Stanford University News Service



New book looks behind the scenes of German unification

STANFORD -- Condoleezza Rice remembers the disbelief expressed by Harvard scholars when she told them in February 1990 that the Bush administration's policy was to work for the unification of Germany within the NATO security alliance. At the time, Rice was Bush's National Security Council adviser on Soviet affairs, there were 390,000 Soviet troops in East Germany, and the security specialists at Harvard said she must be kidding - that the Soviets would never stand for it.

In her new book, Germany Unified and Europe Transformed (written with Philip Zelikow, a former colleague in the White House who is now at Harvard), Rice details exactly how Germany was reunited in the fall of 1990, a goal that she concedes she never foresaw when she left Stanford for a two-year stint in the Bush administration. The experience taught her many things about leadership, she says now, but first on her list is "try to optimize, not suffice."

"Thanks to President Bush, and only President Bush," Rice says, the government's European/Soviet foreign policy team "had very clear goals and objectives - Germany fully unified on German terms; no Soviet troops in Germany; western institutions would remain; no parallelism between American and Soviet forces. Imagine the seduction of being able to offer the Soviets the deal 'we'll leave Germany if you leave Germany.' Bush just wouldn't do it. He said, 'We're there because we were invited; they are there because they invaded.' "

Mistakes occurred along the way, she concedes, which taught her another lesson: "Details matter." The Russians currently dispute that Germany has the right to request NATO troops in the territory of the former German Democratic Republic under terms of the unification agreement. Says Rice: "There was one statement by [German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich] Genscher that we supported and didn't understand the significance of. When we understood the significance of it, we took it back. We were moving so fast that there were just glitches like that from time to time."

But those were few, she says, because "having clear goals that are your optimal outcome and working back from there rather than starting with what you think you can get is very important. In this job," she adds, referring to her current role as university provost, "I find it hard to get people to tell me what's optimal. They tell you what is politically possible, what's less expensive, but not what's optimal and then work back."

Rice and Zelikow's new book, from Harvard Press, is a story of leadership in a crisis. Major events spun out of the control of any world leader in the year and a half before German unification. The authors write that some leaders, like German Prime Minister Helmut Kohl, were able to use their superior political instincts to great advantage, while others, like his inept and changing counterparts in East Germany, were left behind.

The East German government, Rice says, "was as foreign and isolated from its own people as any government I have ever seen." When East German refugees began flowing through Hungary to the West or when their government mistakenly opened the Berlin Wall, the leaders didn't understand what was happening and why. "There is a point in the book where we talk about the fact that the West German [leaders] all went to address the German people after the Berlin Wall fell, and the East Germans didn't. You wonder, what could these people possibly be thinking?"

The book's significance to scholars is twofold, other scholars say. It is the first account to document America's significant but mostly behind-the-scenes role in obtaining German unification, and it also releases formerly classified information much earlier than expected.

While memoirs from Thatcher and Gorbachev already revealed some details of German unification, fully documented insider accounts "usually come out in 20 or 30 years," says Ron Asmus, the senior German political specialist at the Rand Corp. "Normally a White House aide doesn't get access to the papers of all the key staffers working with them, but Zelikow and Rice managed to do it," he said. "A number of people are enormously envious but I just say, 'Good for them.' I wish I could have done it."

Adds Eastern European historian Norman Naimark of Stanford: "The issue of who unified Germany is a big question. Initially there was a lot of praise for Gorbachev, which I think is justifiable because of the Russians' restraint, and then a lot of praise for Genscher and Kohl for their careful negotiations of all the pitfalls. But what the Rice/Zelikow book shows is that the Americans played a big role and that George Bush was a big factor. The American stance, encouragement and shaping of events were extremely important. . . . Clearly the Russians, French and British were much more mistrustful of Germany."

At the request of Rice and Zelikow, the National Security Archive filed a request under the Freedom of Information Act to expedite the declassification of the materials they used for the book. Copies for others to inspect are expected soon in the archives of the Cold War History Project in Washington, D.C., and at the Hoover Institution, Rice says.

