12 February 2024

Why Margaret Thatcher was wrong to fear German reunification


The fall of the Berlin Wall was a formative political moment for a generation of liberty-lovers. As East and West Germans merrily smashed their way through the symbol of their division, liberal democracy and free-market capitalism seemed to have totally triumphed over authoritarian socialism. As the late great P.J. O’Rourke put it, a ‘huge totalitarian system with all its guns, gulag camps and secret police had been brought to its knees because nobody wants to wear Bulgarian shoes’. Has the right ever had so much cause to feel smug? 

But not everyone was breaking out the bubbly on the 9th November 1989. Few can rival the Iron Lady for her contribution to the cause of freedom and collapse of communism. But for Margaret Thatcher, the Wall’s fall and the attendant prospect of German reunification was a moment of deep foreboding. As she told a meeting of European leaders a month later, ‘We beat the Germans twice, and now they’re back!’. She feared the consequences of a Teutonic reunion for the rest of Europe.

Thatcher’s antipathy towards Germany was deep rooted. Alfred Roberts, her father, had been deeply opposed to appeasement in the 1930s. Her family sheltered an Austrian Jewish refugee from whom they learnt about the reality of Nazi persecution. Thatcher would later say she had always ‘wanted to see Hitler’s wickedness ended, even by war if that was necessary’. She hung on Winston Churchill’s speeches, as the war formed the backdrop to her teenage years. 

Even after hostilities had ended, Germany had been split in two, and democratic capitalism restored to the Western half, she possessed the natural suspicion of Germans common to her generation. Nonetheless, as a Cold War stateswoman, she forged relationships with both Helmut Schmidt and Helmut Kohl. She was able to recognise, as Andrew Roberts has put it, ‘that postwar Germany had evolved into a responsible, peace-loving democracy’. Indeed, it had much to teach Britain about market economics and controlling inflation. But it was still always a little too German for her liking. 

Indeed, even before the Wall’s fall, Thatcher was telling Mikhail Gorbachev that Britain did ‘not want a united Germany’. She worked to rein in the Foreign Office from immediately signalling Britain’s support for reunification on November 9th. With Francois Mitterrand, she expressed concerns that a united Germany would become too powerful a force in Europe. She held a seminar of historians at Chequers in early 1990 to ask ‘How dangerous are the Germans?’ Naturally, diplomats (and Kohl) were outraged. 

Overtaken by the pace of events, the enthusiasm of the United States, and Mitterrand’s willingness to concede unification in return for Germany swallowing a single European currency, Thatcher was unable to prevent reunification.

Germany has since gone on to become the leading force of the European Union, held up as a moral arbiter of the Western world under Angela Merkel, and a poster child for many British Remainers. Thatcher’s concerns have been written off as reactionary. Yet today, Germany is indeed a problem for Europe – if in almost exactly the opposite way to Thatcher’s fears.

Thatcher argued in 1993 that ‘by its very nature, Germany is a destabilising, rather than a stabilising, force in Europe’. The Iron Lady feared a united Germany would unbalance Europe and NATO, and leave the door open to a return to extremism.

Germany has indeed unbalanced Europe, due to the sheer size of its economy – as we saw all too clearly during the Eurozone crisis in the 2010s. But the real issue is over security.

Thatcher’s concerns that a united Germany would leave Nato were, in hindsight, completely misguided. But while Germany has remained an alliance member, it has been far from a helpful one. Despite having Europe’s largest economy, and regular budget surpluses, Germany has long failed to pull its weight in terms of military spending. German troops have even participated in NATO exercises using broom handles to stand in for guns. Despite promises to spend more following the invasion of Ukraine, the military is struggling for recruits and to repair and replace dysfunctional equipment. 

Indeed, it was that invasion that made Germany’s foreign policy flaws all too apparent. It was slow to provide Ukraine with the weaponry it required. And pledges of solidarity rang particularly hollow due to the fact it had spent almost two decades buying coal, gas and oil from Vladimir Putin. Even after Russia’s 2014 occupation of Crimea, Germany had still pursued the construction of Nord Stream 2. Although Olaf Scholz may have U-turned on Angela Merkel’s appeasement of Russia, it is too little, too late. 

Mitterrand hoped European integration would contain Germany. But in hitching itself to Berlin, Brussels has been left more vulnerable on the world stage.

Thatcher was a believer in national character. One Chequers meeting produced a memorandum suggesting Germany’s character included ‘angst, aggressiveness, assertiveness, bullying, egotism, inferiority complexes, and sentimentality’. She was particularly worried about the aggressiveness, to the point where she made a habit of carrying a map of Germany’s 1937 borders in her handbag.

Again, this diagnosis was obviously wrong. In fact, Germany’s problem has been the opposite: passivity and a softness for Russia. And now, with the economy stumbling too, the country appears to be in the grip of a national nervous breakdown. In particular, the rise of the Alternative für Deutschland party has split the country, with the far-right party polling ahead of all three parties of Scholz’s governing coalition.

Last week around half a million protestors marched against AfD – following the recent revelation that some of its members had meetings with neo-Nazis to discuss a ‘masterplan’ of ‘re-migration’ and the deportation of asylum seekers, foreigners, and ‘unassimilated’ citizens. 

Many Germans are horrified. Yet while AfD’s poll numbers have fallen back slightly, their membership numbers continue to rise. They will do well in state and European elections this year. Declaring the AfD unconstitutional and banning it from standing is under serious consideration. Mainstream parties refuse to work with them. But that will not make their voters go away.

Modern Germany is a much healthier democracy than it was during the Weimar Republic. The AfD – originally formed by a group of anti-Euro economics professors – are not the Nazis. But rather than being the model for emulation, Germany’s stale politics have become more dysfunctional than Britain’s. The country is on track for a two-year recession, as the international scene is becoming increasingly tense.

Post-unification, Germany has been a flourishing liberal democracy and a good friend to Britain. The Iron Lady was wrong to fear that unification would bring back the bad old days of the Second World War. But she was right to think that Germany would come to dictate the course of Europe, in both its successes and its failures.

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William Atkinson is Assistant Editor of ConservativeHome.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.