Ralph Boulton’s Profile
Former British Ambassador recalls German unification
Sir Christopher Mallaby, deputy chairman of the Thomson Reuters Trustee Directors, had a front row seat to German Unification as Britain’s ambassador to Germany from 1988 to 1992. Mallaby, who was later ambassador to France, served in the British Diplomatic Service from 1959 to 1996. He was also a managing director of UBS Investment Bank from 1996 to 2006. He has been a Reuters Trustee since 1998.
I arrived in the Federal Republic as Ambassador in March 1988. At that point, there was no indication of the dramatic change that soon would transform Germany. I wrote to the Foreign Office in June 1988:
“Amid the mounting display of the failure of communism in Europe, the Berlin Wall is still the greatest admission of its failure. West Germans and West Berliners see no prospect of its going.”
I could not know then that the next 17 months were to be the most exciting and positive in my 37 years as a diplomat. By autumn of 1989, everything was in flux. Change in the Soviet Union led to the banning of some Moscow publications in the GDR — an unprecedented act of insubordination and a sure sign of anxiety at the top of the East German communist party. Mikhail Gorbachev, visiting East Berlin, seemed to encourage reform, evidently regarding some reform in East Germany as less dangerous to Soviet interests than no reform. His unscripted remark now seems a landmark: “Dangers await only those who don’t react to life.”
After a few weeks East Germany was crumbling. The demonstrations grew bigger and the Soviet and East German forces did not shoot. Members of the East German leadership who wanted to use force were purged. Gorbachev decided not to use the Red Army. People streamed out of East Germany to the West through the Federal German Embassies in Prague and Budapest, making a key contribution to the end of communism in Germany. In the face of this new haemorrhage of people, the East German government opened the Wall, partly through a misunderstanding among the East German leaders — one of the most positive cock-ups in history.
As things changed in the GDR in the third quarter of 1989, there was concern in London at the rapid pace of events in Germany and its possible repercussions for the positive change in central Europe. In this concern Margaret Thatcher was by no means alone, either in London or elsewhere including Paris.
This was the time when British diplomats began to consider the possibility- at this stage it was no more than that- of German unification. On 11 September 1989, I wrote to the Foreign Office: “Two separate Germanies, with the Federal Republic still in NATO, would certainly be preferable for Britain to a single neutral Germany”
There was a strong feeling then in the west that the Russians would be more resistant to political transformation in the GDR than in Poland or Hungary because it was their front-line state facing NATO.
At the same time, the possibility that the change in East Germany would lead to unification was much discussed in the Federal Republic but was no-one’s stated aim of active policy. On 25 January 1990 Chancellor Helmut Kohl confided to me, with theatrical gestures of insistence that I should not tell Mrs Thatcher, that he saw unification as a possibility on 1 January 1995. At that time, 1995 seemed a very early date to be predicting.
There were three months between the fall of the Wall and agreement in early 1990 to hold the so-called Two-plus-Four forum for negotiations on the international aspects of unification – involving both Germanys and the four powers with rights in relation to the German Question -the United States, the Soviet Union, France and Britain. The British Government — and not just the Prime Minister – remained concerned in that period about the speed of change in Germany, the lack of consultation by the Federal Republic with its allies, the risk of endangering Gorbachev’s position in Moscow and even putting at risk the whole process of change in central Europe.
The reason for the speed of change was popular demand in East Germany: when the slogan of the demonstrations “we are the people” changed to “we are one people” reunification became the most likely outcome. Kohl was driven along by events in East Germany, catching up successfully from time to time with a major speech.
The French, the Russians and the Poles were also concerned. The US Administration, and especially Secretary of State James Baker, however, saw the change as having the potential to end the Cold War and the Soviet threat, and was much less concerned by the developments in Germany itself, except for the hard question of how a united Germany would work with NATO.
Once the Two-plus-Four negotiations started, the British, under Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd, played an active and inventive role in the negotiations. We produced some of the ideas which made it easier for the Soviet Union in its weakness to preserve some face and thus acquiesce quite quickly in German unification. One example of British ingenuity: there was clearly a risk that the Soviet Union, having signed the agreement resulting from the two plus four negotiations, might never ratify it because of a change of leader in Moscow. That would have left in place the Soviet Union’s reserved rights in relation to Berlin and Germany, a highly undesirable situation. The British won acceptance of a very unusual arrangement in international law –the Allies’ rights were suspended on signature of the agreement and extinguished on ratification.
So British representatives were working hard in private negotiation. But our Prime Minister was not happy. Mrs Thatcher had logic on her side when she argued that a divided Germany could not again threaten Europe, whereas a reunified Germany could, hypothetically, become a threat again at some point in the future. But I think Mrs Thatcher was ignoring some important realities:
• The Federal Republic, far from being bitter and vengeful like inter-war Germany, was a mature democracy, comfortable with itself and confident as well as stable and efficient. It was extremely successful economically.
• The Federal Republic was deeply integrated in the structures of the West, through NATO and the European Community.
• The Federal Republic was acutely conscious of Germany’s crimes in the Nazi period and therefore cautious in foreign policy and determined to avoid actions that could cause concern to others.
• Britain had been declaring for decades that our aim was a reunified Germany in democracy. In 1989, for the first time, that outcome came within reach. How could we renege?
On top of these arguments about Germany itself, there was a much wider strategic consideration, the one championed by James Baker. Reunification of Germany in freedom, by putting an end to East Germany, would strike away the lynchpin of the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Empire in Europe, ending the cold war and greatly strengthening the security of the Western world.
In March 1990, I wrote in my diary:
“NATO and European security are the real difficulty in negotiating the conditions of German unity. The present generation has enjoyed a period in which East-West tension was endemic but East-West war (except by the remote contingency of an accident) was unthinkable for both sides. The responsibility of today’s generation is to bequeath a Europe in which world war remains 100%, not 90%, unthinkable, while East-West tension, now reduced, remains as low as possible. No-one knows who may succeed Gorbachev or may succeed that successor. It could be a truculent Slavophil nationalist. The Soviet Union may become smaller. Its capacity for surprise attack by conventional means is receding and will recede further. But it will retain nuclear weapons. We simply must make the threat of aggression impossible. That requires, in the last analysis, two things: Germany in NATO and US Forces in Germany.”
That diary entry shows why the question of Germany and NATO was so important. By January 1990, Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher was saying that after unification the old Federal Republic should stay in NATO and the old East Germany should not join the Alliance. By early February 1990, the two arrangements that were being discussed in Bonn were unification in neutrality or Genscher’s idea. It was astonishing that Gorbachev was brought to accept East Germany’s departure from the Warsaw Pact, and therefore the end of the Soviet security system in Central Europe, and also that East Germany should switch across to NATO. This was due to two main factors: Soviet weakness and American insistence on this ideal outcome.
While the Two-plus-Four negotiations were proceeding, and Britain was making useful contributions, Margaret Thatcher made several public statements which gave the impression that Britain was against unification. The problem with British diplomacy was that we were helpful towards unification in private but the Prime Minister was very reluctant in public.
Britain gained immensely from the transformation of Europe twenty years ago. Mrs Thatcher played an active role in that transformation, through her firmness regarding NATO and her inspired cultivation of Gorbachev. The Iron Lady contributed to the melting of the Iron Curtain. Britain’s relationship with Germany was tarnished by the Prime Minister’s remarks on unification but my successors as Ambassador there do not consider that our standing in Germany was lastingly diminished. German unification, an extremely important and positive element in the transformation of Europe, has been followed by no indication whatever that Germany will again be any kind of threat to European peace.