Don’t Mention the War, by John Ramsden

The following excerpt has been taken from the final chapter of Ramsden’s book. 
It’s entitled: ‘People to people, there’s a problem’.
The text of Staatsexamen Frühjahr 2008 is highlighted in RED

Alongside unhelpful images and memories, Britain experienced in the 1980s and 1990s more open anti-German prejudice among her rulers than at any time since 1945. Within the broader aim of reasserting Britain internationally, Margaret Thatcher and some of her senior ministers harboured deep personal suspicion of everything German. Though these were mainly open secrets to be deduced from their pronouncements, in 1989-92 they erupted to the surface. Unlike near-contemporaries who themselves had fought against Germany and come back keen to ensure that no such war should ever happen again, Thatcher never got over the experience of being a civilian threatened by the Luftwaffe. As Prime Minister she was constantly amazed that those around her did not share her views and sought advisers who did, notably her private secretary Charles Powell. When consulting historians chosen for their expertise on post-war Germany, she lectured them on what they ought to be advising her to do, generally what she already intended; after witnessing one such meeting, Douglas Hurd noted in his diary that 'none of [the academics] shared her extravagant suspicions of Germany but this just makes her flail about more. All good humoured, but they are half amused half depressed by her prejudices.' Nor did she ever get on well personally with her German opposite number after 1982, Helmut Kohl. When she visited Kohl in his native Rhineland in 1989 and he made great efforts to show her around, her reaction on the plane home was 'my God, that man is so German!' Challenged for her views, she announced that she did not believe in 'national guilt', adding, 'but I do believe in national character'. Reminded of the size of Germany's contribution to the EU budget, she responded, 'it's always been a misnomer to say that the Germans are the paymasters of Europe. The Germans have been simply paying reparations for all the things they did during the war.' Nor was she comforted by West Germany's economic strength, which had sustained democracy since 1945, for she 'never believed that German nationalism was dead'; younger Germans were sure to seek reunification and make their country again the dominant Force in Europe. For her foreign policy adviser George Urban, Thatcher's views on Germany were close to the 'Alf Garnett version of history'. Germans were not reassured when sup­porters defended her views, as the columnist Peter Jenkins did in 1990; she was not really 'subliminally anti-German', just typically English and 'subliminally anti-European'.48

These views were not very different from those held by Harold Macmillan as Prime Minister twenty-five years earlier — except that Macmillan kept his opinions to himself until he wrote his memoirs, while Thatcher was less careful. A quarter century of German democracy might anyway have transformed perceptions, but as Hurd recalls, 'her firm idea of Germany … was not based on any understanding of the new German political system', and she had rarely taken part in such 'bridges' to Germany as Königswinter Conferences or the Conservatives' own meetings with Christian Democrats. She was unlucky therefore to be the premier forced to carry out the pledge to support the reunification of Germany given by her post-war predecessors, some of whom, like Macmillan, had not meant a word of it at the time. Struggling to obstruct the process, she argued like the victors of 1945 that German unity was simply too big an issue to be decided by Germans for themselves, but received backing of consequence from nobody who mattered. When Russia, America and France all accepted German unity, she had little option but to recognise what had happened, but even then assented only when assured that 'sizable' British, French and American forces would remain on German soil, to contain not a Soviet threat but a hypothetical German one. This was, as she put it in her memoirs, 'one instance in which a foreign policy I pursued met with unambiguous failure'. The arguments she advanced against joining the rush towards German unity included fears that Gorbachev's Russia would be destabilised and Glasnost imperilled. As a Eurosceptic she was not convinced by French intentions to accelerate the unification of Europe, to 'bind' united Germany to democracy. At heart, though, it was German 'national character', and therefore fear of a powerful Germany, that lay behind worries about 'all those Prussians and Saxons who are now joining West Germany but had no experience, since 1933, of any political system other than Nazism and Stalinism'. Discussions with hand-picked historians at Chequers demonstrated that she was almost alone in her views, but she kept replying, 'Yes, but you can't trust them.' Even as unification went ahead, she told a German diplomat that 'it would take at least another 40 years before the British could trust the Germans again'. In her memoirs she added in retirement a new barb to the repertory of Germanophobia: 'the true origin of German angst is the agony of self-knowledge'.49 She had barely given her ungracious blessing to German unity when the 'Ridley affair' burst into the open. One of her closest sup­porters, the Industry Secretary Nicholas Ridley, had given an interview to the Spectator and ranted about the German threat once the interview was officially over, but without making it clear that his remarks were off the record. Ridley suggested that the EU was 'a German racket to take over Europe [and] you might just as well give it to Adolf Hitler, frankly'. This the Spectator underlined with a dramatic cartoon, of Ridley painting a Hitler moustache on a poster of Kohl. Ridley and Thatcher deplored publishing private conversations (which this was not), and at first thought that withdrawing the offending words would be enough; neither seems to have grasped that to think such things or to say them in private was almost as offensive as voicing them in public. Despite Party Chairman Kenneth Baker's efforts to repair the damage ('Nick had been very frank …'), the row rumbled on, though German politicians did limit the impact by hinting that Ridley must have been drunk. Since Ridley was so close to Thatcher, Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd's position became impossible, since no German politician would believe promises of friendship while the Prime Minister's confidant espoused such views and remained in the cabinet. Ridley therefore had to resign and take the blame with him, but again Thatcher's memoirs show her real opinions: Ridley's 'gaffe' was just 'telling an inconvenient truth'. Even that strategy failed, for within a few days minutes of the Chequers meeting leaked into the headlines. This record bore little resemblance to the memories of historians who had attended, nor indicated the Prime Minister's isolation. Among the 'abiding part[s] of the German character' identified by the meeting, according to Charles Powell's minutes, were 'angst, aggressiveness, assertiveness, bullying, egotism, inferiority complex, sentimentality', while further discussion had added 'a capacity for excess' and 'a tendency to over-estimate their own strengths and capabilities'. The New Statesman pointed out that most of these qualities were attributed to Thatcher herself, even by admirers. Ridley, now on the backbenches, received thousands of letters deploring the fact that he had been forced out, and his views were supported by half the Tory backbenchers contacted by Channel Four. Polls suggested that a third of the public agreed with him, too, especially older people — as they did when similar polls were conducted in Denmark and the Netherlands.50

