Lord Powell of Bayswater was Private Secretary and adviser on foreign affairs and defence to Margaret Thatcher from 1983 to 1990.
The Fall of the Wall twenty-five years ago was the last of the great Cold War crises, a chain running through the Berlin Airlift, the Soviet invasion of Hungary (1956) and later Prague (1968), Cuba, the building of the Wall, the deployment of Soviet medium-range nuclear missiles. It had all the elements of a Cold War crisis: surprise, not least to the leaders of both East and West Germany; huge risk at a time when Europe was still stuffed to the gills with nuclear weapons; uncertainty about Soviet and indeed Western intentions and reaction; late night visits – to No. 10 Downing Street in our case – by Soviet Ambassadors bearing ambivalent messages from their leadership: truly a moment to hold one's breath and hope for the best.
The Iron Curtain was rapidly fraying in other parts of Eastern Europe, particularly Hungary and Czechoslovakia. But we always assumed that East Germany would be the last domino to fall and under-estimated both the scale of internal rot in the regime and the readiness of Gorbachev and his politburo colleagues to let it collapse. The final irony of course was that the actual fall of the wall was a mistake when a confused member of the East German regime misunderstood his instructions and announced that the Wall would be opened to allow East Berliners to visit the West: an undignified end to one of the world's nastier regimes, collapsing because of its own incompetence.
The events of those few days in November moved at extraordinary speed. The West German government briefed its allies on a daily basis, reassuring them nothing spectacular would happen and that German re-unification remained a distant dream. The briefings were out-of-date by the time of every evening's news broadcasts. Chancellor Kohl himself was caught off base on a foreign visit on the day the wall was breached and had to hurry back to Berlin to remain abreast of events. His skill was to surf the wave of reunification rather than to lead the process himself.
Right to the last moment we remained uncertain about the Soviet Union's intentions especially when the Soviet Ambassador rang to say he had an urgent message from President Gorbachev which he must deliver personally – which he did towards midnight on the day the Wall was breached. It contained a warning that everything possible should be done to avoid any provocations to Soviet forces in Berlin and East Germany or he could not be responsible for the consequences. It was indeed a dangerous moment but good sense prevailed and history was made peacefully. Who would have bet on it even a year before?
Looking back twenty-five years later three points strike me in particular.
First, the Wall did more damage to communism and its image world-wide than anything else one could imagine. It was a stark reminder of the failure of a doctrine and a system which had to imprison its people. The horrors of the kill-zone on the Eastern side of the Wall fuelled international disgust at the savagery of the regime and all it represented. It also of course provided an unmatchable 'prop' for speeches by Western leaders from President Kennedy to President Reagan to denounce the communist system. "Tear down this wall, Mr Gorbachev" was one of President Reagan's most telling blows against the Evil Empire.
Second, we underestimated the courage of East Germans and indeed other East Europeans in rising against their hateful regimes and turning them out of power. We congratulate ourselves on NATO's steadfastness over many decades of holding Soviet forces at bay and preserving our democratic way of life in Western Europe, and that is perfectly fair. But we sometimes forget that it was the people of Eastern Europe who took the risk of rising in revolt and freeing themselves. That makes it all the more shameful and small-minded that, in order to protect the agricultural interests of some Southern European countries, we were so slow to welcome them into the European Union once they were free.
Third we have a lot for which to be grateful to President Gorbachev. Where earlier Soviet leaders barely thought twice about crushing dissent in Eastern Europe with tanks, Gorbachev's basic humanity held back the use of force and enabled him to accept what had been anathema to the Soviet Union since Stalin's time, the re-unification of Germany.
The Wall came down and with it the curtain came down on the Cold War. It was a famous victory. What lingers is a doubt that we made the best use of opportunities which followed.