She and Zelikow were "lucky," Rice says, that most of the main players are no longer in power and that the Soviet government collapsed and archives were opened in both Russia and the former GDR, which permitted them to give an account from more than one country's perspective.

At times, Rice says, she felt strange, reading about herself in Soviet documents. In notes of a meeting she held with Gorbachev's specialist on the United States in February 1990, for example, "the conversation is [reported] mostly as I remember it, but [the Soviet representative] is musing about what it might mean. I guess I was considered a hard-liner. That's what surprised me. I don't think of myself that way."

Rice, according to Jim McAdam, a professor of government and a German specialist at Notre Dame, "was absolutely instrumental to Bush's direction [on German unification] because she had invaluable insights into the kinds of debate taking place in the Kremlin."

That insight was sometimes all she had to go on, Rice says. In a March 1990 memo quoted in the book, she wrote to her boss Brent Scowcroft: "I believe (and this is a hunch and I guess if we did this that I would spend a lot of time in church praying that I was right) that the Soviets would not even threaten the Germans. Within six months, if events continue as they are going, no one would believe them anyway."

When she wrote the memo, which urged acceleration of the timetable on German unification, Rice says she had just come from church and wanted to underline that "the stakes are very high. It all looks pretty simple now, but at the time, the Soviets had 390,000 troops in East Germany. We didn't know if we were going to set off World War III, and so all that I was saying was, you know, I'm no more sure of this than anyone else, and if anybody chooses to follow this advice, we all better pray, because there is no intellectual way, no reasoned way to assess this; it's all at the level of hunch. Things were happening so fast that very often you had to go on instinct."

The issues on the table in late 1989 and 1990, Rice says now, "evoked deeper emotion than usual" because they were basic to how the individuals involved understood the international system and especially the past and future of Europe. "Sometimes I said things I wished I hadn't," she says now, citing the example of how she greeted President Bush with news of the January 1991 Baltic crisis when the Soviets attacked a television tower in Lithuania and 17 Lithuanians were killed. Meeting the president on the White House lawn as he returned from a weekend in Camp David, Rice recalls that she said, "'Mr. President, they ran over a
13-year old girl with a tank.' " Immediately, she says, she realized it was "a terrible thing to say. I mean, it was emotional, it was not analytical, it didn't help him to know what to do."

Pressed for criticism of the book, one scholar conceded that the authors "may overdo their praise" for President Bush.

Asked about that, Rice laughs and admits she and Zelikow are admirers of Bush but adds, "there wouldn't be the documentary evidence of his role if he hadn't played it." When the Berlin Wall fell and Germans were joyously flowing across the border, she says that she and other aides urged Bush to go to the scene for the sake of Truman, Nixon, Kennedy, Reagan and himself. He responded, "What would I do - dance on the wall?" He added that an American president shouldn't interject himself into "the Germans' moment" or rub the Soviets' noses in the West's success, she says.

Rice says that she often asks her Stanford classes if the Americans should have exacted some economic concessions from Germany, such as getting them to promise their future support within the European Union for unrestricted world trade, in exchange for U.S. support for unification. Such questions never crossed policymakers' minds, she says. "I'm not saying any problems have arisen, just that it didn't even occur to us to have that conversation."

Rice clearly enjoys posing such policy questions to classes and says that the best part of her tenure in government is having detailed memories to draw on in her teaching. She remembers, for instance, looking for her place among the placards around a huge flower-appointed table in Bonn at the first meeting of the so-called "six powers" on German unification. By then, she had heard Gorbachev many times express his hopes that the Soviet Union would become the liberal socialist wing in a "common European home." Suddenly, however, her eyes locked on the placard of the Soviet Union, the only one written in a different alphabet from the others. "It seemed suddenly jarring," she recalls, "that it was not quite European."


Authors Condoleezza Rice and Philip Zelikow. Photo available electronically by anonymous ftp at under the filename "authors."



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