and it was clear that East Germans were going to take advantage of that to an ever-increasing numbers. There was pressure on the Hungarians, I think by the East German government, by the Soviet Union, who knows…to close the border but that wasn’t going to work because once you had clipped the barbed wire you weren’t going to put it up again…I would have to look at the timeline on this, the border between the Czech Republic and Hungary was going to be closed and then Germans started piling up in huge, huge numbers at the West German embassy in Prague and there were negotiations to get them out. They just kept coming and then the East Germans figured out that what are we going to do? We can’t very well close our border with the Czech Republic . . . .

“. . . masses of people going to the wall and nobody shooting anymore.”

The End: Everybody on this crazy night of…November 11, it was a beautiful night in November with a full moon and unusually mild weather and the word was that there is going to be an opening [in the Berlin Wall]. There will be possibilities of getting out, that this will change, masses of people going to the wall and nobody shooting anymore. It was just the end of it; it was just the end of it . . . . The events acquired a dynamic all of their own and things were moving very, very quickly. I remember on the day that the wall fell and all this electrifying news was all over the television and all over the radio.

I drove home from the embassy toward my apartment in Plittersdorf and picked up my dry cleaning on the way. I remember thinking that gee all of these great events are taking place but I still need some clean shirts and a clean suit. So I picked up my dry cleaning and at that point . . . just watching events unfold and as far as the press line or anything in Bonn I think we needed to be visible. We needed to be present but the great pronouncements were really coming out of Washington and coming out of the offices in the Federal Republic. We, I think, needed to be cautious about getting in the way, making lots of pronouncements, saying lots of stuff. I mean it wasn’t up to the embassy at that point to make a lot of comments . . . that was definitely the tenor in the embassy that you needed to avoid great pronouncements or hysteria or cranking out press releases or doing this, that, or the other. The events had a dynamic and that dynamic was in the right direction and it was difficult to know exactly where things were going to go or how things were going to wind up but there was no violence. I mean this could have had I think horrible consequences. We were terribly, terribly fortunate. I think some of that was just good luck the way things played out.

“The events had acquired a dynamic of their own.”

Political Tensions: I think the Honaker regime; they were just incapable of changing. They were just incapable of changing the party line. This was just the way it was so they approached it with blinders and in refusing to recognize what was going on, refusing to recognize the inevitable, not really knowing what to do. Like I say, they couldn’t very well close off the borders with the Czech Republic. I think maybe they leaned on the Czechs to do something but what could the Czechs do. The events had acquired a dynamic of their own. I think they were concerned about not provoking violence in places like Leipzig [city where demonstrations occurred] . . . . The GDR [German Democratic Republic] . . . . I think it was clear that any kind of resort to violence in connection with these [pro-reunion] demonstrations would be pretty catastrophic in terms of the relationship with Bonn and the relationship with the West so they, I think, were wanting to do everything possible to avoid violence. In violence they would clearly be out of step with the Soviet Union, with their great protector, with Gorbachev, with everything else so I think they just saw themselves on the GDR side as up a blind alley. I think the West Germans to the extent that I can gauge that the government of the Federal Republic was being very restrained about not doing anything that would be provocative or that would bring about any kind of big cataclysm or whatever. They were really I think trying to handle it very, very carefully. At the same time not saying anything that was anti the demonstrations or whatever. They were not provoking but not undermining, not undercutting either. They were, I think, treading a pretty fine line and treading it pretty well.

“It was all very complicated but I think American diplomacy, the whole Baker-Bush approach was ultimately a very measured and careful and wise movement.”

The Growing Momentum: Yes, things continued to evolve very rapidly and you know the whole discussion of Germany eventually becoming unified. I think Brandt [German politician] made a statement that ‘what belongs together will grow together,’ the feeling as a succession of governments took power in East Berlin you know what did all this mean. Would there continue to be a separate GDR? But events just kind of intervened. You had this movement. Kohl [German chancellor] obviously saw this opportunity and took it. In retrospect, despite all of the second guessing and despite all of the concern about slow economic growth in Eastern German and high unemployment and the “Osties” (easterners) versus the “Westies” (westerners), I can imagine the way things worked out is not by far and away not the worst of alternatives, not the worst way it could have worked out. In retrospect, I think that it worked out about as well as it could have, this quite rapid movement toward unification because certainly you had lots of instability and a period of potential turmoil in Eastern Germany. At the same time lots of things were happening inside the Warsaw Pact in Poland and in the Czech Republic and Hungary and everywhere else. So I think the course that events took turned out to be very fortuitous. The first of the talks about the unification of Germany took place in Bonn as I recall . . . . It was all very complicated but I think American diplomacy, the whole Baker-Bush approach was ultimately a very measured and careful and wise movement. You had issues around Berlin settled and you had sovereignty turned over to the Germans in the context of German unification and it all worked out. You had a whole host of very, very difficult problems to deal with. The Soviets in East Germany still had about a half million Soviet troops . . . .

American Foreign Policy: This was a culmination of long-standing American policy. I mean what was unfolding was no difference from what we had said from the very beginning we wanted to have happen. It was up to the Germans to make some of these decisions and to work out some of these major issues and certainly to work out the details. We were there not to dictate or not to impose or not to shape things according to our will but to have happen what we said we wanted from the very beginning, the whole concept of containment. This was all part and parcel of what we had been trying to do through the entire cold war period.

TABLE OF CONTENTS HIGHLIGHTS

Education
BA in History, Iowa State University 1961–1965
MA in English Literature, Duke University 1970–1974
Joined the Foreign Service 1974
East Berlin, Germany—Public Relations Office 1977–1980
Düsseldorf, Germany—Branch Public Affairs Officer 1980–1984
Bonn, Germany—Deputy Public Affairs Officer 1987–1991
Moscow, Russia—Deputy Public Affairs Officer 1995–1997