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The Soviet Origins of Helmut Kohl's 10 Points

Documents show secret messages from Moscow sparked West German chancellor to announce German unification plans on November 28, 1989

Unintended consequences - the backchannel backfires: shock in Moscow and dismay in Washington

New evidence from National Security Archive book "Masterpieces of History" (forthcoming from CEU Press, 2010)

National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 296

Posted - November 18, 2009

For more information contact:
Svetlana Savranskaya, Thomas Blanton - 202/994-7000

Forthcoming from CEU Press:

"Masterpieces of History:" The Peaceful End of the Cold War in Europe, 1989
A National Security Archive Cold War Reader (Malcolm Byrne, series editor)
By Svetlana Savranskaya, Thomas Blanton and Vladislav Zubok

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Secret Documents Show Opposition to German Unification

October 9, 2009
A Different October Revolution
Dismantling the Iron Curtain in Eastern Europe

Washington, D.C., November 18, 2009 - Secret messages from senior Soviet officials to West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl after the fall of the Berlin Wall led directly to Kohl's famous "10 Points" speech on German unification, but the speech produced shock in both Moscow and Washington, according to documents from Soviet, German and American files posted today on the Web by the National Security Archive.

Published for the first time in English in the Archive's forthcoming book, "Masterpieces of History," the documents include highest-level conversations between President George H.W. Bush and Kohl; the text of the letter Kohl had delivered to Bush just as he announced the "10 Points" to the Bundestag on November 28, 1989; excerpts on Germany from the transcript of the Malta summit between Bush and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev; Gorbachev's own incendiary meeting with the German foreign minister after Kohl's speech; and more.

The documents show the American administration's devotion to stability and "reserve" while the West German leader rushes to get out in front of the rapid changes in the East, at the same time that neither Bush nor Kohl expects unification to happen so quickly.  Most strikingly, the documents and related accounts by Kohl's aide, Horst Teltschik, and Gorbachev's aide, Andrei Grachev, show that Kohl's famous "10 Points" speech was based in large part directly on secret messages from Moscow – but unbeknownst to Gorbachev.

The new history of the "10 Points" speech hinges on a back-channel communication from Soviet Central Committee expert Valentin Falin (head of the International Department and former Soviet ambassador to West Germany in the 1970s), through long-time Soviet interlocutor Nikolai Portugalov, to Teltschik, on November 21, 1989, about the idea of "confederation" between West Germany and the rapidly collapsing East German regime – a way to prop up the East by getting some equal status for the two states before the bottom fell out.  According to Grachev, Falin's rivalry with top Gorbachev assistant Anatoly Chernyaev had prevented Falin from getting his ideas to Gorbachev directly, so he decided to use a long-standing "confidential channel" through Portugalov to Teltschik, anticipating that Teltschik would then persuade Kohl to call Gorbachev and discuss the idea of confederation while reassuring the Soviets that it would only take place in the context of the "common European home."

Falin drafted two position papers, an "official" one, cleared with Chernyaev, that mostly reaffirmed the pledges made by Kohl to Gorbachev and stated that if they were kept, then "everything becomes possible;" and an "unofficial" one, which declared that the idea of confederation was something the Soviets were already discussing at the level of the Politburo and were prepared to accept in principle.  But when Portugalov delivered these messages on November 21, Teltschik and then Kohl did not realize they were supposed to call Gorbachev and bring him along, but thought the messages were coming from Gorbachev and that he was already on board.  Furthermore, if Moscow was thinking this way, Kohl needed to go public quickly just to keep up and regain the initiative.  Teltschik therefore drafted the "10 Points" on the basis of the Soviet positions, leading with a commitment to the pan-European process (Gorbachev's core vision) and making the idea of confederation (however gradual) the center of the German unification discourse.

The now-available documents show that Kohl did not inform either Bush, his allies, or his own foreign minister before delivering his speech in the Bundestag on November 28.  In fact, Kohl arranged for Bush to receive his letter combining advice for the forthcoming Malta summit and a summary of the "10 Points" just as Kohl was actually speaking in Bonn.  The result was consternation in Washington.  Bush aide Brent Scowcroft commented, "If he was prepared to go off on his own whenever he worried that we might object, we had very little influence."  At the Malta summit on December 2 and 3, Gorbachev complained to Bush that "Kohl does not act seriously and responsibly," while the American reassured Gorbachev that "[w]e are trying to act with a certain reserve" and couched his position on Germany in double negatives.

