Twenty years ago, Ottawa was at the hinge of history

The Open Skies Conference helped pave the way for a united Germany

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The Gazette, Wednesday, February 17, 2010

On the margins of a UN General Assembly meeting in New York in the fall of 1985, Ronald Reagan hosted a dinner of G7 leaders. There were just the seven heads of government in the private dining room of the U.S. mission: Reagan of the U.S., Margaret Thatcher of Britain, François Mitterrand of France, Helmut Kohl of West Germany, Yasuhiro Nakasone of Japan, Bettino Craxi of Italy and Brian Mulroney of Canada.

As the dinner was winding down over coffee, the Canadian prime minister looked across the table to the West German chancellor and asked: "Helmut, do you think the Berlin Wall will ever come down?"

"Yes, it will," Kohl replied, "but I don't know when."

"What do you think is going to bring it down?" Mulroney asked.

"Television," Kohl replied without hesitation.

"Television?" Thatcher interrupted. "What's so special about West German television that it will bring down the Berlin Wall?"

"Commercials," Kohl replied. "Ninety-seven per cent of East Germans watch West German television, and they see all those consumer goods in commercials, things West Germans have that they don't. When they want those things, including freedom, badly enough, that's when the wall will come down."

And just four years later, it did. Within a year, in October 1990, the dream of German reunification was achieved, and the Cold War was over.

Mulroney was telling this story Monday evening at the Government Conference Centre, the old Ottawa railway station, site of the Open Skies Conference where, 20 years ago this week, NATO and the Warsaw Pact countries had nominally gathered at a foreign ministers' conference to discuss allowing military flights over one another's territory. But such was the momentum for German reunification that only three months after the fall of the infamous wall, the conference was transformed into the "Two Plus Four"- the two Germanys, east and west, and the four occupying powers - the U.S., the Soviets, the British, and the French. The Germans would discuss the terms of reunification among themselves, while the other four would consider the impact of a united Germany on the architecture of the post-war world.

And Canada ended up as the venue, as Mulroney put it, "catching the wave of history." This was at a symposium for 400 members of the diplomatic and academic communities organized by the German Embassy to observe the anniversary of the Open Skies and Two Plus Four conference.

Our role in the entire matter, as he said, was "as friendly bystanders." Among the four, plus Canada, only Mulroney and the first George Bush thought it was a good idea. The British and the French, who had their own history with Germany, were very much against reunification. Thatcher was very much against. For Mitterrand, who had a close relationship with Kohl, the idea was a bridge too far. As Mulroney quoted him telling reporters at the Elysée, "I love Germany so much I wish there could be two of them."

And there had been since 1945, which was fine with Mikhail Gorbachev. Mulroney remembered a conversation with the Soviet leader on a visit to Ottawa later in 1990. Gorbachev said he would support reunification on two conditions - first, that Germany become a neutral country, and second that it not be a part of NATO.

"Mikhail," Mulroney recalled saying, "you can save yourself a lot of trouble in Washington because Bush will never agree to either. You'll just end up being humiliated."

That Gorbachev ultimately agreed to German reunification, at his own political peril, made him in Mulroney's view, "the unsung hero" of one the most momentous events of the 20th century - the reshaping of the map of Europe, the end of the Cold War and finally the dissolution of the Soviet Union itself, all without a shot being fired. A chain of events that began with the fall of the Berlin Wall, with the hinge of history swinging at the Ottawa conference of February 1990.

Mulroney told of another memory, of meeting Kohl for lunch in 2008 at a Berlin hotel on the east side of the Brandenburg Gate, and looking across traffic flowing through it where once there had been the wall.

"Helmut," he recalled saying, "in all our years of talking about this, did you ever think you would see it?"

There was no reply, and looking across the table he saw "tears streaming down his face."

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