This is a blog post by Craig Coulter, a year 3 student, on his dissertation ‘The Fourth Reich’: The reaction to Margaret Thatcher’s opposition to German unification, with regard to historic Anglo-German relations.
In November of 1989 the leaders of the Western world were suddenly confronted with the increasingly tenable idea that the long-divided Germany would soon be unified once more. To some politicians, most notably Margaret Thatcher, for personal, historical and political reasons, German unification was an insupportable concept. Thatcher, especially, did not hide her opposition; instead she attempted to use her perceived position to influence unification’s progress and interfere with domestic German politics.
Investigating the topic of Margaret Thatcher’s reaction to German unification is important as it brings together a wide variety of significant surrounding topics. Margaret Thatcher’s foreign policy, historical Anglo-German antagonism, post-Cold War politics and discussions of European unity are all covered though consideration of the largely overlooked topic of German unification as it was viewed by Margaret Thatcher. By and large the fear that Margaret Thatcher and other British politicians was conveying was a fear of a renewal of Germany’s global power, in regard of its military, economy and its political alliances.
British politicians’ opposition to German unification and indeed British reaction to the end of the Cold War as a whole is a highly under investigated area by modern historians. As a result of the scarcity of research I had to rely heavily on primary documents as well as historiography from related topics, including biographies of politicians and late-1980s global politics as an overarching theme. That being said, although Anglo-German relations, in their modern manifestation, are an under-developed field of historiography, historical Anglo-German antagonism is a thriving and multi-faceted historiographical field. Therefore a key aspect of this research topic was how Margaret Thatcher’s fear of German unification fits into the historical continuity of Anglo-German antagonism.
One of my key conclusions regarding the existing research of this topic relates to revisionism and how hindsight plays a key role. The closer to 1989/1990 the source was written the more understanding and hence less critical of Margaret Thatcher the source is and conversely, more recent sources have been keen to portray Thatcher as being a near-xenophobe who held an archaic worldview. The primary sources that fed this project came from a political background as well as media based sources. Therefore sources such as Hansard, political memoirs, memorandums and political speeches gave me a view into Margaret Thatcher’s own reaction to the issue as well as her colleagues’ reaction, whereas sources such as news reports and newspapers gave me a wider appreciation for the counter-reaction.
In previous decades British politicians had feared German expansion (in geographical and political terms) for much the same reasons that Margaret Thatcher feared German unification in 1989: They suspected that if Germany was to have an increased population and economy then the status quo in Europe would suffer. The status quo to which politicians like Thatcher and Benjamin Disraeli were referring was overwhelmingly based on the conception that Britain was the most powerful nation in Europe – which was clearly a falsehood by the late-1980s.
History not only played a role in Thatcher’s opposition through historical precedent for doing so, but also significantly through the role that memory played. Memory of World War I and II were at the forefront of the minds of those who opposed unification, as to them a single German nation was synonymous with the Third Reich. As hostilities between Britain and Germany ceased almost 45 years prior to unification, there was an inherit generational factor amongst those who were hostile to East and West Germany becoming one again. Margaret Thatcher especially fed into this generational divide, as stated earlier, because she held an archaic view of Britain’s role in the world; that as a world leader Thatcher could single-handedly influence unity talks or Britain’s position in Europe would be under threat if Germany was to unite.
The Key events that were pointed to by contemporary commentators and modern researchers that highlight Thatcher’s opposition have been the ‘Ridley affair’, an interview with the New York Times in early 1990 and the ‘Chequers meeting’. These events and many more, show that Margaret Thatcher hoped to halt unification or at least preside over the negotiations as well as showing that she held, at least to a degree, an inherit distain for the German people. Most media outlets and politicians alike preferred to stay largely quiet on the topic, which may be because unification was not actually a matter of policy. However, when opinion’s were voiced they were for the most part in support for unification, as had been the case throughout the Cold War – to the majority of Britain, Germany was not a threat, but an ally that had fully embraced democracy.
Written by Craig Coulter – edited by Julian Wojtowicz