- - Tuesday, October 26, 2021

Thirty-one Octobers ago, Germany suddenly and irreversibly reunited after more than 40 years of division.

It was sudden, because the Berlin Wall had fallen less than a year earlier and reunification had been a pipe dream as long as Soviet Communism staggered on.

It was irreversible, because as the train of events picked up momentum and the key decision-makers gave their assent, the 16 million people of East Germany were ready to leave behind the decrepit, repressive police state under which they had lived.

German reunification has been such a success it is easy to forget how much apprehension and outright opposition surrounded it. Margaret Thatcher, to name one Western leader, was not a fan. Mikhail Gorbachev, too, needed convincing.

And it is easy to overlook how unlikely that outcome appeared just a few years before. In 1985, Mr. Gorbachev had become the Soviet premier with the intention of reforming Communism to preserve it.

For all its problems — a sclerotic economy, an unhappy population — the Soviet Union could have held on. Disintegration was not inevitable as long as state repression was available. But Mr. Gorbachev’s reforms failed as they produced the opposite of his desired outcome, paving the way for the collapse of the Soviet satellite states in Eastern Europe and the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

In this episode of History As It Happens, acclaimed historian Sir Ian Kershaw takes a look back at October 1990, and he looks ahead to what is next for Germany as one of its most successful leaders, Angela Merkel, prepares to step aside after 16 years in power.

“In one sense, the idea of unification was there right from the beginning of the divided Germanys. After 1949, West Germany still held onto the notion of a future unification of Germany,” said Mr. Kershaw, the author of the “The Global Age: Europe 1950-2017.”

“But nobody had any notion that it was a realistic proposition. The longer time went on, the more it seemed a distant dream,” Mr. Kershaw said.

Mr. Kershaw happened to be in Berlin when the wall unexpectedly became irrelevant, thanks to an East German official’s erroneous reading of new travel restrictions at a press conference.

That jubilant evening, broadcast on live TV around the world, tilted the momentum toward reunification, because weeks later West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl addressed an exultant crowd in Dresden chanting “Germany united Fatherland.”

By January 1990, East German leader Hans Modrow was left with no choice but to persuade Mr. Gorbachev the East German regime was finished as hundreds of thousands of protesters filled the streets.

A little less than two years later, in December 1991, the USSR would join East Germany in the dustbin of history.

For more of Mr. Kershaw’s remarks about the history of German reunification, listen to this episode of History As It Happens.

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