Skip to main content


Diplomatic masterpiece: the Two Plus Four Treaty lays down the foreign policy aspects and security policy conditions of reunification in ten articles.


No one expected this. No one foresaw the fall of the Wall. Certainly, since 1949 the Basic Law of the Federal Republic of Germany had called upon Germans to realise the unity and freedom of their country “in free self-determination”. And even during the second half of the 1980s, leading politicians, such as Federal Chancellor Helmut Kohl and Federal Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher, had repeatedly emphasised that the division of Germany was an unnatural state of affairs which would eventually be overcome. Nevertheless, they never assumed that everything would move so far and so fast when Mikhail Gorbachev, General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, visited the Federal Republic in mid-June 1989 and stated in a joint declaration with Helmut Kohl: “The right of all peoples and states to determine freely their destiny and to frame sovereignly their mutual relations on the basis of international law must be guaranteed.” In saying this, the General Secretary was responding to the independence aspirations of many of the peoples in his sphere of influence. However, he was by no means considering the end of the Wall that divided Germany and Berlin – and certainly not a reunification of the two German states. That is understandable, since both the division of the country and the surrender of its territories east of the Oder and Neisse to Poland and the Soviet Union were the price that Germany and the Germans had had to pay for their policies and warfare during the first half of the 20th century, and especially the campaign of conquest, plunder and destruction of the years between 1939 and 1945. Anyone who wanted to make the Wall porous or even pull it down completely would have to accept the results of the Second World War – and gain the consent of the victorious Allies. The Federal Government took the first steps between 1970 and 1972. In a series of treaties with the Soviet Union, Poland and the GDR, among other things, it affirmed the fact of German division and accepted the border along the Oder and Neisse rivers as Poland’s western frontier.

However, the border between the Federal Republic of Germany and the German Democratic Republic had now become a front line along which the powers that had once been allied against Hitler now faced one another as opponents in the Cold War. In the face of nuclear rearmament and its escalation potential, the Soviet Union, on the one hand, and the United States, the United Kingdom and France, on the other, had a strong interest in maintaining the status quo in Central Europe, including the division of Germany. Although the four countries had ceased acting as occupying powers in the mid-1950s, they still reserved the right to have the final say with regard to German unification.

This was the situation in the mid-1980s when peoples in the Soviet sphere of influence began to rise up against Soviet supremacy and Communist tyranny. Initially, people in the GDR were not among the drivers of this movement, which came to be exemplified by the Polish union movement Solidarity. However, East Germans exploited this movement’s strength and the weakness of both the Kremlin and their own state and party leadership and eventually began taking to the streets in spring 1989, becoming more and more emphatic in their demands for the right to travel freely.

On the evening of 9 November 1989, a GDR Politburo representative who was completely overstretched by the situation answered a questioner by stating that this right now applied with immediate effect. When masses of East Berliners then headed directly to the Wall to find out whether the news was true or not, uncertain border guards opened the barriers. That was the beginning of the end of the Wall. Only a few hours earlier nobody would have reckoned with such an event – a result of change, chaos, pressure and helplessness. Federal Chancellor Kohl, for example, was visiting Poland at the time. Everyone was baffled – in Germany, in Europe and in the world. If one thing was certain during the days and weeks following this event, it was the fact that no one considered a swift unification possible. When, however, the subject was put on the agenda as a result of pressure from the people in the GDR, very few imagined the breathtaking speed at which the whole process would be completed: Germans were eventually able to celebrate the unification of their country only eleven months after the fall of the Wall.

There are diverse, interconnected reasons why the story so quickly reached this conclusion, although originally the Germans no longer expected it and the former victorious powers no longer wanted it. They main reason, among others, however, was the rapid dissolution of the Soviet empire, a process which had meanwhile also gripped the Soviet Union itself and whose final outcome no one then foresaw. Against this background, many changed their views overnight and no longer saw an orderly unification of Germany as a nightmare, but as a dream come true. Very early on, for example, US President George Bush made it clear that he favoured this solution to the German question under certain circumstances. Eventually, Federal Chancellor Kohl, Federal Foreign Minister Genscher and the Federal Foreign Office seized the opportunity and set about making unification a political and administrative reality – in close alliance with the four victorious powers of the Second World War and supported by the GDR.

