Friday, 11 September 2009

Thatcher's Opposition to German Unity

The media carry a number of reports this morning (most notably, here and here) on the release by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office of documents relating to British policy towards German reunification during 1989-90. All the reports are essentially the same: that Margaret Thatcher, then Prime Minister, was the principle opponent among European leaders to a united Germany. This may suggest that Thatcher was something of an antedeluvian, out of step with the optimism born of the fall of the Berlin Wall, a little Englander unable to think beyond the Manichean myths that grew up in Britain around the Second World War. But, having attended the FCO’s briefing on the release of the papers given by the resident historian Patrick Salmon and having delved through some of the passages, I think this is an unfair and simplistic representation of Thatcher’s position.

Thatcher sought to see the issue of German reunification through the prism of history and called a meeting with historians of Germany at Chequers on March 18th, 1990. Her agenda at that meeting is illuminating:

‘We must widen the discussion to include the future of the USSR and whether we pursue spheres of influence or alliances of democracy or geographical alliances. We cannot completely disregard history for the various empires and maritime states have girdled the globe. We must therefore consider some of the old balance of power. But it seems to me that, while in the past, history was determined largely by the personalities and ambitions of the rulers of the people, in future it will be decided much more by the character of the people. However, the lesson of the past two years is that neither character nor pride has been suffocated by oppression.’

Thatcher was very close to Gorbachev at the time and did not wish to see his Soviet reform project set back by Russian fears about a new invigorated Germany, however unthreatening. The passage about the future being decided more by the character of the people looks like wishful thinking however on Thatcher’s part. Opposed to European political union, she no doubt saw the democratisation of central and eastern Europe as an opportunity to make the EU more accountable, giving the ‘people’ rather than the ‘rulers’ a greater say. Douglas Hurd, her foreign secretary, and William Waldegrave, Minister of State at the Foreign Office argued for the speedy reunification of Germany – what was called the ‘Tommy Cooper’ option, ‘just like that’ - and this, in a sense demonstrated a clash between people and rulers. Both Hurd and Waldegrave were patrician Tories, ‘first class minds’ (though citizens of the former Yugoslavia may not necessarily concur), born to power. Thatcher was a vote-winning liberal. And it may be the case that her anti-German sensibilities were in part populist, a nod to domestic concerns.

None of this though explains the prejudice (if that is the word) Thatcher felt towards the Germans. Was it simply nostalgia for wartime Britain, English parochialism, her admiration for Churchill that informed her view? She did engage with historians on the subject. Perhaps part of the answer can be found in her memoirs in which she talks movingly of her childhood encounters with Jewish refugee children; of the support given by many in the Jewish community of her North London constituency of Finchley Central; and of her deep friendship with the Chief Rabbi Lord Jakobovitz. Thatcher’s suspicions seem rooted in her philosemitism. This aspect deserves greater prominence in the story of this fascinating period.

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