The Ridley affair, and public support for the disgraced minister, appears in hindsight an early flowering of the xenophobia that would flourish during the Maastricht debates and in the UK Independence Party as an electoral force, but in the short term the effect was to contribute further evidence of Thatcher's inflexible opinions to a party majority desperate for her retirement, which it secured later in the year. Her successor, John Major, supported moves to improve relations with Germany, launched by Douglas Hurd from the Foreign Office and by the Party Chairman. Major worked hard at building a rapport with Kohl, and delivered a key speech, promising to put Britain 'at the heart of Europe', to the Christian Democrats in Bonn. If he was unsuccessful in prising Germany away from its alliance with France, then he merely failed where every prime minister for forty years had failed. Yet during Major's second year in office divergences over economic policy prompted another Anglo-German crisis. From the perspective of British ministers, locked into the Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM) that constrained exchange rates, the escalating cost of integrating the reunified Germany produced high interest rates internationally and unpopular consequences within Britain. By September 1992, with German interest rates staying high to restrain inflation there, the ERM strained to bursting point. At a meeting in Bath there was a confrontation between the British Chancellor of the Exchequer, Norman Lamont, and the head of the Bundesbank; stuck in Balmoral, Major heard one of his staff shout over a poor line, 'I don't think that we can rely on the Germans', at which his police guards responded in chorus, 'Dead right!' The situation worsened when the Bundesbank president made incautious comments about the need for further currency revaluations after Italian devaluation, and his refusal categorically to withdraw the remarks launched a speculative attack on the pound until, on 'Black Wednesday', Sterling crashed out of the ERM. During that dramatic day repeated demands that German banks support the pound produced only inaction, though British ministers showed little awareness of the Bundesbank's constitutional independence when urging Kohl to order it to help. This was a public disaster for British policy, and it was tempting to blame it on Germany, in view of how it had come about, apparently confirming within two years the worries about German power that Thatcher and Ridley had voiced. For a time intergovernmental relations were strained, and the press on each side unhelpfully heated a boiling pot. Ralf Dahrendorf noticed that Thatcher and Kohl would barely even speak to each other at the next Königswinter Conference, even though the whole point of such meetings was to foster harmony; each sat by the chairman, but turned away and conversed animatedly with the person on their other side. Even sending the Queen to Germany did not work now, for both crowds and enthusiasm were less than before, except in East German cities like Leipzig that had never seen her before.51

48) John Campbell, Margaret Thatcher, vol. II: The Iron Lady (Cape, London, 2003), 257-8, 304, 632-4; George Urban, Diplomacy and Disillusion at the Court of Margaret Thatcher (I. B. Tauris, London, 1996), 82-3, 99, 103-4; Margaret Thatcher, The Downing Street Years (HarperCollins, London, 1993), 61, 94, 552, 759, 769; Douglas Hurd, Memoirs (Little, Brown, London, 2003), 382-4; Spiegel, 19 February 1990; Douglas Hurd, 'The German Unification Process', in Mayer and Stehling, Anglo-German Relations, 152.

49) Wolfram Kaiser, Using Europe, Abusing the Europeans: Britain and European Integration, 1945-63 (Macmillan, London, 1996), 214, 222-3, 225, 813; Urban, Diplomacy and Disillusion, 124, 133-4, 136, 141-2, 147, 150; Hurd, 'German Unification Process', 147, 149; Campbell, Iron Lady, 636-7, 639; Thatcher, Downing Street Years, 755, 783, 789-91; Kielinger, Crossroads and Roundabouts, 216.

50) Urban, Diplomacy and Disillusion, 99, 151-2; Kenneth Baker, The Turbulent Years (Faber, London, 1993), 348-9, 358-9; Campbell, Iron Lady, 635; Nicholas Ridley, My Style of Government (Hutchinson, London, 1991), 156, 223, 224, 227; Hurd, Memoirs, 386; Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 13 and 14 July 1990; Kielinger, Crossroads and Roundabouts, 6-7; Daily Telegraph, 13 May 1990.

51) Baker, Turbulent Years, 351-2; Dennis Kavanagh and Anthony Seldon, eds, The Major Effect (Macmillan, London, 1994), 284-5; John Major, Autobiography (HarperCollins, London, 1999), 122, 153, 323, 329-37; Anthony Seldon, Major: A Political Life (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London, 1997), In Office 47, 164, 310, 314, 323, 338; Sarah Hogg and Jonathan Hill, Power and Politics: John Major in No. 10 (Little, Brown, London, 1995), 76-7; Norman Lamont, In Office (Warner Books, London, 1999), 36, 153, 216, 244, 254, 259, 279, 283, 387; Zeit, 20 July 1990; Süddeutscher Zeitung, 23 October 1992.

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