Narrative journalism can provide a window into distant communities or a link to people you might pass without noticing in daily life, but it also lets readers be flies on the wall at historic moments, giving an inside scoop on events that change the world. Our latest Notable Narrative, “Germany’s Unlikely Diplomatic Triumph: An Inside Look at the Reunification Negotiations,” provides an arresting example of the latter.

A tick-tock of the haggling over whether or not and how the two Germanys should unite, this Der Spiegel story by Klaus Wiegrefe provides a wealth of perspective on the players and their roles in the negotiations. We learn that during World War II, the Luftwaffe had bombed Margaret Thatcher’s hometown repeatedly, and German occupation forces had interrogated Mikhail Gorbachev’s grandmother.

Wiegrefe recounts how a sleeping pill taken by U.S. Secretary of State James Baker almost derailed the entire process, and that the profoundly anti-Soviet Thatcher still thought the U.S.S.R. might be necessary “as a counterbalance to a united Germany.” From the human level of nicknames such as “giant insect” and “the old man,” Wiegrefe outlines the snubs, clandestine medical treatment and extortion that did not make front pages at the time.

The story’s language feels a little stilted (perhaps due to the article being translated from German), but the characters and events shine through. Making use of new documents released by the German foreign ministry 20 years after reunification, Wiegrefe shows us the unlikely and comic moments from a successful political fight that seemed doomed at the outset.

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