Gorbachev is fondly remembered in Germany for enabling unity


BERLIN — Mikhail Gorbachev was enduringly popular in Germany for enabling the country’s reunification after four decades of division after World War II — and for setting the stage for the peaceful collapse of communism that made it possible.

Even 25 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Gorbachev was greeted with chants of “Gorby!” Gorby! as he attended a ceremony in 2014 marking the anniversary in the reunified capital.

The Cold War boundary that divided Germany between the capitalist West and the communist East after World War II seemed set in stone when Gorbachev came to power in the mid-1980s. But just over five years later the country was reunified as a member of NATO and with a promise of withdrawal of Soviet troops.

Gorbachev, who died Tuesday at 91, was remembered with fondness and gratitude in Berlin, and also with a hint of melancholy at a time when the invasion of Ukraine split Russia and Germany.

“I don’t think we could have imagined reunification during the Cold War,” veteran lawmaker Wolfgang Schaeuble, West Germany’s interior minister at the time and one of the main negotiators of the war, told ARD television. the unity of the country. “And that it happened afterwards – in peace and freedom, without a drop of blood, it would not have been imagined without Gorbachev.”

Former Chancellor Angela Merkel, who grew up in East Germany and worked there as a scientist, said “Mikhail Gorbachev also changed my life dramatically – I will never forget him.”

Shortly after taking power in Moscow, Gorbachev began the process of reform and increasing openness. Without it, Merkel said, “the peaceful revolution in East Germany would not have been possible.”

In 1989, pressure for change intensified in the communist countries of Eastern Europe – including East Germany, whose longtime extremist leaders had little appetite for reform.

Visiting East Berlin for the country’s 40th anniversary celebrations in October 1989, amid protests by demonstrators chanting “Gorby, help us”, Gorbachev reportedly warned his leaders that “life punishes those who come too late”. Whether he actually said those words is a matter of dispute, but they summed up his message.

Merkel said she still remembers the fear she and others felt at the time of the military crackdown.

“But this time… no tanks rolled, there were no shots,” she said. “Instead, Mikhail Gorbachev chided the aging East German leaders with the phrase, ‘Life punishes those who come too late.’

Just over a month later, under pressure from mounting protests, the East German government opened the heavily fortified border that had kept most of the country’s population out of the west. .

In an interview with German magazine Stern in 2013, Gorbachev said he had not been woken by the news of the fall of the wall – a pivotal moment in the collapse of communism in the Eastern bloc dominated by the Soviets – “and it was not necessary.”

“Our position was clear from the start,” he said. “We knew that Europe cannot live with a divided Germany, with a ticking time bomb. I understood that the Russians and the Germans had to reconcile.

“We were convinced that German reunification was in everyone’s interest, even though Britain and France initially opposed it,” he added.

Gorbachev, who remembers growing up amid the horrors of Nazi Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union, said he forgave the Germans.

The road from the fall of the Berlin Wall to German reunification just under 11 months later was incredibly fast. Gorbachev and his relationship with West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl received much of the credit.

In February 1990, Kohl said during a visit to Moscow that Gorbachev had “unambiguously promised that the Soviet Union would respect the Germans’ decision to live in one state, and that it was up to the Germans to determine when and the way to unification.”

In July, Kohl traveled to Gorbachev’s home region in southern Russia, returning with an agreement from Gorbachev to allow a united Germany to remain in the NATO military alliance and for a withdrawal. complete Soviet troops in the east by 1994.

The two leaders’ informal “cardigan diplomacy” contrasts sharply with the current state of German-Russian relations, which are frozen after Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.

Chancellor Olaf Scholz lamented that Gorbachev paved the way for democracy in Russia, but died at a time when “democracy in Russia failed”.

Gorbachev, said Vice-Chancellor Robert Habeck, “also represents the way in which relations between Russia and Europe could have developed”.

More AP stories on Mikhail Gorbachev here: https://apnews.com/hub/mikhail-gorbachev

About Norma Wade

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