On Germany, the lady was for turning
Thatcher’s foreign secretary Douglas Hurd urged her not to obstruct history
Margaret Thatcher and her German counterpart Helmut Kohl in April 1983. Photograph: Keystone/Getty Images
The lady was not for turning, we were reminded on Margaret Thatcher’s passing. Except on German unification, where the lady reserved the right to change her mind.
Thatcher’s relationship with Germany was perhaps the most tense of her premiership and she waited just nine days after the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9th, 1989, to let off steam.
Ex-chancellor Helmut Kohl recalled a fateful dinner in Paris where, as he wrote in his memoirs, Thatcher “laid into me in a big way”. “I remained calm . . . thinking that not even Margaret Thatcher can prevent the German people following their destiny,” he wrote in his memoirs. “Incensed with rage, Thatcher stamped her feet and screamed: ‘That’s how you see it, that’s how you see it!’.” The image of Thatcher railing against the windmill of German unification is a potent one, coloured by Whitehall take on historical precedent and her own wartime experiences.
Declassified memos by her foreign policy adviser, Charles Powell, cite a “fear about the darker sides of the German character” and a concern about a German “tunnel vision” in Europe, racing ahead without heeding partners’ interests.
This assessment will chime with some critics of Berlin in the euro crisis, who worry that Angela Merkel austerity treatment on crisis countries fails to heed the larger picture.
Back then, Thatcher was more concerned by Helmut Kohl’s 10-point plan for German unity, presented on November 28th, 1989 ,without consulting his European partners.
The German leader says he was embracing the mantle of history but, weeks later, recalled Thatcher declaring at a European leaders’ meeting: “We beat the Germans twice and now they’re back.”
Declassified files suggest that her foreign secretary Douglas Hurd toed the Thatcher line in public but urged her in private not to be a brake on history. By early 1990 he noted in his private diary after meeting the prime minister: “Usual diatribe against German selfishness, but the hankering to stop unification now comes less often.”
In a 2009 interview, Hurd suggested Thatcher’s antipathy to German unification was partly personal, partly historical and partly geopolitical, in particular a fear that drastic developments in Germany could destabilise Gorbachev’s reforms in Moscow.
In early 1990, Kohl and Thatcher kept at each other like cat and dog, with Kohl suggesting opposition to German unity was like “trying to halt the flow of the Rhine”.
“Our problem isn’t stopping the Rhine but keeping it clean,” retorted Thatcher in March 1990. “We can put in some dams and change its course slightly. There is quite a bit that we can do before unification.”
As spring turned to summer Thatcher had dropped her idea of a decade-long democratic transition for East Germany and a two-state solution – an idea, it’s worth pointing out, shared by many East Germans. Instead she proved a demanding taskmistress in the 2+4 negotiations over German unification. She was particularly interested in German recognition of the post-war “Oder-Neisse line” as the permanent border with Poland – closing the door for good on eastern German territories lost in 1945.
‘Beware the Hun’
So what is the Thatcher lesson on a united Germany? As crisis-wracked Europe quivers with talk of a rising German hegemon, some will see as farsighted her caution of the potential of a united, dominant Germany. But to reduce her thinking to “beware the Hun” angst is to do her a disservice.
Asked in March 1990 if she was worried about a united Germany dominating Europe, she noted drily that “we’re not that easy to dominate”.
“Europe simply has to accept that there is a bigger Germany and I don’t accept the idea that we can all join forces against it,” she told Der Spiegel . “That wouldn’t get us anywhere, that would not be a union and would contradict the union’s spirit.”