Released documents reveal the British Prime Minister's fear of a reunited Germany.
From the The Times Literary Supplement, Hans Kundnani.
Margaret Thatcher admitted in her memoirs that her policy on German reunification was an “unambiguous failure”. Although she had welcomed the democratic revolution in East Germany, she was alarmed by the possibility of German reunification that suddenly became very real in the weeks that followed the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989. She believed Germany's “national character”, as well as its size and position in the centre of Europe, made it an inherently “destabilizing rather than a stabilizing force in Europe”. She also worried, with some justification, that rapid reunification might undermine Mikhail Gorbachev’s position in the Soviet Union. However, with President Bush all for German reunification and Gorbachev unable to stop it, Thatcher became almost completely isolated over the next few months.
It has long been known that tensions existed between Thatcher and the Foreign Office, including her Foreign Secretary, Douglas Hurd. To coincide with the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the FCO has published a set of documents from its and the Cabinet Office’s archives that would normally have been released under the thirty-year rule. They illustrate the full extent of those tensions for the first time.
Although Britain had a long-standing commitment to German unity through self-determination, which Thatcher had herself reiterated in 1985, some mandarins appear to have had views on Germany that were not so different from the Prime Minister's. The collection opens with a note from Sir Christopher Mallaby, the British ambassador in Bonn, which is almost Thatcherite in its analysis of German pathology (the Germans, he says, are “always yearning for something”). But during the course of 1989, the FCO became increasingly concerned about the possible effect of Thatcher’s reaction to events in East Germany on relations with Britain’s other allies. Sir Patrick Wright, the Permanent Under-Secretary of State in the FCO, worries at one point that “the Prime Minister’s views, if they became known, would raise eyebrows (at least) both in Germany and in the United States”. On November 10, Wright cautions Stephen Wall, Hurd’s Private Secretary, that Thatcher might be feeling “under siege” from her advisers.
The documents illustrate how quickly events in East Germany began to move after November 9. On November 27, Mallaby describes how the theme of reunification, “though still shunned by Kohl and [Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich] Genscher, is becoming more prominent in political debate”, and says a growing number of Germans believe that it will take place within ten years. The following morning, his counterpart in East Berlin, Nigel Broomfield, reports to Hurd that a growing number of East Germans are now demanding immediate reunification. Later that day, Kohl announced his Ten-Point Plan in the Bundestag without consulting the British beforehand. Mallaby sends Hurd another telegram at the end of the day after finally being briefed by Kohl’s adviser Horst Teltschik, who has told Mallaby that even Kohl’s plan “could be overtaken by other views before long”. So it proved.
The documents also raise some questions about the complex and possibly duplicitous role of the French in the negotiations. Thatcher, who kept a map showing Germany’s 1937 borders in her handbag, and took it out in meetings to illustrate the “German problem”, saw in President Mitterrand a potential ally who might help her stop or slow German reunification. However, although Mitterrand shared some of Thatcher’s fears about Germany, he came to see European integration (and in particular a single European currency) as a possible solution to the “German question”, whereas Thatcher thought it would only exacerbate the problem.
According to most accounts, including Thatcher’s own, the shift in Mitterrand’s position was complete by the time of the crucial meeting at the Elysée Palace on January 20, 1990. But according to the account of the meeting kept by Charles Powell, Thatcher’s Private Secretary, Mitterrand told Thatcher that he still “shared her analysis” of the situation at that point and feared the Germans, who were acting “with a certain brutality”, might attempt to regain territory they had lost as a result of the war and “might make even more ground than had Hitler” (the French Foreign Minister at the time, Roland Dumas, has subsequently denied Mitterrand made such a remark).
By February, however, the die had been cast. From then on, as Hurd focused on arrangements for the “Two Plus Four” negotiations, Thatcher became even more openly anti-German, culminating in the infamous seminar on Germany at Chequers in March (the minutes of which, written by Powell, are attached as an appendix). These documents suggest that by this point British officials were working constructively on what Mallaby calls “the modalities of unification” without any real influence from her. In fact, they played a crucial role in working out the detail of the Two Plus Four negotiations (apparently they possessed the only laptop at the talks, allowing them to control the text as it was updated).
This diplomatic diligence rescued Britain to some extent from what Patrick Salmon, calls its “isolated rearguard action”, even if it failed to change the public perception of British negativity towards reunification. In the end the problem, as Salmon notes, was that Britain had no leverage. Where Mitterrand was quick to adjust his strategy to secure further European integration, Thatcher was slow to grasp the inevitability of German reunification. But even if she had been more realistic, it is difficult to see what she might have got as a quid pro quo for her acquiescence – except, perhaps, greater popularity in Germany.