As early as 13 February 1990, the foreign ministers of the Federal Republic of Germany, the German Democratic Republic, the Soviet Union, the United States of America, the United Kingdom and France stated they would soon meet to discuss “external aspects of the establishment of German unity”. Federal Foreign Minister Genscher led the negotiations for Bonn. The GDR Foreign Minister was Marcus Meckel, the pastor and civil rights activist who had re-founded Social Democracy in East Germany in autumn 1989. The so-called Two Plus Four talks were meant to ensure a reduction in their participants’ number to five by enabling the sixth, the GDR, to leave the world stage peacefully and by mutual consent. The fact that this came about, that the negotiations led to the signing of a lasting treaty and the realisation of German unification, was due, above all, to the small circle involved in the talks. Because the six were not negotiating a peace treaty, they did not have to invite all the 40 or so states that were at war with Germany at the time of its unconditional surrender in spring 1945. As a result, it was possible to disregard potentially explosive issues, such as demands for reparations. The six believed that this subject had been finally regulated in a series of agreements during the 1950s and 1960s. The six foreign ministers permitted only one exception: their Polish colleague Krzysztof Skubiszewski also attended part of their Paris meeting in mid-July 1990. Because practically no other country had suffered as much as Poland from the policies and warfare of its neighbours during the last two centuries, it was able to make and push through its demand for the “inviolability” of the German-Polish border “now and in the future”.

The Paris meeting was the third in a total of five conferences of the six foreign ministers. The first was held in Bonn on 5 May 1990. These rounds of consultations were prepared and followed up in the ministries, where the political directors and their staffs were kept hard at work. As a rule this took place behind closed doors, but the public attentively followed – sometimes with bated breath – what was happening openly on the world stage. This applied just as much to the meetings of foreign ministers as to the summits of heads of state and government. They sometimes saw each other on a daily basis at meetings of the European Community, the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) and even NATO, and of course there were also a series of bilateral gatherings. From the German perspective, this was above all about weakening sometimes strong resistance, including not least that of their own allies, the United Kingdom and France.

In the end, there only remained a Soviet “no”. Eventually, however, the Kremlin consented to the country’s unification and its membership of NATO at precisely the moment when the Soviet Union seemed on the point of imploding. Germany’s membership of the NATO alliance became the main issue. Signs of a softening of the USSR’s position began to appear in June. On 14 July, Federal Chancellor Kohl flew to Moscow and then from there with Gorbachev to his home region, the Caucasus. Even before the onward flight, the General Secretary signalled his consent to a united Germany’s membership of NATO. This was made public on 16 July at a joint press conference in Zheleznovodsk, where Gorbachev also promised the withdrawal of Soviet troops by 1994. Germany guaranteed the inviolability of existing frontiers, a troop reduction, the permanent renunciation of ABC weapons and wide-ranging economic assistance. This opened the door for the final negotiations of the six foreign ministers. On 12 September 1990, the treaty was signed in Moscow. On 1 October, in a joint declaration presented in New York, the Four Powers renounced their rights and obligations with regard to Germany, thereby granting it full sovereignty. The accession of the GDR to the Federal Republic took place three days later. United Germany and the three Western powers swiftly ratified the Two Plus Four Treaty. In Moscow, the Supreme Soviet only ratified the agreement on 4 March 1991 after hefty debate. Ambassador Terekhov presented the ratification document to Federal Foreign Minister Genscher on 15 March 1991. It was only after this that the treaty came into force. Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Russia assumed the treaty obligations of the former USSR with regard to Germany. When the last Allied troops left Berlin in August and September 1994, the post-war era finally came to an end.

The Two Plus Four Treaty is not a peace agreement, but it fulfils that function. It states that united Germany comprises “the territory of the Federal Republic of Germany, the German Democratic Republic and the whole of Berlin”. For the first time since 1945 a state with complete internal and external sovereignty existed again, and with it a previously unknown international responsibility. The fact that Germany has so far been able to do it justice to a degree that has gained it considerable respect is also due to the resilience of this treaty. After all, the treaty forms both the political and the legal foundation for the role that Germany plays in the world today, one that Germans originally did not seek. The fact that the treaty is also universally accepted by those who did not take part in the negotiations is of special significance. Without this support, Germany would not be able to fulfil its commitments in a series of United Nations missions – also of a military nature – nor could German foreign policy negotiate on the nuclear conflict with Iran alongside the five veto powers on the United Nations Security Council or play a leading role as a mediator in the Russia-Ukraine conflict. These are just a few examples. This speaks for the power of diplomacy even in an extreme situation like the collapse of the old world order. And it is indicative of the readiness of Germans to draw lessons from history and accept the role it was allotted by the international community at the time of unification. ▪

PROF. DR. GREGOR SCHÖLLGEN is a historian 
and professor of modern and contemporary history 
at Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg.