Commentary (Sunday Times)

Cold War: “Germany? Maggie was absolutely right” (Norman Stone on 1990 Chequers Germany seminar)

Document type: Press
Source: Sunday Times , 23 September 1996
Editorial comments: The minute of the seminar leaked and was published by The Independent on Sunday on 15 July 1990. It has now been declassified and is present on this site, as is Charles Powell ’s letter to summit participants setting out an agenda.
Importance ranking: Major
Word count: 1,950 words
Themes: Defence (general), Foreign policy (USA), Foreign policy (USSR & successor states), Foreign policy (Western Europe - non-EU)

Germany? Maggie was absolutely right

Norman Stone recalls that famous Chequers brainstorming session when the prime minister voiced concern about unification

On a blustery spring day in 1990, the journalist Timothy Garton Ash and I set forth for Chequers, the prime minister's weekend house, about an hour's drive away.

We had been asked to see Margaret Thatcher for a day's discussion on the subject of Germany: she wanted the opinions of people who knew something about the country. How dangerous was Germany? German unification was coming up, and Thatcher had been less then enthusiastic about it in public.

As to what went on in private, I had heard a rumour or two. She did not get on personally with Helmut Kohl , whom she found impossibly German, that is, heavy and wooden. However, they did business when they had to. The two machines worked together well, in any event, although Lord knows that German and British political cultures differ.

Some of us had been critical in the press of Thatcher's grudging attitude towards Germany. We had welcomed unification, and said so in the public prints, in my case in this newspaper. I had been going a great deal to Germany and was a strong admirer of it. I was also a strong admirer of Thatcher.

I would really have liked her to say straightforwardly that we now had the Germany that had needed two world wars to create, that the good Germans were in charge. Instead, she had been less than welcoming.

Thatcher was always keen to hear opinions and to get ideas from outside. She despised the Foreign Office, and, just as she had Sir Alan Walters to challenge the orthodoxies of the Treasury, so she would listen to outsiders on other matters.

She asked the two of us, with Lord Dacre – Hugh Trevor - Roper , as he was, and a best-selling expert on Hitler 's Reich – along with the two best-known American historians of Germany, Fritz Stern , who is German-Jewish by origin, and Gordon Craig , who is Canadian-Scottish. Both men had received high recognition from the West German government, deservedly so. With us came George Urban , the one-time head of Radio Free Europe, who is Hungarian by origin, and who had talked to Thatcher several times over the years about the cold war, and whose writings and interviews in Encounter, the magazine, had been a distinguished contribution to the collapse of that bogus business, détente.

The session started after lunch, with Sir Charles Powell taking notes, and Douglas Hurd , who had interrupted his family Sunday, sitting in. We had all been sent a memorandum for the discussion, and it was rather an odd document. It wanted to know whether the Germans were dangerous. What was the German national character, from A to Z? Did the German past signpost the future? And if Germany turned into a great central European state again through unification, would she not again become authoritarian and try to take over everyone else?

These questions are rum: they make for a good saloon-bar chat among squadron leaders, and they are not at all stupid. Nor are they wrong-headed, because Germans themselves go on and on about their character and their past. Historians would not use the phrase “national character” in quite that way, because it is so difficult to pin down, and when you look hard there are an awful lot of national characters. In Germany the differences between Bavarian and Hamburger are enormous, and even within Bavaria, between Middle and Lower Franconia.

Oddly enough, rumours of the agenda seemed to have got about. I went to a health farm to give up smoking – my 10th failed effort – and was tracked down there by Gina Thomas , a correspondent of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung , who had heard something on the grapevine. Very soon, in fact, the whole affair was “leaked”.

Thatcher is by training a chemist and a lawyer, and although, as I know quite well, she reads history, it is English history. Of Germany, she writes in her memoirs, and had told me earlier, that her most powerful impression had been the war, and before that a Viennese-Jewish pen friend who had taken refuge through her father in Grantham when the Nazis invaded in 1938. The girl had described the atrocities and the young Margaret had wondered how on earth Germans, of all people, could have done such things.

She was not at all out of order in asking historians what they thought. History exists as an academic subject outside museums only because people thought it could give answers to questions of this kind.

I said the unification was a good thing, in fact, the best thing that had happened in my lifetime; that there was no danger of a Fourth Reich or some such; that, even if there had been, the desperately low German birth rate would mean that the new Wehrmacht would consist of old age pensioners; that the German economy was not really such a powerhouse, and, my best line, that East Germany was not an accretion of strength, but, rather, 12 enormous Liverpools, handed over to the West Germans in a tatty cardboard box, with a great red ribbon round it, marked “From Russia with love”.

In what followed, there was a general note of approval for West Germany. In fact, the German ambassador could just have replaced us all, for we were extremely respectful towards present-day Germany. This is understandable, because the country just is hugely impressive to an outsider who knows something of its past. When the question came up whether Germany might dominate central Europe, as in the past, I remember saying this could only be a good thing.

Among friends, and quite informally, Thatcher is given to some anti-German noises of an old-fashioned kind. Many people in this country do the same. Casually in today's press I read that British schoolchildren put Germany lowest on the list of countries they wish to visit – even below Bosnia.

Thatcher can make unguarded remarks among friends, as Urban's new book shows, but she would not expect them to be held against her. We all exaggerate when speaking informally at times, and it is not kind to publicise this.

After the Chequers seminar, we all felt we had got our point across, and for a time Thatcher was a little kinder in what she said. However, she went on to take a robustly anti-European stance, and it was this that undermined her a few months later.

After our meeting, Powell circulated a memorandum, and it was based on the original agenda. The document was speedily “leaked”, and some of the reports on it looked only at the headlines – aggressiveness as part of German character and all that – without digesting the text.

The text was written with a certain irony, and the “spin” was not quite what I should myself have chosen, but it was not a distortion of what had been said. It was, in fact, quite a clever document. The first version had indulged Thatcher's own line on Germany, and the second version moved the whole discussion in a pro-German direction. The document ended with sentiments to the effect that co-operation with Germany was in order, and that there was nothing to fear.

Now, as often happened, Thatcher's instincts were on the right lines, and we were wrong. There are more grounds for worrying about Germany than we allowed for. The Germans have gone hysterical about beef, though our government behaved clumsily about the affair. Hypochondria – illness as pastime – is a vice of central Europe.

What is clear enough is that the Germans do adopt a follow-my-leader line, and do so in crowds.

The common currency is a good illustration of this. It has become a tribal – or, for “Europeans”, a multi-tribal – totem. Five years ago, when it was being mooted, 40 of the most senior German economists, practical men who had been responsible for the German economic miracle, publicly warned that the common currency could work only if there were stringent, in fact, pretty well unattainable, conditions. Otherwise, say, the Greek spending machine would wreck proper financial calculation by a central bank.

Karl-Otto Poehl made no secret at all of his and his Bundesbank's opposition to it. A truly enormous spread of qualified British opinion agrees, economic commentators from Will Hutton on the left-liberal side to Tim Congdon on the right. Yet, mainly through the German government's insistence, we have to go on talking about this wretched thing. The German politicians have swung into line.

Nowadays, the Social Democrats say that, if the pound is allowed to float outside the system, British export prices will be lower and German jobs will be lost. This is nonsense, the kind of thing we used to hear in the 1970s to excuse our own terrible uncompetitiveness.

However, a European currency has now become a sort of shibboleth for German politicians, and those who disagree, such as Manfred Brunner , are marginalised as embarrassing ultra-nationalists. Everybody knows that if the common currency is to work, there would have to be a state behind it, taxing people and issuing bonds in the name of all. Really, it is the same with a matter such as forcing the British to give up their veto on “European” issues. An obvious trade-off is going on, by which the British will be let off the hook over beef if we agree to give up the veto.

The German government wants “a European Germany” for various reasons. A Fortress Europe could protect us all against competition from go-ahead places; a European army will take the place of Nato, as the Americans withdraw; and “Europe” is a good way of re-creating national pride, because the Germans do not have much to speak of.

“German self-hatred” is a quite amazing theme. Wagner is seldom played without being sent up. A good half of the country detests any idea of wars and foreign involvements, and the spokesmen for that half even told lies to the effect that their constitution forbade such interventions. The Falklands war – an astonishing piece of courage by Thatcher, which had the side effects of bringing freedom to Latin America and shaking the Soviets' conviction that the West was finished – was condemned by about two-thirds of German public opinion, which regarded us as “militaristic”.

We now know, incidentally, from Soviet documents, just how far the German left-liberal coalition went in the direction of appeasing the Soviets at their most bullying time.

Today British governments are having to deal with a Germany that is intent on having its way over “Europe”. The Germans have indeed, as Thatcher suspected, gained a huge shot in the arm from unification. That confidence, however, is causing them to throw their weight about, and we are all having to contemplate this horror of a common currency because of it.

Incidentally, in case readers might think that the anti-German feelings, so embarrassingly expressed as they are sometimes, are one way, they might think again. Quite a number of Germans are resentful of the British. Their media left regards our social policy with some horror. The correspondent of Der Spiegel , for instance, plays up our problems of homelessness and the awfulness of the National Health Service, and, on the whole, their right regards our scepticism over Europe with amazement, even contempt.

In fact, close as relations now are, the possibilities for a real problem are greater now than at any previous time. At Chequers, in other words, we should have trusted the lady's instincts a little more.

The author is professor of modern history at Oxford University