The Hard Truth: Some Didn’t Want the Germans Back Together

Not Conservative Margaret Thatcher, nor Socialist Francois Mitterand:

History comes back to haunt us. Just over 20 years ago, the then British prime minister Margaret Thatcher told Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev: “Britain and western Europe are not interested in the unification of Germany. The words written in the Nato communique may sound different, but disregard them. We do not want the unification of Germany.” She went on to say, inaccurately: “I can tell you that this is also the position of the US president.” That’s according to the Russian record made by one of Gorbachev’s closest aides. A British note of the conversation, quoted in a volume of documents just published by Foreign Office historians, adds some fascinating new detail…

Things are made no better by the fact that François Mitterrand and the French were conveying much the same message to Moscow. Gorbachev’s close adviser, Anatoly Chernyaev, who made the record of the Thatcher conversation, notes in his diary on 9 October 1989 that Mitterrand’s aide Jacques Attali “talked with us about a revival of a solid Franco-Soviet alliance, ‘including military integration – camouflaged as the use of armies in the struggle against natural disasters’.” Linking these French whispers to Thatcher’s remarks, Chernyaev reflects: “In brief, they [that is, the French and the British] want to prevent this [German unification] with our hands.”

The French and British were looking backward at two world wars where their entire vision of civilisation–to say nothing of their national sovereignty–were attacked by the Teutonic colossus to their east.  The unification of Germany in 1871 had set the stage for the next seventy five years of German expansion–economic and military–and the cultural changes that went with it:

It was here where “modernity” as we understand it first became the philosophy of an entire society in the years leading up to World War I; indeed, the enthusiasm generated by those heady days fuelled Germany’s aggressive prewar stance and led to the war itself. Its defeat was not educational; Adolf Hitler simply used a more “populist” form of modernity to propel the rise of the National Socialists and the return of Germany as a world power, albeit unwelcome after 1 September 1939.

Germany’s place in modernity was better understood during the 1930’s and earlier than now. For some of those involved in aviation, an obvious centre of modernity, the temptation of admiration for Germany in the 1930’s was too much…the German influence on many during this period is too great to ignore. It is easier to see the horrors of Nazism in hindsight than through the lens of the 1930’s. There is a sober lesson: just because something is popular, successful and outwardly attractive, it doesn’t make it right.

Retro though it was, the French and the British attitude towards German reunification in the 1990’s is understandable.

The Americans, for their part, had more in common with the Germans that either cared to admit.  (German immigration to the U.S. was part of the reason for that.)  And, of course, American victory in the two world wars over Germany–a victory which left the homeland largely intact, unlike Britain, France or many other European countries–made the U.S. a superpower.  The Americans felt they could be more at ease with a reunified Germany.

Europe’s subsequent course hasn’t been written yet, so eurotriumphalism is premature.  Germany is still the economic engine of the EU.  If the need to expand that superiority elsewhere becomes necessary–and I’m thinking about a reawakened Europe militarily in the wake of the general U.S. retreat we’re seeing now–Thatcher and Mitterand’s concerns may come back to haunt us.

3 Replies to “The Hard Truth: Some Didn’t Want the Germans Back Together”

  1. There is a further interesting point to be made here, regarding European and American relations, which (alas) have soured somewhat in the last twenty years. Whilst I think all Europeans would recognise the tremendous help and protection that the U.S. gave us during the cold war years, and indeed the invaluable help given during the war, without which it could never have been won, memories here persist of hardship, starvation and rationing, and the total destruction of cities that the American homeland never had to endure. Proportionately, (I think also absolutely) the lives lost by European nations during the war dwarf that of the U.S., and the individual nations have since largely lost the international weight they once had. To be told (as I was in Istanbul by an otherwise friendly U.S. tourist) about the French that “we (British and Americans) never should have liberated them” strikes directly at a sensitive spot in the same way that films about D-Day that ignore the British contribution; the “philanthropy” of the lend lease (that, lets not forget, left the U.S. as the only nation that made a net profit from the war); or the changing of the nation that broke Enigma have long caused Western Europe to feel uncomfortable about US cultural dominance. However, I very much doubt a militarily resurgent EU for many reasons, first among them a failure to cooperate between the nations, as well as a strongly pacifist tendency following the twentieth century. What is more likely (indeed, is a “best case” for euroenthusiasts in my opinion) is a “Greater Switzerland” that seeks to make itself a banking and industrial centre, or maybe plays the role the US did in C20, by making money whilst staying out of foreign wars until they are largely concluded, though this would be a great shame in light of the historical alliance. My greater worries would be about a resurgent Russia that seeks to regain it’s lost Empire, and which has many parallels with Germany in the thirties (lost a war, albeit a cold one, badly, suffered at the hands of a triumphant victor, now seeks unjustified redress, and is used to strong, authoritarian government). We should always beware of preparing for the last conflict, but the rise of fringe parties in Europe, and the restrictions on freedom of communication, assembly and indeed even religion everywhere are all things that we should be fearful of. The real worry isn’t the retreat of the US military, it’s the retreat of civil society. 🙂

  2. Given the neighbourhood they’re in, the Europeans are going to find becoming a “Greater Switzerland” easier said than done.

    The retreat of civil society is a major problem.

    As a long-time Francophile, I think the French get a bum rap on this side of the Atlantic. They have their own way of doing things and their own logic and, yes, the two world wars (esp. the first one) were no picnic for them, either. I had to consider some of these issues in writing this:

    It’s interesting to note that many of the early documentaries (early 1950’s) made here in the U.S. about WWII gave our allies (such as the UK) greater visibility (I’m specifically thinking about Victory at Sea.) The illusion that the U.S. did the war by itself developed later, and I think that’s unfortunate.

  3. Many thanks. It sometimes feels as though these things are forgotten across the pond. It’s good to know that some in the US know what is to be a “good winner”. J

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