The Path to German Unity, 1989-90

Apr 26, 2012

3rd Gerald D. Feldman Memorial Lecture at the GHI | Speaker: Gerhard A. Ritter (Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München)

The third Gerald D. Feldman lecture was delivered by Gerhard A. Ritter, who spoke on the "path to German unity." Ritter is Professor Emeritus at the University of Munich and a recipient of the Großes Bundesverdienstkreuz. He has written numerous books on the social and political history of modern Germany, including major studies on the labor movement and the rise of the welfare state. His recent books Wir sind das Volk! Wir sind ein Volk! Geschichte der deutschen Einigung (2009) and The Price of German Unity: Reunification and the Crisis of the Welfare State (2011) have explored the social policy consequences of the unification process in Germany.

Ritter provided a magisterial account of the fast-moving events of the years 1989-1990 that culminated in the unification of Germany. Beginning with the stress that demonstrators were putting on the GDR leadership, Ritter highlighted the October 9, 1989 demonstration in Leipzig as a key turning point after which there were no more serious attempts to suppress demonstrations. After the fall of the wall on November 9, Chancellor Kohl's 10-point program of Nov. 28 initially provoked sharp criticism in the Soviet Union and some Western countries. The support of the United States for German unification was instrumental in gradually securing the support of Great Britain, France, and the Soviet Union. Ritter stressed that the daily migration of thousands of East Germans to West Germany put real pressure on all policymakers. In February 1990, a Kohl-Gorbachev meeting at the Kremlin resulted in the go-ahead for the diplomatic "Two Plus Four" negotiations that were to regulate the external aspects of German unity. Then in the middle of July, at the famous summit meeting between Kohl and Gorbachev in the Caucasus, Gorbachev gave the green light for Germany to remain in NATO in return for German payments to cover the resettlement of Russian troops and limitations on the size of the German military. On September 12, the "Two Plus Four" treaty was signed, and on October 3, 1990 a sovereign Germany was unified. Ritter addressed the question of how to explain the Soviet Union's assent to unification and Germany's NATO membership in great detail, pointing to a number of factors including: that once force was ruled out, the USSR had no means of propping up the East German regime; that maintaining troops in the GDR was an economic liability for the USSR; the disintegration of the Warsaw Pact; and the fact that Gorbachev's efforts to maintain the Soviet Union intact had a higher priority. Ritter also argued that West German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher's role in German unification was more crucial than accounts centered on Chancellor Kohl's role have sometimes suggested. The international respect that Genscher had earned as Foreign Minister since 1974, his close relationship to Soviet Foreign Minister Shevardnadze, and his readiness to agree to the inviolability of the German Polish border were all crucial factors in obtaining international assent to German unification.

The Feldman Memorial Lecture was established by the Friends of the German Historical Institute to honor the memory of historian Gerald D. Feldman (1937-2007) and has been made possible by the Fritz Thyssen Stiftung and generous individual donations to the Gerald D. Feldman Lecture Series Endowment Fund.