Last month Sir Christopher Mallaby, the British Ambassador to Germany from 1988 to 1992, spoke at the Humboldt University’s Centre for British Studies. His lecture, entitled ‘Germany 1990 – the then British Ambassador remembers and reflects’, reminded listeners of how close the world came to nuclear war, and how dramatically both Europe and Germany have changed in the last two decades.
Sir Christopher gave almost forty years of his life to the British Diplomatic Service. He was in Moscow at the height of the 1962 Cuban Crisis, at the moment when many considered nuclear war to be all-but-inevitable. He worked as Head of the Arms Control department, then East European and Soviet department, and served first as Number 2 and later as Ambassador in Bonn.
He reminded the audience of the heinous nature of Soviet autocracy, of a political and economic system able to improve itself only through revolution or cataclysm. He called the Berlin Wall ‘the greatest admission of Communism’s failure’. He spoke of the heroes who had brought down that wall -- Gorbachev, Reagan, the East German protesters – and those who had worked to reunite Germany’s severed halves: Chancellor Helmet Kohl, Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher and American Secretary of State James Baker. He recalled standing at Checkpoint Charlie in November 1989, watching the crowds flood between the eastern and western sectors of the city, and spotting a toddler towing a new, plastic London double-decker toy bus back to East Berlin. He realised at that point that the Cold War was over.
Most interestingly, Sir Christopher shed new light on the 1989/90 negotiations for reunification. It’s no secret that the then British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was a bitter opponent of German reunification. Helmut Kohl has written about the hostility he faced after unveiling his ten-point-plan. At a December 1989 meeting of European leaders, Thatcher said, ‘We beat the Germans twice, and now they’re back’. She wanted her government to resist – or at least to delay -- the historic development.
In contrast Sir Christopher had signalled his support for reunification on the day the Wall came down. ‘My reporting was a faithful reflection of how things looked from Bonn at that time. I was convinced that a unified Germany would not be a danger again,’ he said. ‘I told Mrs Thatcher we would not see a mixed model of East and West Germany. We would see the West German system extended over East Germany. To me, West Germany was the most successful state in German history and the most successful state in Europe after 1945. But there was not much agreement in this regard between the Foreign Office and No. 10 Downing Street.’
Thatcher’s outspoken suspicions were inflamed by Francois Mitterrand, according to Sir Christopher. In private the then-French President fuelled her mistrust, warning her that reunification would result in Germany gaining more European influence than Hitler ever had. In secret notes he gloomily forecast of a return of the ‘bad’ Germans. But Mitterrand – a more wily politician than Thatcher – kept his views to himself, so as to wrest concessions from Germany in the negotiations toward monetary union.
As Sir Christopher pointed out, Thatcher’s views were publicity, not policy. Foreign Office diplomats were considerably more farsighted than the Prime Minister, and the British government as a whole played a constructive role in German reunification.
Coincidentally I received this week a copy of Images of Germany, a moving collection of foreign cartoons on united Germany published by Stiftung Haus der Geschichte der Bundesrepublik Deutschland. ‘With more neighbours than any other country in the world, the Germans have every reason to look over the fence,’ wrote Hermann Schäfer, the president of the Foundation. In the years following reunification, over 1,000 cartoons were collected from the international press, a selection of which are included in the book, the objective of which is in ‘motivating us to further improve our relations with our neighbouring countries’.
Last month at Christopher Mallaby’s talk, the most provocative moment came during the concluding Q and A. A Berlin historian reminded the audience that Sir Christopher had included the East German protesters among his heroes of 1989/90. He then asked the former Ambassador, ‘Do you think that the East German protesters were dreaming of building a better East Germany, or of their country becoming part of a unified Germany?’
That question went unanswered.