The Friedrichstadtpalast cabaret in central Berlin, a few steps from where the wall once stood, is famous for its long-legged showgirls. On Saturday, however, the stage was set to host three graying Cold War leaders: Kohl, 79, who led Germany from 1982-1998 and is hailed as the "unification chancellor"; Gorbachev, 78, the last Soviet leader who opened up the Soviet Union for liberal reforms and stayed calm when East Germany's communist leadership, and then his own empire, collapsed; and Bush, 85, who despite significant opposition from Britain and France from the very start supported Kohl's goal to unify the two German states.
"Mikhail Gorbachev and George Bush were Germany's most important partners," said Kohl, who is battling the aftereffects of a stroke and has been bound to a wheelchair since he collapsed in 2008. "There has never been a relationship that reached the level of my relations with these two gentlemen."
It was the leaders' first reunion since those eventful days in 1989, when East Germans rose up to protest their communist government and finally caused the Berlin Wall to fall on Nov. 9, 1989.
Bush, relying on his walking cane, gave a vivid speech; he lauded the courage of those people who risked their lives when they took the streets in many cities across East Germany to demand democratic reforms in the months and weeks before Nov. 9, 1989.
"The point needs to be made that the historic events we are gathered to celebrate were set in motion not in Bonn, or Moscow or Washington but rather in the hearts and minds of the people who had too long been deprived of their God-given rights," Bush said in front of an audience of 1,800 that included German Chancellor Angela Merkel and several former Central European leaders.
The three leaders were visibly moved by their first meeting in two decades. At one point, Gorbachev reached for Kohl's hand, squeezing it tightly. Bush several times put his arm around the other two leaders.
The former U.S. president hailed Kohl as "rock solid" and called him a "truly a great statesman of the 20th century."
After the fall of the Berlin Wall, Kohl launched negotiations with East Germany that culminated in German unification on Oct. 3, 1990.
But this did not go down so well elsewhere in Europe: British Premier Margaret Thatcher at the time tried to lobby France into opposing Germany's unity.
"France and Great Britain should pull together today in the face of the German threat," she told the French ambassador to London in March 1990, according to documents recently declassified by the British government. "Kohl is capable of anything. He has become another man. He doesn't know himself any more. He sees himself as the master of events and is starting to act like it."
But thanks to the backing of Bush and the cool-headed diplomacy by Gorbachev, Germany's unification proceeded.
Bush lauded Gorbachev for his role in the fall of the Berlin Wall and Germany's unification, which heralded the breakdown of the Soviet Union.
"Today we have a fuller appreciation of the tremendous pressure Mikhail faced in that pivotal time," Bush said. "Through it all he stood firm, which is why he will also stand tall when the history of our time in office is finally written."
Gorbachev, who introduced the glasnost and perestroika reforms in the Soviet Union shortly before it collapsed, called for a new friendship between Russia and its former Cold War enemies.
In reference to the change promised by the election of President Barack Obama, Gorbachev said the United States "needs its own perestroika."
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