October 3 will mark 30 years since the reunification of Germany. Known as “German Unity Day,” this national holiday commemorates when West Germany and East Germany were united into one country after the Berlin Wall came down. For the first time since 1945, one single German state existed.
Those of us who are too young to remember much of the Cold War might assume that this was a pretty natural event. Once the dictatorship in East Germany (ironically named the German Democratic Republic) was gone, the artificial border between the two had to go as well. In fact, it was not a certain thing at all but rather the result of dedicated work by character-driven leaders, not least from the U.S.
In 1990, the Germans first had to convince the rest of Europe that their country was not a threat. Not only did the ghosts of World War II still linger, but there was also the fear that a too-big Germany would simply dominate the continent through other means. A popular French joke reflecting their sentiments on unification went, “I love Germany so much, I want there to be more of them!” It fell on then Chancellor Helmut Kohl to assure Europe that once united, his country would follow the path West Germany had taken for the past 40 years – a role model for how to deal with a troubled past and a key player in European integration.
Another key player was U.S. President George H.W. Bush. Following his visionary predecessor President Ronald Reagan, Bush was – according to his own words – not so good at “that vision thing.” Yet armed with his extensive experience in diplomacy, as well as a clear set of values, he managed a truly historical achievement. As Robert Zoellick, who worked close with President Bush at the time argues, Americans were not afraid of Germany in 1990 but saw its unification as a sign that the experiment of German democracy had succeeded. It was not only a way to end the Cold War peacefully, but also served as a foundation stone to create lasting structures for a Europe whole, free and at peace. How’s that for a vision?
Bush supported Kohl in his efforts, while at the same time reassuring our European allies that this was the right course to take. The Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, was treated with respect, while the U.S. was firm on that a united Germany should be free of foreign domination and free to choose its alliances – in other words, become a member of NATO.
So vital was the work of the U.S. president to German unity, that when Bush died in 2018, Chancellor Angela Merkel said in a statement that it was a “stroke of luck” that it was Bush who led America at the end of the Cold War. German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier claimed that unification would not have been possible without him, and Foreign Minister Heiko Maas called Bush one of the “architects of German unity.” Here we see what America can indeed achieve if we respect and work together with our allies and partners.
My Polish grandmother joined the resistance movement against the Nazi occupation. She fought against and was wounded by German soldiers in the bloody battle known as the Warsaw uprising in 1944. Her father, my great grandfather, was also a member of the Polish resistance movement and was executed by the Gestapo. But I share Zoellick’s view that German nationalism as it was manifested in celebrating the reunification of their country is no threat. What better way to leave a dark past than to help a former enemy become a friend? Many Americans saw the wisdom in that when we rebuilt Germany, Italy and Japan after the war and turned former foes into allies. It would be hard to argue today that was not the right choice. Personally, a strong Germany does not worry me as much as a weak one. The latter might find it harder to stand up to Russia, a country that, unlike Germany, has not stepped away from its dark past.
Supporting a united Germany proved to be the right choice for America, as well. The country has served a positive role in Europe and has been an important ally by hosting critical U.S. military infrastructure, sending thousands of its soldiers to Afghanistan after 9/11 and now, leading one of NATOs Enhanced Forward Presence battalions in Lithuania – this under the leadership of Chancellor Merkel who, herself, is from the former East Germany. Yes, there are issues in the U.S.-German relationship that need to be addressed. Europe’s largest economy needs to spend more on its own defense, and the Russian gas pipeline Nord Stream 2 is a terrible idea, but just as we proved 30 years ago, it’s with American engagement driven by values and character-driven leadership that we can make a huge difference.
DISCLAIMER: McCain Institute for International Leadership is a non-partisan "do-tank" that is part of Arizona State University. The views expressed in this blog are solely those of the author and do not represent an opinion of the McCain Institute.