The Gorbachev Files: Secret Papers Reveal Truth Behind Soviet Collapse


Former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl figures particularly prominently in the Gorbachev documents. He was greatly indebted to the Russian leader at the time, because Gorbachev had declined not to deploy tanks in East Berlin to stop the collapse of East Germany in the fall of 1989. He also did not stand in the way of reunification the following year. In fact, to the consternation of many comrades in his own ranks, Gorbachev didn't even oppose a reunited Germany joining NATO.

Kohl was able to repay the favor in 1991, which was precisely what Gorbachev expected of him. During this phase, Kohl was, in many respects, Gorbachev's last hope.

The Soviet leader had apparently forgotten that he had viewed the German chancellor as a mediocre provincial politician for years. On Nov. 1, 1989, when he received Egon Krenz -- the successor to East German leader Erich Honecker and East Germany's last communist leader -- at the Kremlin, he said to Krenz:

It seems that Kohl is not the greatest intellectual, but he enjoys a certain amount of popularity in his country, especially among ordinary citizens.

The message seems to have been: This isn't someone you need to worry about. Gorbachev himself had ignored Kohl for years. He had viewed him as a mouthpiece of the Americans and, for a long time, had deliberately steered clear of West Germany during his trips to Europe.

The minutes of the meeting between Krenz and Gorbachev were later published in Moscow, and were recently also made accessible to the public in Germany. However, the passage relating to Kohl is missing in the Russian version. Gorbachev was so embarrassed about it that he had it deleted.

Part 3: Breaking the Ice with 'Helmut'

In the summer of 1990, after both men had negotiated the details of German reunification, his relationship with Kohl changed. The ice was finally broken when Gorbachev and his wife Raisa traveled to Germany in November, visiting the Kohls at their house in Oggersheim in western Germany and touring the nearby Speyer Cathedral with them. They even dined at Kohl's favorite restaurant, the Deidesheimer Hof. The two men switched to first-name terms on that occasion -- the breakthrough in their relationship.

Gorbachev needed the influential German chancellor, now that the situation was becoming dicey at home. There were shortages of everything in the shops -- meat, butter, powdered milk -- and his popularity was sinking.

In those months, Gorbachev reached for the phone more and more often to discuss the situation with his "friend Helmut," who had suddenly become his political adviser. The two men used a special telephone line, and hardly any of these conversations between Moscow and Bonn would later appear in Gorbachev's books. Kohl, in his memoirs, also mentions them only in passing.

This hesitation becomes clear to anyone who reads the transcripts, most of which were prepared by translators who also had to report to the KGB. The conversations were filled with Gorbachev's complaints, the cries for help of a drowning man -- words that the once-proud Soviet leader did his utmost to sweep under the rug two decades later.

At the time, however, he wanted Kohl to encourage the West to rescue the Soviet Union. He wanted the chancellor to portray the impending collapse as a catastrophe that could send the entire world into turmoil. Or course, he also hoped for support in his fight against his toughest rival, Boris Yeltsin.

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