BERLIN — Ten years after their artful diplomacy toppled the Berlin Wall, Mikhail S. Gorbachev, George Bush and Helmut Kohl gathered among the ghostly traces of the hated Cold War symbol Monday to take their bows and reflect on the hopes and fears of Nov. 9, 1989, when the world as they knew it changed overnight.
"It was like being on a frozen sea when it begins to break up, beginning with one enormous crack," Kohl, who was German chancellor when the wall fell, said of his worries that the euphoria in the first hours of eastern Germany's freedom could escalate into bloody chaos.
The three leaders who nervously choreographed an end to the division of Europe are being honored here for their coolheaded direction of that emotional drama, amid celebrations of the 10th anniversary of the fall of the wall that will culminate today with concerts, fireworks and speeches.
But as if fate needed to note the divisions that remain here, a German court Monday upheld prison terms for three top East German politicians who played a role in keeping the opening of the wall bloodless and peaceful.
"It was really the German Democratic Republic that was on trial here," a defiant Egon Krenz, the last orthodox Communist Party leader to rule the East German state, told the court in Leipzig after its ruling that he must serve a six-year term for heading a government that, while Germany was divided, ordered border guards to shoot to kill people trying to escape to the West.
Former East German Politburo members Guenter Schabowski and Guenther Kleiber, meanwhile, had their three-year sentences on lesser charges upheld. Schabowski was the official who announced the decision just before midnight Nov. 9, 1989, that all East Germans were free to cross the wall.
Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union and the Communist reformer credited with setting in motion the changes that eventually led to his own downfall as well as that of the Iron Curtain, responded to the ruling against Krenz by warning that a stable future is hardly ensured by "holding witch hunts."
It was Gorbachev who, a decade ago, informed Krenz and his longtime predecessor in the East Berlin leadership, Erich Honecker, that there would be no Soviet intervention to keep them in power if the people of East Germany wanted democracy and free elections.
"History punishes those who are late," the architect of perestroika told Honecker during a visit to East Berlin shortly before the East German leader was replaced by Krenz. Honecker died in exile in Chile in 1994, and Krenz was ousted shortly after the wall opened, after only six weeks as East German Communist Party chief.
Ironically, the three world leaders whose close coordination and confidence in one another allowed the denouement of East Germany's liberation to transpire without bloodshed also paid a price. Gorbachev was ousted from the Kremlin when the Soviet Union ceased to exist at the end of 1991, Bush lost the presidential election to Bill Clinton a year later, and Kohl's 16-year reign ended with Social Democrat Gerhard Schroeder's victory in the race for chancellor last year.
But in the current mood of reflection on the significance of the events 10 years ago, the three--who were instrumental in toppling dictatorships across Eastern Europe--are being accorded recognition by those on the Continent genuinely grateful for the changes.
Despite the loss of his wife, Raisa, to leukemia in September and widespread condemnation of his political course back home in Russia, Gorbachev clearly reveled Monday in the spotlight shone by the anniversary and the praise lavished on him by his partners in the wall-toppling troika.
"Without these two world powers and what they did, the confidence they had in us, none of this would have been possible," Kohl said of Germany's reunification in October 1990, patting Gorbachev's hand and verging on tears as he recalled their conversations.
"We can never repay the debt we owe Mikhail Gorbachev," Bush proclaimed during a ceremony earlier in the day when the former U.S. president was named an honorary citizen of Berlin. He recalled his concern at the time that too much celebration of Cold War victory might backfire on the Soviet leader--a fear he expressed repeatedly in recently declassified transcripts of his conversations with Kohl and Gorbachev as events leading to German reunification unfolded.
"We in no way wanted to make life more complicated for [Gorbachev]," Bush said of his own reaction to the opening of the Berlin Wall--a reaction that some political opponents in Washington criticized then as too restrained. "History still hasn't given him the credit he deserves, but it will."
At a televised evening discussion by the three leaders at the Axel Springer publishing house, which towers over where the wall stood, Gorbachev told the 200 dignitaries in attendance that he had trusted both Kohl and Bush to keep the emotions of the period under control to avoid further upsets in the roiling Soviet Union.