When the Berlin Wall fell on 9 November 1989, Federal Chancellor Kohl and Foreign Minister Genscher were out of the country. Only hours before, they had set off on a five day official visit to Poland. Our colleague Rüdiger von Fritsch, now Ambassador in Warsaw*, helped to organise that trip.
“Fortunately, I did something which I don’t normally do, namely kept a diary”, comments Rüdiger von Fritsch on the turbulent situation in autumn 1989, which he witnessed in Warsaw. He decided to write down his experiences in a blue notebook and now has a detailed description of events surrounding “the first visit by a German Head of Government to a formerly socialist country, which at this point already had a largely free government.”
Von Fritsch goes on to say that this new political situation in Poland made the visit unique and the size of the delegation was a challenge.
“Most of the Federal Cabinet was there, 100 guests of honour, 300 journalists ... the delegation was huge. What’s more, the trip took place under difficult logistic circumstances – you couldn’t phone from one side of the Weichsel to the other when it was raining.”
A difficult official visit
Even setting aside the events in Berlin that evening, which no one was expecting that morning, this would not have been an easy visit in light of the difficult nature of German Polish history. Looking back, von Fritsch says with conviction that “This was the craziest and most chaotic, most intensive and most interesting visit I’ve ever helped organise in the course of my career”. On 9 November 1989, he wrote in his diary:
Early commentary on Deutsche Welle: “The day has finally arrived: The route has been planned, the communiqués written, and now the Chancellor can travel to Poland ...” If only they had known! The Ambassador tried desperately and in vain to contact the Foreign Minister. Not only the schedule for the visit was still in flux: The planned joint declaration by Kohl and Mazowiecki, which had been negotiated for months, had still not been finalised. The Chancellor had let it be known that he would not leave Bonn until it had been completed.
Not even the weather was favourable on this historic day. Due to heavy fog, the departure had to be postponed again, states Rüdiger von Fritsch. Delayed arrival in Warsaw. After the customary welcome on the landing field with military honours, the programme got off as planned and the first official meetings took place.
“Of course, the events taking place in the various socialist countries – not least in the GDR – played a prominent role in all talks. That was very evident. There was still a large number of refugees in the Embassy at that time.”
News from the GDR
The first reports concerning events in East Berlin reached Warsaw before the banquet. Rüdiger von Fritsch heard in the delegation office at the government guest house that the GDR authorities were allowing citizens to cross the border. Von Fritsch says that this news dominated the subsequent talks between Genscher and the publicist Adam Michnik, one of the leading minds of the former democratic opposition. “What does this mean for Europe? What does this mean for Germany? It was an impressive conversation.”
“The news was a bombshell. We didn’t notice until the night that it meant the Wall would fall.”
The diplomat remembers that the analysis of the Polish opposition at this time was already very clear. “It was: ‘If we’re a free country, then we want a country which looks to Europe. The GDR is in our way and therefore we Poles should work towards Germany’s reunification. Then united Germany will recognise its eastern border once and for all and help us become part of Europe.’ That was compelling logic!”
Surprise turned to uncertainty in the course of the evening. Should the Chancellor stay or leave? How could he fulfil his obligations both at home and in his host country?
“It quickly got very hectic. We as members of Protocol noticed this because there were soon discussions on whether the Chancellor had to return to Germany. A decision was made relatively quickly. Firstly, that he had to return and secondly that he would come back. The Polish side would then show understanding.”
How will the Chancellor get to Berlin?
Kohl assured the Polish Prime Minister Mazowiecki that he would return – and he kept his word. “The preparations began that night. About 8 o’clock the next morning I learned that the delegation was travelling back that same afternoon. The departure time was brought forward. That was important to us because I was responsible for logistics.” Rüdiger von Fritsch asked himself many questions: “How will the crew get to the airport and where are they at the moment? Two crew members had been assigned to the wreath laying ceremony at the monument, but they actually had to get to the airport ...!” An extract from the diary:
12.45 p.m. The captain doesn’t know yet that the departure has been brought forward. “2 p.m. at the earliest if everything goes well.” But that means there won’t be any meals on board. But that doesn’t matter. We just have to get away. After some negotiation, the Polish side was prepared to let the plane take off from its parking position. That saved 20 minutes.
What is more, a detour had to be made via Hamburg, for “Reaching Berlin was a problem. Only the Allies had the right to land there.” Finally, the ministers were able to leave and the journalists also headed back to Germany. A sponsored coach trip through Warsaw was quickly arranged for the guests of honour staying behind.
The Chancellor appeared punctually on the evening of 10 November at a mass gathering in front of Schöneberg town hall. The next day he arrived back in Poland where he continued his visit, among other things with a mass of reconciliation at the former residence of Helmuth James Graf von Moltke, a member of the German resistance: “That was highly symbolic.” “Kohl and Mazowiecki embraced in Krzyzowa.”
A fortunate turn of events?
What difference did it make that the Chancellor heard about the fall of the Wall in Warsaw, not in Bonn? Rüdiger von Fritsch believes that this twist of fate had many positive aspects:
“The fact that he wasn’t in the country and seized this opportunity to subsequently thank the Poles was, I would say, a fortunate turn of events.” He goes on to say that Helmut Kohl had been able to stress that the Polish people had not only suffered at the hands of Germany but that it had also helped ensure that Germany had developed positively. “I see that in retrospect today as Ambassador. The foundation for today’s good relations was laid at that time.”
*Since April 2014 Rüdiger von Fritsch is Ambassador of the Federal Republic of Germany to Moscow.