Saying goodbye to the 20th century

Three men sealed the end of the Cold War. This week, they met once again to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. The historian and writer Timothy Garton Ash joined them to reflect on the events of that extraordinary night a decade ago
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"Helmut!" exclaims Mikhail Gorbachev, leaning across the narrow dinner-table, "I want to drink a toast to you! You are one of the most serious politicians I know."

The giant sitting to my right, Helmut Kohl, raises his glass. Mikhail and Helmut, the two old friends - for that is what they are now - drink to each other, as they have so many times before. Just down the table sits George Bush, the third architect of German unification. Behind the heads of Gorbachev and Bush I have a spectacular view of Berlin from the 18th-floor plate-glass windows of the office block, which was built by the conservative German publisher Axel Springer right next to the Berlin Wall.

Amazing to sit here between the three men who have sealed the end of the Wall, of the Cold War, and of the 20th century. They've come back to Berlin for the 10th anniversary of the fall of the Wall, of course, and, specifically, at the invitation of the Springer Sunday newspaper, Welt am Sonntag, to take part in a conversation about "what really happened" that night, and in the subsequent days and months. I had the privilege of leading the discussion, asking them some of the questions that still remain unanswered. It was an exciting task.

I started by asking Gorbachev what he was doing on the night of 9 November, 1989, when the Wall came down. He has often recounted how he received a phone call from the Soviet Ambassador in East Berlin early the next morning, to give him the sensational news. But where was he on the evening itself? Gorbachev responds with a five-minute lecture about the world- historical significance of the events, and the part the three of them played. Only afterwards, over dinner, do I get the answer to my question: he worked until 10 o'clock that evening and then went to bed. By the time the East German Communist Party leader tried to ring him he was asleep, and his aides refused to put the call through. Rightly, he says. And so, while the Berliners danced on the most famous outer rampart of the Soviet Empire, the emperor slept.

I ask him about the pressures he was under from Soviet generals and officials who thought they should intervene to prevent the keystone of their empire crumbling. Did anyone come directly to him with the proposal to use force? "Nyet," says Gorbachev. Kohl quickly intervenes: "Yes, but the generals were there, and it was you who ensured that reason prevailed."

Gorbachev does acknowledge that, for more than two months after the Wall fell, the Soviet Union was still considering all options. He says the decisive moment came during the meeting he had with Chancellor Kohl in Moscow on 10 February, 1990, when he declared: "It's for the Germans to choose."

Kohl thought at the time that this was a carefully prepared signal, and Gorby now confirms that it was. That was the green light.

I ask all three of them whether they think there are any big secrets still to be uncovered about those great events - and if so, what are they? After all, just 10 years on there are normally some important secrets hidden in the military or intelligence archives, or in the private papers of political leaders. Kohl jokes that 90 per cent of what intelligence services report is false and the other 10 per cent you can read in the newspapers. Seriously, he does not think there are any major secrets left. Bush agrees. Gorbachev gives a slightly different answer. Yes, he says, there probably still are interesting things in the archives about the different positions that different people took up.

Yet the real secret, they all agree, is an open secret: the quality of the personal relations that they had developed between them. Without this, they all say in their different ways, the opening of the Wall and German unification would never have happened as it did - so swiftly and, above all, so peacefully.

That rapidly becomes the central theme of the evening: the importance of what Bush calls "personal diplomacy". "Helmut," exclaims Mikhail, "you remember what we said: everything we do, we have to do calmly." And Helmut responds emotionally: "I'll never forget that you believed me, that you trusted us." "The main heroes were the Germans and the Russians," adds the Russian, and the former American president seems happy to agree.

A cynical ear might find the overall message a little, well, self-congratulatory - "How lucky the world was, that it had us in charge!" But in this case I think it is largely justified by the historical record. There were so many moments at which everything could have gone wrong, if the three leaders had not been constantly in touch, constantly reassuring each other by telephone and hotline - as well as via the international media.

I ask Bush about his famously understated response to the first news of the breach in the Wall: "I'm very pleased." When a journalist enquired whether he didn't feel the urge to say anything more than that, he replied: "I'm not an emotional kind of guy." He says now that he took some flak for that - some "grief", as he puts it - but what was uppermost in his mind was to ensure that Gorbachev's position was not threatened at home by American triumphalism. "I didn't want to poke my finger in his (ie Gorbachev's) eye," he explains, and that very eye watches him steadily and approvingly through steel-rimmed spectacles. Some advisers had urged him to go straight to Berlin, but he declined. "Don't dance on the Wall," he kept telling his people.

