As the world marks 30 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall, a former diplomat is reflecting on his tenure as the first U.S. ambassador to Germany following reunification. Robert M. Kimmitt held the post from 1991 to 1993, though his ties to Europe predate his birth.
Like 20 percent of Americans, Kimmitt traces his heritage to Germany. His parents met in Berlin in 1946. His mother, the granddaughter of German immigrants, was an American Red Cross worker from Missouri who was serving in Europe at the time. His father, a combat officer from Montana, fought in the Battle of the Bulge in World War II. They were married in March 1947.
Kimmitt often quips he was ‘made in Germany’ and born in the United States nine months later. His father’s military career took their family back to Germany in 1960 where he attended eighth through eleventh grades.
Years later while serving on active duty at West Point, Kimmitt spent a summer in Aschaffenburg, Germany. During his subsequent military service, he was also stationed Stuttgart.
Kimmit’s work in both government and the private sector brings him back to to Germany four to six times a year.
Three decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the former ambassador remains optimistic about the new German-American relationship.
What are your most vivid memories when you learned the wall fell and people were crossing the border?
Robert Kimmitt: That we had reached an historic moment. My parents actually met and married in Berlin after the war. I lived there as a military dependent. I had served there in the army. I was working at the State Department when the wall fell. We had seen indications the day days before that something significant was happening, but when the wall itself actually fell we saw people going through the wall and dancing on top of the wall I knew we had reached a truly historic moment. You could feel the joy of the German people, particularly those coming from the eastern side. And for those of us who had experience in Germany, had worked on policy matters related to Germany, it was like the culmination of a policy goal that we probably all thought was unlikely to be achieved in our lifetime.
What accomplishment are you most are you most proud of?
Robert Kimmitt: That Germany United within NATO. There had been a lot of talk that as the two Germany’s came together they would have to have a special status; maybe a confederation. Maybe there would be some partial membership within NATO. But the first President Bush, even before the wall fell, said that our objective was a united Germany within NATO. And the fact that Germany came together in less than a year after the wall fell, as a full member of NATO, was an exceptionally proud policy achievement. Ultimately, however, the true pride was felt by the German people and what they were able to do on the ground.
What do you think Americans should remember most about the fall of the wall?
Robert Kimmitt: The joy of the German people, the importance of a clear policy direction from the president of the United States, and the steadfastness that the U.S. and its allies had in pursuing that goal.
Why shouldn’t the average American allow memories of the Cold War era to fade with time?
Robert Kimmitt: Well, because hundreds of thousands of Americans gave their lives in World War II to fight for freedom. Freedom throughout Europe, a Europe “whole and free,” as President Bush used to say, and we’re seeing the tangible manifestation of that commitment of blood and treasure on the part of Americans and others finally realized in a united Germany, a peaceful democratic tolerant Germany that is good for Germany, good for Europe, good for the transatlantic relationship, and the world.
Three decades later, what does a free and unified Germany mean for the rest of the world?
Robert Kimmitt: As goes Europe, so goes American foreign policy. And as goes Germany, so goes Europe. The ‘special relationship’ between the United States and Europe used to be a relationship largely between the United States and the United Kingdom. That relationship is still important, but the center of gravity of U.S. strategic interests has moved from London to Berlin. If we get it right with Germany, if Germany gets it right within Europe, that’s great for the transatlantic relationship for Europe, for Germany, and the world.
Why is Germany still an important ally for the United States?
Robert Kimmitt: First of all, Germany is the largest economy right in the center of Europe. It has been a crossroads for trade but also for war for centuries. And the fact that we now have a Germany at peace with its nine neighbors, a strong member of the NATO alliance, a strong member of the global economy, including in key groups like the G7 and G20. Again, it’s good for Germany, it’s good for Europe, it’s good for the United States.
How else has the U.S./Germany relationship evolved over the last three decades?
Robert Kimmitt: The biggest change (from) 30 years ago, we were primarily focused on the political military dimensions of the German-American relationship. Now the economic and financial dimensions are as important. So I call Germany a 360-degree relationship — diplomatic, military, economic and financial.
Who deserves the most credit for a reunified Germany?
Robert Kimmitt: The wall came down because of the aspirations and bravery of Germans on both sides of the wall, but particularly those brave East Germans and East Berliners who stood up throughout the entire Cold War period with real intensification of their efforts during 1989, leading to the fall of the wall. So I would say let’s not think about world leaders as much as courageous people on the ground for bringing the wall down.
You served in the George HW Bush administration. What should be remembered about his impact on this process?
Robert Kimmitt: I think he was absolutely integral to the successful result that we saw on October 3, 1990 — again, a free, independent Germany united within NATO. I thought it was quite striking the German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who, when he (Bush) was president was actually a young cabinet officer under Helmut Kohl, made the effort to come to the funeral and basically said without George HW Bush, Germany would not have unified as quickly and as successfully. So again the Germans were in the lead but if you look at the single person with the greatest role in bringing out this strategic result of benefit, not only to Germany, but the U.S., Europe, and the world, I think it was George HW Bush.
What do you recall about his response to developments between East Germany and West Germany?
Robert Kimmitt: The role of George HW Bush in the German unification process was absolutely crucial. Three weeks before the wall fell, he gave a New York Times interview in which he was asked about the possibility of the wall coming down and Germany uniting. And his quick response was, “If Germany unites within NATO we will have reached one of our great strategic goals. I have confidence in the German people we would work with the Soviets of others to bring this about.” So even before the wall fell he had a good strategic concept that drove those of us in government toward uniting Germany within NATO. But the way the president led the process from the U.S. side, first of all people criticize him for not going to Berlin as soon as the wall fell and he said, “What am I supposed to jump on upon the wall and dance? No this is a moment of celebration for the German people.” We Americans, working with the British, the French, the Soviets, have to find a way to work alongside the Germans in bringing their country together that led to the so-called ‘2+4 process’ the two Germany’s plus the four wartime allies — U.S., Britain, France, and the Soviet Union. I think it was President Bush’s close relationship with Helmut Kohl, his ability to work with Francois Mitterrand of France, Margaret Thatcher of the United Kingdom, and especially with Mikhail Gorbachev of the Soviet Union, allowed Germany to come together within NATO with others feeling a degree of confidence that this Germany would be a very different Germany that caused so much pain to the world in the first half of the 20th century. I think George HW Bush’s strategic, mature, engaged leadership was absolutely crucial to that result. Again, primary credit to the Germans, but in terms of that external process among the World War two allies, George HW Bush was clearly the leader.
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