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British Paper Says Thatcher Opposed German Reunification

  • Charles Recknagel

British Foreign Secretary Geoffrey Howe (left), Mikhail Gorbachev, Margaret Thatcher, and Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromiko before talks in the Kremlin in 1985.

British Foreign Secretary Geoffrey Howe (left), Mikhail Gorbachev, Margaret Thatcher, and Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromiko before talks in the Kremlin in 1985.

It is rare that one gets a peek into the private discussions that world leaders like to hold behind closed doors.

But occasionally, decades after the events themselves, word of what was said under the most confidential of circumstances leaks out.

This is what "The Times" of London has revealed. The subject: How much British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher worried about the prospect of German reunification on the eve of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

The newspaper’s source is copies of Kremlin records smuggled out of Moscow to London in the early 1990s by a young Russian researcher, Pavel Stroilov.

Stroilov reportedly copied more than 1,000 transcripts of Politburo discussions, including meetings and talks with foreign leaders.

The transcripts were part of state archives that went to the foundation of former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev after he left office in 1991, and where Stroilov was working. All the official transcripts were subsequently sealed, making Stroilov's copies the only source for the information.

"The Times" reported that Thatcher told Gorbachev in Moscow in 1989 -- two months before the fall of the wall -- that neither Britain nor Western Europe wanted the reunification of Germany and that she wanted the Soviet leader to do what he could to stop it.

'We Cannot Allow That'

The newspaper also says that Thatcher said the breakdown of the Warsaw Pact was not in the West's interests and that the West would not push for decommunization in Eastern Europe.

"The Times" quoted the copied transcripts as recording her words this way: "We do not want a united Germany. This would lead to a change to postwar borders and we cannot allow that because such a development would undermine the stability of the whole international situation and could endanger our security."

She also says, "My understanding of your position is the following: You welcome each country developing in its own way, on condition that the Warsaw Pact remains in place. I understand this position perfectly."

Michael Binyon, the diplomatic correspondent for "The Times," who wrote the report, says that the transcripts show Thatcher was much more vigorously opposed to reunification than had been generally assumed.

"It is certainly well known that she was opposed to unification and that she did her best to persuade others not to go along with this," Binyon says. "But what we didn't know is that she actually went so vigorously directly to the Russians and said, 'You've got to stop it and don't listen to what we say officially, don't take any notice of NATO communiques, it is a danger to us and it's a danger to our security and what's more we would like to continue the division of Europe, as it were, with you looking after your side and we'll look after ours.'"


Binyon says the records also show that Thatcher was ready to engage in actions that her allies could have regarded as duplicitous to get Moscow to keep Germany divided.

“It is duplicitous to the extent she knew it would cause a tremendous row if it was revealed at the time that she was making such strenuous efforts," Binyon says. "And that is why she said to Gorbachev, 'Look, may I speak in complete confidence? Please do not record my following remarks.' To which he said, 'Yes.'

"But then of course for their own record, they reconstructed from memory what she had said the minute she left the room, so we do know what she said, but she obviously hoped there would be no record of those remarks, realizing that it was not official policy, that it would certainly annoy the Germans, with whom she had a pretty difficult relationship in any case, and that there would be plenty of others in the British government and across Western Europe that would say 'What on Earth are you doing? This is not our official policy.' "

Such words are likely to surprise people today because, for decades before 1989, Western leaders uniformly and publicly called for freedom for Eastern Europe from Soviet domination. The Cold War also saw the West spend vast amounts of money to maintain NATO on a ready-for-war footing against the Warsaw Pact.

...Or 'Quite Plain'?

John O'Sullivan, author of "The President, the Pope, and the Prime Minister: Three Who Changed the World" and a former speechwriter for Thatcher who now is director of broadcasting at RFE/RL, says the British leader "did want initially to prevent the reunification of Germany [because] she thought it would be a bad thing in the short term if West Germany absorbed East Germany -- it would have all sorts of bad effects, that the process should be slower and more deliberate."

"She thought this for its own sake," O'Sullivan says. "She felt that it would disturb the borders of Europe if Germany suddenly became one state overnight, upset all kind of existing international arrangements, might even have bad economic effects."

O'Sullivan says Thatcher "was quite plain about this in all of her contacts, including [with] the United States."

"In fact, George Bush initially had shared her view, so there is no duplicity involved," O'Sullivan says. "All the players in the game knew that she was opposed to German reunification in the short term and dubious about it in the long term, it must be said."

But O'Sullivan insists that Thatcher was firmly committed to the progress of freedom in Eastern Europe, and warns that the phrase attributed to her about not insisting upon the "decommunization" of Europe should not be misunderstood.

"There is a moment in the documents in which Mrs. Thatcher assures Mr. Gorbachev that she doesn't want to 'decommunize Eastern Europe,'" he says.

"This of course is not Mrs. Thatcher's precise words. As far as we know, this is the recollection of other people in the room," O'Sullivan says. "But what I think is quite plain from the context, quite plain from all her other statements at the time, and quite plain from her memoirs, which are candid on these points, is that she doesn't want the progress of liberation in the Eastern Bloc to cause crisis in the Soviet Union, the overthrow of Gorbachev, and the restoration of a repressive regime in all of these countries. But it is quite plain that she is very strongly committed to encouraging freedom in these countries."

'We Won't Be Able To Explain It'

The Stroilov papers reveal that Thatcher was not the only world leader saying unexpected things. At that moment in late 1989, crowds of people in the streets of Berlin were driving events and heads of government were struggling to keep pace.

The Kremlin records of a Politburo discussion on November 3, 1989 – six days before the wall was opened – reveal Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze saying, “We’d better take down the wall ourselves.”

That comes as then head of the KGB, Vladimir Kryuchkov, warns that “tomorrow, 500,000 people will come out on the streets of Berlin and other cities.”

Gorbachev, also present at that meeting, worries at one point that “we won’t be able to explain it to our people if we lose the GDR.”

But at another point he seems to suggest that trying to keep the GDR from reunifying with West Germany would only be worse. He says, “We won’t be able to keep it afloat [financially]” without West Germany.

Meanwhile, other key players like France appear no calmer than the leaders in Moscow.

'In The End It Is Inevitable'

A month after the Berlin Wall came down, Jacques Attali, the personal adviser to French President Francois Mitterrand, flew to Kyiv to meet a senior Gorbachev aide, Vadim Zagladin.

The copied transcripts record Attali saying that Moscow’s refusal to intervene in East Germany “had puzzled the French leadership.”

Attali adds, “France by no means wants German reunification, although it realizes that in the end it is inevitable.”

What are people today to make of such turmoil in European capitals at a time when the leaders themselves tried to give an impression of calm and considered action?

Another British daily, the "Financial Times," offers some insightful comments on that. The paper, like "The Times," also published documents today on secret talks in 1989 – in this case documents released by the British government.

The British documents confirm that Thatcher and Mitterand were worried about the “German question.” The British records quote Thatcher as telling the French president that a restored Germany would “dominate” Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary, leaving “only Romania and Bulgaria for the rest of us.”

But as the "Financial Times" writes, the past 20 years have shown that “the fear that the collapse of communism would see a return to the European power politics of a century earlier proved unfounded.”

The newspaper's conclusion: "The geopolitical map of 2009 lay beyond the reasonable imagination of the leaders of 1989."

And that -- even more than the misgivings of Europe on the eve of the collapse of the Berlin Wall -- may be the real lesson of 1989.

The future can be better than the past, even though, when the moment comes for change, that may seem the hardest thing to believe of all.

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