Of course, the politics of personal relations can boomerang if the top people don't hit it off. A silent presence on our platform was Margaret Thatcher, the British prime minister of the time, who had a notoriously strained relationship with Helmut Kohl, and who was, as Bush almost casually remarked, long opposed to unification. If leaders don't get on, the fact that they meet all the time makes things worse, not better. And so the real fascination of the evening, beyond any historical tit-bits, beyond the sheer fact, place and time of this "Three Kings' reunion", was to observe the personalities, and the relations between them.

George Bush, 75, tall, angular, dressed in a blue suit of conservative cut, sits with quiet reserve at the right end of the threesome on the podium beside me, a senatorial type, the classical high public servant of a liberal empire. He is cordial with the others, but there is none of the electricity that you sense almost physically between "Mikhail" and "Helmut". Those two often reach out a hand to touch each other on the arm; Bush very occasionally does the same to Kohl. In answer to one of my historical questions, about how he received Kohl's "10-point-programme" for German unity down the hotline to Washington, he jokes: "I can't even remember what I had for lunch two days ago." And I feel that for the old gentleman from Texas, it's all a long way away - distant in both time and space.

On the other side of Kohl sits Gorbachev, never a large man and now almost dwarfed by the German giant beside him. Under the familiar birthmark, he looks serious, drawn, a little tired, with less of the sparkling humour and energy that I saw when I last chaired a meeting with him in London three years ago.

Though he is accompanied and supported by his charming daughter and sweet, 12-year-old grand-daughter, I sense how deeply he has been drained by the death of his wife, Raisa. He still speaks as a man accustomed to command, but with a horrible, nagging awareness of what has happened to the great power he once led. Historically he is, without question, the person who made the most difference of the three. Without him there might still be a Soviet Union, a divided Europe and a divided Berlin. Bush and Kohl seized the opportunity he offered. In Germany, though not in Russia, he still enjoys huge popularity. Yet he somehow seems shrunken with the power of his country, and with the tragedies of his own political and personal life.

In the middle, a commanding presence, the kingpin of the evening, sits Helmut Kohl. The first basic, simple fact about Kohl, something you never quite appreciate from television, is his sheer physical size. He is the largest man I have ever met. This evening he exudes energy, good cheer and self-confidence. As well he might, for not only is he the "Chancellor of German unity", he is also now the most popular politician in Germany (something he never was when he was chancellor).

Partly because of the weak performance of his successor, there is a huge and seemingly growing nostalgia for the days of Old King Kohl. He tells me that when he walks out of his new Berlin office on Unter den Linden, people come up to him just to express their thanks and touch his sleeve. And throughout the subsequent evening, I see this happening. Moreover, not just he, but his country, is clearly the great winner in the historical moment that we are recalling.

He is also the best witness of the three, originally trained as a historian and fully up to speed with his own (often retold) version of German unification. There is something touching about the affectionate way he picks up Gorbachev's sometimes rambling answers, and reconnects them to the historical thread. Gorbachev is just a year younger than Kohl, who will be 70 next spring, but I find that Kohl treats him almost like a younger brother. Somehow this reflects the shift in the balance of their fates, and those of their countries. So much of European history in the 20th century has been shaped by the see-saw-like up and down of Germany and Russia, but at the century's end it's Germany that is up and Russia that is down.

Of course, the history of their relations looks better in the rosy glow of reminiscence than it did at the time. But, beyond the quality of their statecraft, there is one thing they have in common. They were all shaped by the experience of the Second World War. Kohl and Gorbachev, in particular, cemented their friendship by exchanging childhood memories of the war. They are, in fact, the last representatives of the war generation in high politics. Perhaps only those marked by the experience of war could have found a way to end the Cold War without one.

And so, as we leave the panelled dining-room overlooking the bright lights of a now reunited Berlin, I feel this evening has not just been about revisiting the great events of 10 years ago. What we've really been doing, with these three grand old men, is saying goodbye to the 20th century.