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Fall of the Berlin Wall - international reactions

Off the record, European leaders had their doubts

by Angela Diffley

Article published on the 2009-10-29 Latest update 2009-11-02 12:07 TU

François Mitterrand with Helmut Kohl ... the French President was reportedly worried about being overshadowed by a united Germany(Credit: Bundesarchiv)

François Mitterrand with Helmut Kohl ... the French President was reportedly worried about being overshadowed by a united Germany
(Credit: Bundesarchiv)

Western leaders were ecstatic about the fall of the Berlin Wall in front of the TV cameras. But recently released documents show that in private, with one or two exceptions, they weren't so sure.

French President François Mitterrand allegedly said that he liked Germany so much he would prefer to have two.

The subtext was that the prospect of a single, unified Germany of some 70 million people was viewed by the French leadership and foreign policy establishment with anxiety at best, or maybe even with horror.

Most politicians put on a calculated show of enthusiasm in front of the TV cameras. But newly published documents reveal quite different emotions behind the triumphalist facade.

The US' then-President George Bush emerges as a staunch supporter of unification from the outset. But the reactions of the French Socialist President, and of Conservative British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, were considerably more complicated.

Eyewitness: Pavel Stroilov, exiled Russian researcher and translator

30/10/2009 by Angela Diffley

A cache of official Kremlin records smuggled out of Moscow details a meeting between Jacques Attali, at the time personal advisor to François Mitterrand, and a senior aide to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, Vadim Zagladin

Jacques Attali(Credit: Wikipedia commons)

Jacques Attali
(Credit: Wikipedia commons)

“France by no means wants German unification, although it realises that in the end, it is inevitable,” Attali told his Russian counterpart.

Although Mitterrand didn’t exactly welcome German unification, he did feel that it was a legitimate goal for the German people, maintains French historian Frédéric Bozo.

And the President quickly grasped that the process was unstoppable, he believes. Paris understood that its only hope was to try to influence the direction of a unified Germany.

Mitterrand is now widely credited with persuading German Chancellor Helmut Kohl to work towards the creation of a Single European Market, and ultimately to sacrifice the cherished German currency, the Deutschmark, in return for French acceptance of reunification.

Analysis: Frédéric Bozo of the Sorbonne University, Paris

30/10/2009 by Angela Diffley

Mitterrand’s failure to embrace German unification immediately and enthusiastically still clouds Franco-German relations, according to Pierre Lellouche, who was working with Mitterrand's right-wing rival Jacques Chirac at the time and who is now France’s European Affairs Minister. France has not yet released the official documents relating to 1989, so it is hard to judge.

Bozo points out that once France had accepted the idea of German reunification, the machinery was in place to limit its negative impact on France.

Since 1945, Paris and Bonn had worked hard on their relationship and co-operated successfully on a range of issues. French advisors and civil servants regarded post-war West Germany as a modern, well-functioning democracy, with which they could to business.

Britain’s Prime Minister at the time, Margaret Thatcher, was not convinced.

The champion of freedom and capitalism, who had disparaged communism all her political life, was not overwhelmed with excitement when the wall began to crumble.

“We do not want a united Germany,” she told Gorbachev at a lunch meeting in the Kremlin in September 1989, two months before the fall of the wall. “This would lead to a change to post-war borders, and we cannot allow that because such a development would undermine the whole international situation and could endanger our security.”

Thatcher's primary concern was for Nato.

Both she and Mitterrand shared a fear that a reunified Germany might withdraw from the military alliance to pursue its own security arrangements, perhaps in some sort of partnership with the Soviet Union, or whatever entity might succeed it.

In a bid to prevent such a development, both Paris, London and Washington made strenuous efforts to engage Russia, and to ensure that Gorbachev did not feel isolated.

In fact, says British historian Timothy Garton-Ash, the idea of a new pan-European Security system, with Germany as a neutral country was examined for a while. But, in the end, Russia was persuaded that Germany would be less threatening within Nato than non-aligned.

The documents include an account of Gorbachev telling the then-head of the KGB,  “The West doesn’t want German reunification but wants to use us to prevent it, to cause a clash between us and West Germany and the FRG so as to rule out the possibility of a future conspiracy between the USSR and Germany.”

Both Mitterrand and Thatcher feared the shift in the world balance of power which they rightly predicted would result from German unification. The Cold War had in many ways served Europe well. It had delivered much greater stability than the continent had experienced in the first half of the 20th century.

George HW Bush gives Thatcher the Presidential Medal of Freedom(Credit: White House/George Bush presidential library)

George HW Bush gives Thatcher the Presidential Medal of Freedom
(Credit: White House/George Bush presidential library)

Thatcher also had another concern. She feared that a unified Germany would replace Britain as the United States’ primary ally in Europe, a prediction which Garton-Ash says became a reality.

She worried, too, that the East German people would not adapt successfully to democracy, after years of Nazism and Stalinism. In 1990, just after the fall of the wall, she told Gorbachev of her conviction that reunification needed a long transition period.

“All Europe is watching this, not without a degree of fear, remembering very well who started the two world wars,” she declared.

To try to demonstrate that it was not that sort of a country any more, Germany became extremely supportive of plans for a tighter European structure, with more power for the European Commission and the European Parliament. Paris had long favoured closer integration of the member countries, and now saw that it would also be an effective way to contain a dominant Germany.

Margaret Thatcher, however, had already begun to resist what she saw as the development of a federal Europe, and she was dismayed by this latest twist.

There was little personal chemistry between Helmut Kohl and Margaret Thatcher. In his memoirs Kohl says Thatcher’s biggest problem was her miscalculation of the attitudes of Gorbachev, Bush and Mitterrand.

Kohl himself later developed a close relationship with Mitterand, and was seen sobbing openly at his funeral. The Chancellor seemed to forget or forgive the French leader’s initial fear of and hostility towards German unification.

Thatcher herself said in her autobiography, that her policy on German unification met with unambiguous failure.

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