Bush's reserve seemed to change after he actually met with Kohl on December 3 in Brussels, when the West German leader outlined a gradual process towards federation and predicted a timeline of more than two years.  (Unification would actually happen within just 10 months).  But Gorbachev's ire rose to a crescendo in his meeting with German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher on December 5 – just as the East German Communist Party was resigning en masse and the government collapsing, and just after the NATO allies including Bush had publicly announced support for Kohl.   Gorbachev told Genscher that the West Germans were preparing a "funeral for the European process" while Shevardnadze even invoked a comparison with Hitler!

After Genscher reported the conversation back to Bonn, Teltschik hastened to do damage control, writing a memo to Kohl on December 6, attaching the Portugalov positions, specifically telling Kohl that the "10 Points" were based directly on the Soviet messages, and emphasizing that Kohl needed to talk to Gorbachev.  But the Soviet leader would decline such overtures until February 1990.

Teltschik first mentioned the story of the Soviet messages in his memoirs published in 1991, and the new book by Mary Sarotte (1989: The Struggle to Create Post-Cold War Europe) includes a colorful recreation of the Portugalov mission, but without the Soviet backstory.  The Soviet context as well as Falin's role in originating the Soviet messages are detailed for the first time in Andrei Grachev's book, Gorbachev's Gamble (2008) and were personally confirmed to the authors of this posting by Teltschik and Grachev.


Read the Documents

Document No. 1: Record of Telephone Conversation between George H.W. Bush and Helmut Kohl, November 17, 1989

Only nine days after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the West German leader initiates this telephone conversation with President Bush.  Here, Kohl reports on his talks with Gorbachev and with East German leader Egon Krenz, and promises "we will do nothing that will destabilize the situation in the GDR."  Bush responds: "The euphoric excitement in the U.S. runs the risk of forcing unforeseen action in the USSR or the GDR that would be very bad."  But he assures Kohl that "[w]e will not exacerbate the problem by having the President of the United States posturing on the Berlin Wall."  Kohl's initiative also shows in his offer to match a U.S. contribution of up to $250 million for a proposed Polish stabilization fund; (earlier in 1989, Bush had offered only $125 million for Poland over three years).  Bush tells Kohl "I am absolutely determined to get advice and suggestions from you personally before I meet with Gorbachev [at Malta]... so that I can understand every nuance of the German Question... [and] nuances of difference in the Alliance." But Kohl remarks that "[w]ith the developing situation, I would like to stay here."  Kohl would give his advice on Gorbachev in the same November 28 letter to Bush that tells the American president about the "10 Points."  Ultimately Bush and Kohl would meet face to face only after Malta.

Document No. 2: Letter from Helmut Kohl to George H.W. Bush, November 28, 1989

This remarkable letter arrives at the White House at the very moment that Chancellor Kohl is surprising both the allies and the Soviets with his "10 Points" speech at the Bundestag in Bonn, pointing towards reunification.  The letter is couched as a response to Bush's repeated entreaties to Kohl (for example in phone calls on November 10 and 17) for his input before the Malta meeting with Gorbachev; in fact, Bush had practically implored Kohl to meet in person, but the chancellor demurred in order to tend to his domestic political situation. 

