Reflections on German Unification
David Marsh talks to Lord Douglas Hurd of Westwell, who served as British foreign secretary from 1989 to 1995.
The fall of the Berlin Wall reshaped the map of Europe in more ways than one. As well as ending the East-West divide and promoting the collapse of the Soviet Union, it accelerated the move to economic and monetary union (EMU) – part of a complicated quid pro quo between Paris and Bonn. As Michel Rocard, French prime minister from 1988 to 1991, put it, “[Francois] Mitterrand had to accept reunification more quickly than he thought likely, in the same way that [Helmut] Kohl had to accept monetary union more quickly than he had intended."
Britain and Germany did not see eye to eye on unification, particularly in the initial stages. This was not merely a question of the hostility of Margaret Thatcher, British prime minister up until 1990. In addition, there was a built-in institutional hurdle that reflected the U.K.’s opposition to EMU and general suspicions about “European” policies. Patrick Salmon, chief historian of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), in a foreword to an authoritative FCO study of the political consequences of the fall of the Wall published in September 2009, writes tellingly: “The United Kingdom lacked leverage… There was nothing comparable with the close institutional and personal bonds underlying the Franco-German axis within the European Community.”
The man who played a delicate role heading the FCO at the time of German unity was a “diplomat’s diplomat,” Douglas (now Lord) Hurd. Hurd joined the diplomatic service in 1952 and celebrates his 80th birthday in March 2010. He became a conservative politician in the 1960s and took over as foreign secretary in late October 1989, just a fortnight before the Wall fell. Hurd’s own conservative sensibilities, and his loyalty towards Thatcher, were put to the test as the unity process accelerated. Recognizing that the prime minister’s implacability was straining London’s ties not just with Bonn but also, still more importantly, with Washington, Hurd played an awkward hand with aplomb. He placed particular emphasis on his relationship with Hans-Dietrich Genscher, the West German foreign minister, who was not always taken into the confidence of Kohl on key issues, such as the chancellor’s ten-point plan for German unity announced without consultation on November 28, 1989.
When Hurd visited Chancellor Kohl for a 70-minute tête-à-tête on February 6, 1990, Kohl – sensing the foreign secretary was much more sympathetic to reunification than his political boss – suggested that Hurd become an alternative go-between for communication with London. Hurd responded affably that “he would be happy to come for a quiet talk at any time if it could be useful,” – sparkling a frosty rebuke from 10 Downing Street that the prime minister, not the foreign secretary, was “in charge.”
Looking back after 20 years, Hurd recognizes that Thatcher’s principal worry was that German unity would weaken Mikhail Gorbachev and thus destabilize the Soviet Union’s passage to reform. But Thatcher’s penchant for plain speaking on Germany was problematic.
“We couldn’t be sure what she would say,” says Hurd. “The danger was that she would separate us [the U.K.] from the U.S. and France and Germany, without having any influence on Gorbachev.”
Kohl upset Thatcher, Hurd recalls, by “breaking a window and passing through it” on reunification. As a new foreign minister thrust into an intoxicating spell of diplomacy that ended the Cold War, Hurd says, “I didn’t get anxious: it was all great fun.” His diaries of the time are studded with references to how others found the experience less pleasurable. Of a notable summit meeting in Strasbourg in December 1989, Hurd wrote: “Kohl red and cross throughout – especially with MT.” The prime minister, he recorded, was “unnecessarily abrasive – but less than usual.”
Hurd, a student of human nature as well as a diplomat, says now that Margaret Thatcher has since opined that, in similar circumstances, she would have behaved in the same way as Kohl. Hurd points out that the German chancellor turned out to be “completely robust” on a key issue that particularly vexed the British – united Germany’s NATO membership.
Contrary to expectations, Hurd notes, the German economy, instead of instantly benefiting from unity, experienced years of problems. The personal advice given to the prime minister, Hurd says, was that “the addition of 15 million highly disciplined Prussians and Saxons would give the German economy such a boost as to make it impregnable.” The outcome, Hurd believes, confirmed the dictum of Britain’s late 19th-century leader Lord Salisbury that prime ministers should ignore the advice of experts: “The clever people were completely wrong.”
And what of Germany today? In 2009, the country is under the wing of Kohl’s Christian Democrat successor Angela Merkel. “She is a sensible woman, a pastor’s daughter. To have a protestant middle-class lady in charge of the most powerful country in Europe is about as good an outcome you could possibly have thought of.
David Marsh is chairman of the London and Oxford group. This piece is selected from Freedom's Challenge, an Atlantic Council publication commemorating the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.