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From the Monitor archives: After the fall of the Berlin Wall, what's next?

Twenty-five years ago today, the fall of the Berlin Wall was welcomed by the West, but many worried about what it meant for Germany and for East-West relations. The Christian Science Monitor reported as it happened.

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Happy Berliners climb on top of the Berlin Wall near the Brandenburg Gate in the hours after the Wall opened in November 1989.

R. Norman Matheny/Staff/File

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This article originally appeared in the Nov. 13, 1989, edition of The Christian Science Monitor.

West’s Joy at Changes In East Germany Tinged With Caution

Surprise at open border replaced by concerns about stability and changing role of alliances

WASHINGTON – In the end the Berlin Wall could not contain the population it was meant to pen up.

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The force of East Germans could find in the Iron Curtain has dismantled the wall as surely as if refugees had marched on it in the night with hammers and chisels, leaving it smaller each morning.

The opening of the East Ger­man frontier is a reminder that police states are not forever, and that even repressive governments must worry about maintaining le­gitimacy in the eyes of the gov­erned. But the act is a symbol, not a solution. East German leaders must likely enact further political and economic reforms to stop the outward rush of citizens.

The speed with which East Germany has spun into turmoil has stunned the West, even after the examples of Poland and Hun­gary. A sense of caution, and wor­ry about the long-term issue of German reunification, is keeping many officials and analysts in the US from being too euphoric.

“It is in nobody’s interest that East Germany collapse prema­turely,” says Ronald Asmus, a RAND Corporation analyst.

• West Germany does not want to be faced with a larger refugee problem than it already has. Western experts figure about 1.4 million of East Germany’s 16 million people might flee if given a chance, and West German offi­cials have been pointedly saying many of these people might be better off if they stayed home.

• The Soviet Union does not want to see a sudden hole on the northwestern frontier of its de­fenses. Soviet leader Mikhail Gor­bachev says he would accept a pluralist East Germany – but only if it remained a member of the Warsaw Pact. The question of what happens to the 380,000 So­viet soldiers in East Germany is crucial.

• The United States does not want the Soviet Union to get nervous and cool improving rela­tions. In recent months the White House has reassured the Soviets that US policy in Eastern Europe is not designed to threaten their security. “There’s a very positive interplay” between the su­perpowers, a US official says.

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News about the dramatic East German move raced through Washington last Thursday with a rapidity unmatched by the San Francisco earthquake.

When President Bush fielded questions on the subject, the issue quickly became not the move it­self, but whether Bush was ex­cited. “The fact that I’m not bub­bling over ... maybe it’s getting along toward evening because I feel very good about it,” he said.

Throughout the dramatic Eastern European fall, there’s been frustration in Washington about being on the sidelines. US officials say over and over that there is only so much they can do to influence the situation.

The abolition of travel restric­tions carried with a hint of des­peration on the part of new East German leader Egon Krenz. He seemed to be offering East Ger­mans a chance to think, and calm­ly assess their situation.

“It’s the only way they can maintain their hold on power,” says Hannah Decker, a University of Houston professor of German history. But dramatic as the ges­ture is, it can only be a short-term solution to Mr. Krenz’s problems. Unless coupled with further re­forms it is unlikely to stem the emigrant tide, US analysts say.

Krenz has called in a general way for such reforms as freedom of assembly and the press, and eventual elections. A conference of the East German Communist Party is slated for mid-December.

Free elections could be the key to quieting dissent, but it is un­clear whether Krenz is committed to them. The opportunity to choose leaders might give East Germans an incentive to stay and rebuild. “The next step has to be real political change, real plural­ism,” says David Gress, a Hoover Institution scholar.

For Western nations, the East German government’s moves to­ward change represent a clear moral victory. But there is under­lying concern that the situation could spiral out of control.

West Germany used to take up to two years to educate refugees from the East in the ways of a free society, but with 225,000 East Germans arriving this year such readjustment is no longer possi­ble. Integration of those already there will be a strain.

To the US, stability in this con­text means a continued standoff between the military alliances of the Warsaw Pact and NATO. The East German situation could threaten this stability in two ways.

In the first, a newly pluralist East Germany could attempt to declare itself neutral. This could be unacceptable to the USSR. East Germany blocks the historic western approach to Russia, and is thus important militarily.

In the second, West Germany might declare itself neutral at the cost of long-sought reunification. A new mini-superpower would be created, one both West and East may view with unease.

The reunification question re­mains the central German prob­lem. There are many ways of uniting short of one government – a loose confederation, perhaps, or a sort of economic union.

"Just because things are exciting we should not jump to conclusions,” says Helga Welsh, a University of South Carolina Ger­man policy expert. “This is going to be a long process.”