Germany’s neighbors try to redeem their 1989 negativity
Deutsche Welle - Germany

Germany’s neighbors try to redeem their 1989 negativity

The recent reopening of archives from 1989 has revealed embarrassing bigotry in some former European leaders. The release of the secret files to coincide with anniversary celebrations is meant as a kind of redemption.

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Germans have often noted British tourists’ World War II obsession with a mixture of bemusement and dismay. But recent revelations have shown that this preoccupation, usually expressed in the un-threatening confines of comedy, was also the British prime minister’s deep personal phobia at the time of Germany’s reunification.

While USA and, surprisingly, the Soviet Union, largely welcomed the moment of redemption and euphoria that ushered in the end of a black century, Germany’s non-superpower neighbors were prey to old fears.

“It is still an uncomfortable thought,” Professor Paul Nolte, who teaches history at the Free University in Berlin, told Deutsche Welle, “That something that Germans were so happy about, and that unified Europe, could have been rejected by our closest partners. We ask ourselves, ‘How could anyone have been against it?’ ”

At the end of October this year, France followed Britain in releasing its foreign policy archives from 1989 and 1990 in the run-up to the reunification of Germany. Although the files will not precipitate a major reassessment of history, they illustrate the depth of fear among western leaders who were publicly celebrating the victory of democratic freedom over communism.

‘Capable of anything’

In a telegram found in the French archives and dated March 13, 1990, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher is quoted by the French ambassador in London describing Chancellor Helmut Kohl as being “capable of anything. He has become a different man. He does not know who he is anymore. He sees himself as the master and is starting to act like it.”

The lack of empathy between Kohl and Thatcher is well-documented – for his part, Kohl once remarked that he feared the British leader as “the devil fears holy water” – nor is there much of a secret around Thatcher’s hostility to reunification, which her memoirs had already made clear.

In a more sober moment, Thatcher told Mikhail Gorbachev, “Britain and western Europe are not interested in the unification of Germany. The words written in the NATO communiqué may sound different, but disregard them. We do not want the unification of Germany.”

The files newly released by the British Foreign Office do little more than confirm the German image of Thatcher. “This doesn’t change the total picture much,” says Andreas Roedder, a professor at the University of Mainz who published a book on reunification this year, “But the details fill it out.”

On the other hand, Nolte was surprised by the skepticism that French president Francois Mitterrand apparently had toward German reunification. “That’s the biggest revelation from my point of view,” he told Deutsche Welle.

Wary France

The speed with which Germany under Kohl moved toward reunification seems to have taken Europe’s leaders by surprise. In October 1989 an analysis of the “German question” by the French Foreign Ministry judged that reunification “does not appear realistic at this moment.”

In a letter dated Nov. 24, 1989 from Mitterrand to East German leader Egon Krenz, the French president talked of “perspectives of development in relations with the German Democratic Republic and the European Community.” Four days later Kohl introduced his 10-point unification plan to the world.

By presenting this program, the normally wary Kohl shrewdly seized the initiative both at home, where the opposition Social Democrats were threatening to steal the issue from him, and abroad. Among the 244 newly released Foreign Office documents, British ambassador in Bonn Sir Christopher Mallaby summed up its significance on the same day.

“The key point is that the pressures have reached a level where Kohl has felt obliged to make a high profile statement of a policy expressly intended to lead in time to German unity,” he wrote to the British government, “And he has done so on his own authority, not on behalf of the whole coalition, and without prior consultation with the Allies … It shows how fast the German question is moving.” In response, Thatcher remarked, “Christopher Mallaby seems to welcome reunification.”

The Allies face ‘the German question’

Mallaby’s use of the word “Allies” shows how dominant the consciousness of World War II still was in 1989. The Allied military presence in respective sectors gave West Berlin the feel of an occupied zone well into the 1980’s. “Western soldiers were customers in shops, in hairdressers. They were part of everyday life,” reminds Nolte.

“It was not just a German problem – something that was split up that had to be reunified – but the whole history of World War II hung over it. The international legal situation still had to be cleared up, as the Two-Plus-Four negotiations of 1990 showed,” Nolte says. The Two-Plus-Four agreement, signed in Moscow in September 1990 between the two Germanys and the four occupying powers, sealed the final international acceptance of reunification.

Before then, a veritable tug-of-war developed between Thatcher and her representatives. Diplomats like ambassador Mallaby were eager to put Britain in a more favorable position once something that now seemed inevitable was accomplished.

The new files show Thatcher’s Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd giving her some blunt advice in a meeting January 1990. “If the people of the Federal Republic of Germany and the German Democratic Republic decide freely and democratically in favor of unity, there is no way of stopping that, short of military action,” he told her.

The timing of the release of such documents – a full decade before British law required it – shows that the British Foreign Office apparently felt that its diplomatic reputation needed a little rehabilitation.

This is somewhat surprising to Roedder. “The British and the French apparently have a significant need to explain themselves. I don’t really understand it,” he told Deutsche Welle. “I can see that the British and French governments, in a new unified Europe, see their own attitudes in a bad light. It’s also curious that the French are celebrating the 20th anniversary on the Champs-Élysées. But the fact that a lot of British and French people weren’t exactly overjoyed at the thought of a reunified Germany, is completely understandable. It changed the power balance in Europe.”

Twin fears

Thatcher had two main fears that were feeding each other in the fraught year between the fall of the Berlin Wall and reunification – a united Germany would be able to strengthen the European Community, and a stronger EC would in turn increase Germany’s power. Thatcher’s position was in fact not far from the more hysterical right-wing body of opinion in Britain, expressed by backbench MPs, that Germany planned to use the European Community to dominate the continent.

While she aired her suspicions publicly, Mitterand kept his misgivings private. The French president was committed to the European project, and in exchange for his blessing for a unified Germany, was able to extract from Kohl his commitment to European Economic and Monetary Union. This was exactly what Thatcher feared. “The problems will not be overcome by strengthening the EC. Germany’s ambitions would then become the dominant and active factor,” Thatcher was quoted as saying in February 1990.

The result was that Britain’s diplomacy became crippled in Europe and elsewhere. The German press seized on Britain’s perceived negativity and magnified it, until it damaged Britain’s relationship with the US, a nation that remained enthusiastic about reunification throughout.

The fears of Foreign Office official Sir John Fretwell, expressed with some foresight late in 1989, came true: “If we tried to stand against this tide, we should enter into fundamental political conflict with the Federal Republic of Germany and with many of our allies, including the United States.” If Britain did not begin to convey the impression that it shared the vision of a united Europe, he said later, the Germans “will be tempted increasingly to move ahead without us on these fundamental issues of European policy.”

When Thatcher was finally brought down by her own party, in part because of her recalcitrance on European policy, the significance was not lost on those Germans.

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