Margaret Thatcher’s German war

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.

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