The letter has a much more formal tone than the telephone transcripts convey, likely due to the participation of Kohl's aides in drafting and editing it.  Here, the German leader encourages Bush to engage with Gorbachev across the board, but uses the president's own mantra of "stability" to emphasize that "the most important decisions over stability or destabilization will be made by the countries in Central and Eastern Europe.  The duty of the West on the other hand must be to support the ongoing reform process from the outside."  Kohl emphasizes that "Western help is coming far too slowly" to Poland and Hungary in particular--a rebuke to Bush's caution.  Kohl also pays quite a compliment to Gorbachev, telling Bush that for the reform changes in Eastern Europe, "we have General Secretary Gorbachev's policies to thank.  His perestroika loosed, made easier, or accelerated these reforms.  He pushed governments unwilling to make reforms towards openness and towards acceptance of the people's wishes; and he accepted developments that in some instances far surpassed the Soviet Union's own standards." 
But all the Malta advice is really secondary to the letter's final section laying out the "10 Points," along with a personal appeal in which he attempts to cover his bases with Bush.  Kohl had informed neither the Americans nor the NATO allies (nor his own foreign minister) in advance of his speech.  In his joint memoir with Scowcroft, Bush writes that Kohl was "[a]fraid of leaks, or perhaps of being talked out of it" and that "I was surprised, but not too worried," because Kohl "couldn't pursue reunification on his own."  Scowcroft was more concerned:  "If he was prepared to go off on his own whenever he worried that we might object, we had very little influence."  Scowcroft commented that in his telephone conversation the next day, November 29, Kohl over and over "pledged that there would be no going it alone--only one day after he had, in fact, ‘gone it alone.'" (Note 1)  These phrases, such as "little influence" and "support ... from the outside" provide further testimony of how American policy lagged, instead of led, the miracles of 1989.

Document No. 3: Excerpts from the Soviet Transcript of the Malta Summit, December 2-3, 1989

While the U.S. transcript of Malta is not yet declassified, the Gorbachev Foundation has published excerpts of the Russian version, and the most complete version may be found in "Masterpieces of History."  Posted here are the parts of the summit conversation in which the two leaders focused on the German question.  Interestingly, neither leader expects events to move as fast as they would the following year.  Just days earlier, on November 28, Helmut Kohl announced his "10 Points" towards confederation in a Bundestag speech that the Soviet Foreign Ministry denounced as pushing change in "a nationalist direction;" and here, Gorbachev attributes the speech to Kohl's domestic politics and says Kohl "does not act seriously and responsibly."  But then Gorbachev asks whether a united Germany would be neutral or a member of NATO, suggesting that at least theoretically he imagines the latter, although he may simply be acknowledging the U.S. position.  His clear preference is for the continuation of two states in Germany and only very slow progress towards any unification:  "let history decide."  The president is not eager for rapid progress either; he says "I hope that you understand that you cannot expect us not to approve of German reunification.  At the same time ... [w]e are trying to act with a certain reserve."

Document No. 4: Memorandum of Conversation of George H.W. Bush, John Sununu, Brent Scowcroft, and Helmut Kohl, December 3, 1989

This conversation immediately after the Malta summit marks a turning point in the process of German unification, where President Bush effectively joins Chancellor Kohl's program--yet neither man expects unification to happen even in two years, much less by October 1990 when West and East would actually join .  Bush gives Kohl a rundown on the conversation at Malta, describing Gorbachev as "tense" during talks about Germany and convinced that Kohl is moving too quickly:  "I don't want to say he went ‘ballistic' about it--he was just uneasy."  Both men agree to reassure Gorbachev and "not do anything reckless." 

The key moment here comes when Kohl tells Bush the opposite, in effect, of what Bush told Gorbachev about the inviolability of borders under the Helsinki Final Act.  Kohl reminds the American that Helsinki actually allows borders to be "changed by peaceful means;" and this seems to be the first time Bush internalizes this possibility.  At the same time, Kohl outlines three deliberate steps: first, a free government in the former GDR, second, "confederative structures, but with two independent states," and finally a "federation; that is a matter for the future and could be stretched out.  But I cannot say that will never happen."  Kohl scoffs at predictions that this will take only two years: "It is not possible; the economic imbalance is too great."  Here his language is similar to Gorbachev's--"the integration of Europe is a precondition for change in Eastern Europe to be effective"--but he says that European resistance to unification really comes from envy over Germany's economic growth ("[f]rankly, 62 million prosperous Germans are difficult to tolerate--add 17 million more and they have big problems"). 

