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.