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EUROPE: FIVE YEARS LATER : 'We Learned from the Americans' : Hans-Dietrich Genscher, former West German foreign minister

November 01, 1994|Tyler Marshall and Marjorie Miller

A s West German foreign minister over a period of 18 years between 1974-1992, Hans-Dietrich Genscher was an important figure in the events surrounding the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the rush to reunification. He remains a powerful force in German domestic politics and was recently reelected to the Bundestag. Amiable, open, and relaxed, he shook hands warmly with Times correspondents Tyler Marshall and Marjorie Miller. Then he sunk into one of the velour sofas that dominate the elegant living room of his home outside Bonn and talked of the events of 1989 and their meaning for the future of Europe.

Question. When the Hungarians decided to roll up part of the Iron Curtain in the spring of 1989 and East Germans began to cross in large numbers from Hungary to Austria, did you and the German Cabinet see this at the time as the beginning of the end of the German Democratic Republic (East Germany)?

Answer. The first step in 1989 was the statement by (Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard) Shevardnadze in Vienna during a (January) speech to the CSCE (Conference for Security and Cooperation in Europe) when he said that the Iron Curtain is rusty. This was a clear signal that the Soviet leadership was aware that the division of Europe could not survive. The second step came in May of 1989 when (Hungary's then-foreign minister Gyula) Horn and (Austrian Foreign Minister Alois) Mock opened the Iron Curtain along the Hungarian-Austrian border. And the third step was the courageous decision of the Hungarian government to give permission to the Germans from the GDR to leave Hungary by crossing the Austrian-Hungarian border.

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Q. Why has unification been so difficult?

A. Unification was difficult because of . . . half a century of separate development. The same country with systems so different--one cannot imagine two systems more different than there were here in Germany. The people are not at all really different. They have a different experience over decades, and this we have to overcome. But the basic feelings for democracy, for freedom and personal identity, there is no difference. The main problem was that the economic strength of the GDR was overrated in western opinion. I always had my doubts when Western economic experts listed the GDR as No. 7 or 8 on the list of strongest industrialized countries. I couldn't believe that when I saw the real situation of the people in the streets of the cities. This led to an underestimation of the problems.

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Q. Did you imagine it would be this hard?

A. We had a (Bundestag) debate on Nov. 8, the day before the Wall fell, on the so-called report of the German government on the state of the nation of divided Germany. In my speech I said, referring to German unification, that nothing will be as it was, not in the East but also not in the West. . . . I added that it is our responsibility to say right now, today, to Germans here (in the West) that they will be called upon to make extraordinary efforts for the unity of the nation.

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Q. Five years from now, when we come back here and sit down with you, what do you expect to be telling us?

A. I don't think in five years you will bother coming because you will not find the situation in Germany interesting enough. Maybe you will come to discuss another subject in five years: How Europe is answering the same questions that Germany has already answered, if Europe as a whole accepts its unity. We accepted (our unity), and we immediately started to solve our common problems. But in Europe, it is different. The people in the East of course accept unity, but in the West there are many people who really cannot understand that unity in Europe is a reality, that there is no alternative.

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Q. But the costs are high. If many Germans don't want to give up a very comfortable status quo for other Germans, will the French or Spanish give it up for Poles, Hungarians and others to the East?

A. They really don't have to give it up, in this sense. . . . We learned from the Americans. What they did after the Second World War is exactly what we are doing now. They helped Europe with the Marshall Plan, but what they received was far, far more. The same is happening now between western and eastern Germany, and the same will be true for Europe as a whole. NATO was strong enough to deter hundreds of divisions from the Warsaw Pact coming to the West. But no NATO and no police can help when millions of eastern Europeans without any hope will come to the West. It will be far worse for Europe if we do not, in good faith, plan for the long-term future of all Europeans.

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