Bush asks about GDR opinions on unification, and neither he nor Kohl foresees the rush to reunify that would dominate the March 1990 elections there.  As for European views, Kohl gives a candid summary, calling Mitterrand "wise" for disliking unification but not opposing it, while "Great Britain is rather reticent."  Bush exclaims, "That is the understatement of the year"--referring to Thatcher's total opposition.  Kohl says, "She thinks history is not just.  Germany is so rich and Great Britain is struggling.  They won a war but lost an empire and their economy."  The German version of this conversation contains more detail than the American version below, including an interesting discussion of Gorbachev and values (12 lines in the German, but only a parenthetical comment below) where Bush says "the entire discussion about economic issues had an unreal aspect to it more because of ignorance on the Russian side rather than narrow-mindedness.  For example, Gorbachev took offense to the expression ‘Western values.'"

Document No. 5: Record of Conversation between Mikhail Gorbachev and Hans Dietrich Genscher, December 5, 1989

A week has passed since Helmut Kohl announced his "10 Points" in a Bundestag speech, and Gorbachev, unlike his demeanor regarding Germany at Malta (see reference in Document No. 4), does go "ballistic" in this conversation.  This is perhaps because he is receiving the German foreign minister, Hans Dietrich Genscher, who heads a separate political party from Kohl but participates in the coalition government, but more likely it is because Bush has apparently weighed in on Kohl's side, despite the cautious talk at Malta, and the government in East Germany has collapsed.  Gorbachev angrily remarks: "Yesterday, Chancellor Kohl, without much thought, stated that President Bush supported the idea of a confederation. What is next? ...What will happen to existing agreements between us? ... I cannot call him [Kohl] a responsible and predictable politician."  Gorbachev says he thought Kohl would at least consult with Moscow, but "[h]e probably already thinks that his music is playing--a march--and that he is already marching with it." 

From the Soviet view, the "10 Points" are "ultimatums" and "crude interference in the internal affairs of a sovereign state."  Gorbachev is personally offended because "[j]udging from all this, you have prepared a funeral for the European processes"--i.e., his own vision of the common European home.  Genscher tries to defend the "10 Points" as requiring "no conditions" and representing "just suggestions," and that "the GDR should decide whether they are suitable or not."  Gorbachev rebukes Genscher for becoming Kohl's "defense attorney" and raises the rhetorical attack to the point of making a reference to the Nazi era: "You have to remember what mindless politics has led to in the past."  Genscher responds, "We are aware of our historical mistakes, and we are not going to repeat them.  The processes that are going on now in the GDR and in the FRG do not deserve such harsh judgment."  (Shevardnadze is even more blunt with his comparisons, mentioning Hitler by name.)  As a final debating point, Gorbachev notes that Genscher himself only heard about the "10 Points" for the first time in the Bundestag speech.  The German confirms it--"Yes, that is true"--but then deftly slips in a rejoinder to the new champion of non-interference that "this is our internal affair."  Gorbachev replies, "You can see that your internal affair is making everybody concerned."

Document No. 6: Horst Teltschik's Memorandum for Chancellor Kohl, Bonn, December 6, 1989
In this memorandum, foreign policy adviser Horst Teltschik confirms to the chancellor that the "10 Points" program did not disagree with the Soviet proposals presented to him through the confidential channel, but rather was based on those positions, which he attaches to his memo.  The actual memos that CPSU Central Committee staff member Nikolai Portugalov brought to Teltschik on November 21, 1989 are not known to exist in other copies, except for these.  Apparently, the reason Teltschik writes his memorandum to Kohl on December 6 is that the Germans are perplexed by the vehemently negative Soviet reaction to the "10 Points" (especially in Gorbachev's conversation with Genscher on December 5).  In his memorandum, Teltschik recommends that Kohl meet with Gorbachev and discuss the situation, but the Soviet leader puts off any such discussions until February.

Document No. 7: British Ambassador to the USSR Sir Rodric Braithwaite's Telegram to Douglas Hurd, December 8, 1989

In this confidential telegram the perceptive British Ambassador describes the "suspicious and emotional mood" of the Soviet leadership regarding Kohl's "10 Points" and German unification.  Braithwaite is not aware of the Portugalov mission, but he vividly describes the author of the ploy – Valentin Falin – as having "the depressed air of a man whose life's work was crumbling."  Falin, according to Braithwaite, was "strikingly bitter about Kohl's alleged failure to warn Gorbachev about the 10 points."  That bitterness probably explains the fact that there is no mention of this story in Falin's memoirs.



1. Bush and Scowcroft, A World Transformed, 194-196.


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