Official Discusses Release Of Berlin Wall Documents

  • Playlist
  • Download
  • Embed
    Embed <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no">
  • Transcript

Read Documents From The Era Of The Wall's Fall

Tom Blanton, director of the National Security Archive, talks to host Melissa Block about the release of secret documents concerning the Berlin Wall. He says that neither Margaret Thatcher, Lech Walesa nor the George H.W. Bush administration wanted it to come down, while the Soviets and the Czechs were thinking of tearing it down themselves to relieve the refugee problem.


While ecstatic crowds poured across the border in Berlin 20 years ago, a number of key world leaders were deeply anxious about the turn of events: worried about the prospect of a unified Germany that they were sure would follow. The nonprofit National Security Archives has just published secret documents from the time. You can find them at And the archives director Tom Blanton joins us to talk about what those files show. Tom, welcome back.

Mr. TOM BLANTON (Director, National Security Archive): Hi, Melissa.

BLOCK: One of those documents is of a conversation between Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. This was a little bit more than a month before the fall of the wall and Margaret Thatcher flat-out tells Gorbachev: Britain and Western Europe are not interested in the unification of Germany.

Mr. BLANTON: She was anxious as all get-out. I mean, she really did not want Germany to be reunified and so she was coming to Gorbachev to say do whatever you can to stop it. Youve got those troops in East Germany. We want you to stop it. She actually tells the note-takers stop taking notes. Of course, his name was Anatoly Chernyaev. He runs out in the hallway and scribbles it down. And we have his diary today, which is part of what were publishing. Its fascinating because Chernyaev later writes, you know, Thatcher wants to prevent Germany from coming together, but she wants to do with our hands, that is to say, not her own. The top leaders were really worried. I mean, here in Washington, George Bushs national security advisor, Brent Scowcroft, scribbles in one of his sort of daily diary entries: Gosh, you know we might be better off if Germany stayed divided because at least then wed have a little more stability. They were all scared to death of the unknown, what could happen.

BLOCK: Well, what was the fear of a unified, strong Germany?

Mr. BLANTON: I think from the American side, the fear was a Germany that would go neutral, and therefore, no longer be part of the alliances and would therefore be this big wild card in the middle of Europe. I think for the Soviet Union, which had been invaded by Germany under Hitler, the fear was for revanchist power in a way that would start threatening all the neighbors. But whats fascination about the anxiety is that the Germans themselves kind of take their own fate into their hands. First, the East Germans pushing across the wall that night and then voting for a unification but in a very interesting, peaceful economic way. I mean, once of the historians who was at a conference the other day said, you know, the Poles had the pope but the Germans had the deutsche mark.

BLOCK: Lets talk a little bit more about the Bush administrations position at the time. A couple of years earlier in 1987, Ronald Reagan, of course, made his famous pronouncement - Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall - and the impression would be thats exactly what the Bush administration wanted: the wall to come down, Germany to reunite.

Mr. BLANTON: That Reagan speech has risen to the level of myth. But it was really, I think, directed more at a domestic audience. He was at a weak point in his presidency after the Iran-Contra affair. So, he was kind of taking back some of the old rhetoric, that morning-in-America Reagan again. And I think American policy was real clear. Yes, were for a united Germany except getting there was a whole other matter. And with the hallmark of the Bush administration, I think, during 1989 is worry, anxiety, insecurity. And you see it over and over in the internal notes, the diaries where they say Gorbachevs out in front. Hes more popular than we are. Hes got the initiative.

And they never seem to ask themselves, wow, all these initiatives. Maybe thats in our best interest. Bush actually writes in his diary in July 1989, after he met a bunch of dissidents in Eastern Europe, says things are spinning out of control. I better get together with Gorbachev and see if we can slow it down.


Mr. BLANTON: Interesting. U.S. policy was to slow down the change in 1989.

BLOCK: And within the Soviet Politburo at the time, what was the thinking? Was this the logical extension of Gorbachevs policies of glasnost and perestroika or was this going off in some wild direction that they didnt think they could control?

Mr. BLANTON: I think logical extension - theres this wonderful moment on November 3rd, 1989, where in the Politburo, the Foreign Minister Shevardnadze says, you know, we ought to take that wall down ourselves. Theres not much response to it in the Politburo. They go on and talk about other topics. But theyd already Gorbachev at least - had already decided to take down the barriers. He had this idea about a common European home - wasnt exactly a concrete plan but it was a vision. So, when the wall fell, theres actually some joy amazing, theres joy in Moscow, worry in Washington, high anxiety in other capitals, too.

BLOCK: No worry though in Moscow that this would represent the end of Soviet domination in Eastern Europe.

Mr. BLANTON: They didnt see it that way. Gorbachev didnt see it that way. He saw it as part of what he kept calling the pan-European process toward one common home - a lot of contradictions there. He sure didnt see unification happening so quickly. Hed had a different plan for it. But interesting that in Moscow there wasnt panic. They didnt see it that way, the way we look back at it today in this kind of golden glow and say, oh, that was the end of communism. Were kind of imposing our view today, but at the time it was very different.

BLOCK: Tom Blanton, thanks for coming you.

Mr. BLANTON: Thank you, Melissa.

BLOCK: Tom Blanton is director of the National Security Archive.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.



Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.