The Iron Lady's Views on German Reunification: 'The Germans Are Back!'

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Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher bitterly opposed Germany's reunification. 'We beat the Germans twice, and now they're back,' she allegedly remarked after the fall of the Berlin Wall. But a new raft of documents reveals just how isolated in her opinion the Iron Lady really was.

Polite smiles at a formal meeting of Margaret Thatcher and Helmut Kohl in 1986. The Iron Lady learned to live with German reunification but remained very suspicious of Germans. Zoom
AP

Polite smiles at a formal meeting of Margaret Thatcher and Helmut Kohl in 1986. The Iron Lady learned to live with German reunification but remained very suspicious of Germans.

Former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl has never forgotten the hostility he faced at a European meeting on December 8, 1989. Ten days earlier he had unveiled a 10-point-plan for German reunification and been met with the blatant skepticism of Europe's leaders. In his memoirs, the former chancellor has described how British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher famously told the heads of state when they were gathered for dinner: "We beat the Germans twice, and now they're back."

It's no secret that Thatcher was a bitter opponent of German reunification. But new documents released Thursday by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office show how she insisted that her government resist the historic development. She repeatedly reined back then-Foreign Minister Douglas Hurd and Christopher Mallaby, Britain's ambassador in Bonn, who wanted to signal his support for reunification on the day the wall came down.

Mallaby wrote to Hurd on that day -- November 9, 1989 -- saying it was "in our interests" to respond positively to developments in Germany. But when Hurd visited Berlin a few days later, he dutifully towed Thatcher's line, saying that reunification was "not currently on the agenda."

The 500-page tome of letters and memos released this week date back to between April 1989 and November 1990. They reveal, for example, how then-French President Francois Mitterrand, speaking in a private conversation with his British counterpart, fuelled her mistrust of the Germans. Over lunch in the Elysee Palace on January 20, 1990, Mitterrand warned Thatcher that reunification would result in Germany gaining more European influence than Hitler ever had. His gloomy forecasts included a return of the "bad" Germans, according to previously secret notes made by Thatcher's foreign policy adviser, Charles Powell.

Taming the Germans?

By mid-January 1990, Mitterrand had come to terms with the pending reunification, which he viewed as an unstoppable process. However, he still thought it would be prudent for Thatcher to publicly oppose the plan in a bid to wrest concessions from Germany in European agreements.

But Thatcher, for her part, believed up until February 1990 that she would be able to slow the pace of reunification. She felt it was all happening far too quickly and feared that Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev would be destabilized by reunification, a concern borne out by history. She backed a five-year transitional period with two German states and did not share Mitterrand's optimism that the Germans could be tamed by being incorporated into European institutions. "The problems will not be overcome by strengthening the EC" she wrote on February 2, 1990, in an internal memo, referring to the predecessor organization of the European Union. "Germany's ambitions would then become the dominant and active factor."

In public, Thatcher became known for her shrill warnings about the German appetite for power. In an interview with SPIEGEL on March 26, 1990, she said that Kohl had told her that he did not recognize the Oder-Neisse border with Poland, a frontier which had been drawn up after World War II. Kohl was enraged by her remarks and said he had never made such a statement.

Two decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office wants to improve the reputation of the British during this key period in German history. The new documents reveal that Foreign Ministry diplomats were considerably more farsighted than Thatcher, who was led by her gut reaction against Germany.

The long-secret papers show that the British government played a far more constructive role in German reunification than had been previously thought. Only one person had serious doubts about the change: Margaret Thatcher.

Deep-Seated Suspicion

But even the Iron Lady gradually gave up her resistance to reunification when the framework for the Two-Plus-Four Agreement was drawn up, paving the way for the two states to merge. After a meeting in Chequers, Thatcher's country residence, on January 27, Foreign Minister Hurd noted a slight softening in her position. "Usual diatribe against German selfishness," Hurd noted in his diary, "but the hankering to stop unification now comes less often, and we are into 'transition' and reducing the British Army of the Rhine."

According to a note believed to be penned by Thatcher or Powell, Hurd voiced a warning to the prime minister on February 23: "The Foreign Secretary said we must not appear to be a brake on everything. Rather we should come forward with some positive ideas of our own," the note said. The authors of the book write of the Foreign Ministry's "war of attrition," which Thatcher slowly wound down.

The fact that France, the Soviet Union and the United States supported German reunification also had an impact on her stance. Gradually Thatcher moved into the German political mainstream -- but she never lost her deep-seated suspicion of the Germans.

For example, in March 1990, she invited historians and politicians to a discussion at Chequers to address the question: "How dangerous are the Germans?" At the end of the seminar, her adviser Powell noted that they reached unanimous agreement that "we should be nice to the Germans."

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