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"2+4" Talks and the Reunification of Germany, 1990

On October 3, 1990, East Germany officially joined the Federal Republic of Germany in the West, ending 45 years of division and dissolving the communist German Democratic Republic. The reunification of Germany marked one of the final events of the Cold War in Europe, bringing to an end the East-West division and inaugurating a new era of cooperation.

At the end of World War II, the Allies divided the defeated German state into four occupation zones, with the Soviet Union controlling what would become known as East Germany and the United States, Great Britain and France each controlling a zone of West Germany. The capital of Berlin, located in East Germany, was similarly divided, and in 1961 Soviet forces built a wall encircling the Western-occupied sections of the city and preventing free travel out of the Eastern German state into West Berlin. For the duration of the Cold War, the division of Germany and the existence of the Berlin Wall served as visible reminders of the contest between the forces of communism and capitalism.

In 1989, an impetus for reform swept across Eastern Europe and fed new hopes within Germany for an end to the divided state. After Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev made it clear that his government would not intervene to prevent the loss of communist governments in the satellite states of Eastern Europe, reforms swept through Hungary and Poland. After Hungary opened its borders, East Germans traveled through that state and into West Germany, leading to a substantial population loss for the German Democratic Republic. Meanwhile, mass demonstrations calling for reforms and freedom of travel went unchecked by the Soviet and East German militaries, culminating in the decision to open travel between the East and West on November 9, 1989. Euphoric citizens of both countries began to tear down the Berlin Wall that evening, meeting no organized opposition.

The question that remained after the destruction of the Berlin Wall was if and when the two Germanys should reunite. Forces within both German societies were pushing for unity, and in the wake of the lifted travel restrictions, the two countries moved toward a unified monetary system. In March of 1990, the German Democratic Republic held widespread elections which overwhelmingly supported West German leader Helmut Kohl and parties affiliated with Western counterparts such as the Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats. This set the stage for the dissolution of the East German government and the incorporation of the state into West Germany under the Federal German Republic's existing constitutional structure.

Although the German people pushed for immediate reunification, other governments expressed deep concern about the security implications of a return of a strong, unified German Republic to Europe. The four powers that had engaged in the postwar occupation of Germany expressed varying degrees of apprehension, although the United States was relatively quick to overcome its objections and support the Bonn Government. For Great Britain, France, and the Soviet Union, however, the wounds inflicted on their countries by the First and Second World Wars were not so easily forgotten, and all three states required reassurances that a reunited and remilitarized Germany would not pose a threat. The collapse of the Warsaw Pact in Eastern Europe also meant that at the same time that the German question reemerged, the balance of power in Europe underwent a massive change. To address all these concerns, the six countries engaged in a series of negotiations that became known as the "2+4 Talks," involving the two Germanys plus the four occupying powers.

One of the most difficult questions facing the negotiators was the question of the German relationship to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) after reunification. The United States was anxious to ensure German involvement, which would provide an avenue for continued U.S. engagement in Western Europe and ideally keep a united Germany from pursuing expansionist goals. At first, Gorbachev opposed German membership in NATO. However, as German Reunification began to appear inevitable in mid-1990, he eventually agreed to a compromise in which the unified state would become a member of NATO, but would also agree to sharp reductions in the size of its combined military forces and to refrain from engaging in military exercises in eastern Germany. These conclusions, along with a German commitment to refrain from developing weapons of mass destruction and to respect the border with Poland (established after the Second World War and codified in the 1975 Helsinki Final Act), proved sufficient for the Soviet Union and the rest of Europe to accept the reunification of Germany.

In the end, reunification happened much faster than anyone anticipated. On October 3, 1990, the Federal Republic of Germany formally absorbed the East German state. In the end, the drive behind reunification came from the people of Germany, not from the diplomatic process that surrounded the issue. Still, U.S. support for reunification proved critical at several points. In placing German reunification on the agenda even before the fall of the Berlin Wall in November of 1989, the United States was in a position to support German integration into the European Economic Community and other existing institutions in the region. Although U.S. allies in Western Europe remained cautious on the issue of unification, the U.S. decision to support Kohl and commit all the powers to the 2+4 negotiations served to encourage the process of uniting Germany. The United States also played an important role in building a common position on unification by advancing a solution agreeable to both East and West that would keep Germany in NATO. These policies ultimately contributed to creating an environment that allowed for the rest of Europe to be receptive to the proposed unification of Germany. The Final Settlement Treaty marked the end of special status for Germany and Berlin under Four Power control, and the process of troop withdrawal began. The first all-German elections since 1933 were held on December 2, 1990.


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