Former U.S. President George Bush, one-time Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl reminisced like old friends Friday as they received an award for their role in ending Germany's Cold War division.
The three were honored with the Point Alpha Prize, named for a Cold War-era U.S. military observation post on the border between East and West Germany where the award was presented.
"I think history would definitely say, of all the things that happened in the last 50 years, the reunification of Germany was very, very special," Bush said. "I'm very proud to have played a part in it."
The three chuckled as they remembered the doubts some European leaders had 15 years ago about whether a reunited Germany would cause new problems.
Bush broke into laughter at the moderator's question about his response to former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's remark that "two Germanies are better than one."
Kohl needled him, saying: "She didn't let you get a word in edgewise, eh, George," as Gorbachev laughed along.
Thousands of Germans who had lived on either side of the former border were invited with dignitaries and politicians to the spot at the edge of the Thuringian Forest where for 50 years U.S. and Soviet troops faced off across minefields and barbed wire.
Many of them hoisted signs reading "Thank You for Freedom, Gorbi" and "Thank You, George" and burst into spontaneous applause as the three statesmen took their seats at the front of the crowd before the ceremony began.
"It was really brave what they did," said Bernd Nophut, who grew up in a village not far from Point Alpha along the hilly, wooded border. "It was against everything that everyone thought at the time."
But to see the three men - Bush introducing Gorbachev to the local German governor and Gorbachev whispering to Bush time and again during the ceremony - it was as if they were schoolmates at a reunion talking about the good old days.
Gorbachev was asked what he thought of former U.S. President Ronald Reagan's 1987 challenge before divided Berlin's Brandenburg Gate, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!"
He said: "I knew that Reagan was an actor and that he was staging a very good show."
The Berlin Wall fell in November, 1989 as communist rule collapsed in East Germany and Soviet-dominated Eastern Europe thanks to Gorbachev's easing of Soviet political repression.
Kohl, Gorbachev and Bush all played key roles in working out Germany's reunification the following year.
Kohl and Gorbachev grew more serious as they urged European politicians to put aside their differences and continue work to further unite the continent despite funding disputes and the defeat of a proposed EU constitution by French and Dutch voters.
"The integration of Europe will be nothing if each one just thinks of himself," Kohl said.
"One has to have patience and reserves of patience for the process," Gorbachev said. "A unified Europe is not against Russia or the United States, but for Russia and the United States."
MELISSA EDDY, Associated Press Writer
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