Margaret Thatcher’s relationship with German chancellor Helmut Kohl was so bad that the US feared she was preparing an entente cordiale with the Soviet Union to contain Germany, declassified files show.
The revelations underline how the then prime minister struggled to come to terms with European politics after the fall of the Berlin Wall and how, in her last months in office, she suspected a unified Germany could dominate the continent.
US diplomats were particularly alarmed by a phone call between Thatcher and President George H W Bush in February 1990, when she reportedly said the USSR was “an essential balance to German power”.
Mr Bush “could not conceive how you could think of the Russians as possible allies against Germany”, Thatcher was told in an ensuing briefing paper. At the time Washington viewed Moscow as a “deeply hostile” power.
Although British diplomats sought to play down Thatcher’s comments, the prime minister appears to have been unrepentant — writing “1941-45” in the margins of the briefing paper, a reference to the period when the USSR and Britain were allies during the second world war.
Cabinet Office papers reveal other occasions where she expressed scepticism about German intentions. At a private meeting at Chequers in March 1990, Thatcher and eminent historians discussed how Germans were characterised by “angst [underlined], aggressiveness, assertiveness, bullying, egotism, inferiority complex, sentimentality”.
The prime minister, who had become more Eurosceptic in the late 1980s, clashed with Douglas Hurd, her foreign secretary, who warned that Britain could not be “a brake on everything” in European integration. In response she proposed “a wider European association” that would rival or replace the European Community, and which the Soviet Union could join in the long term.
The exchanges illuminate how Thatcher sought to steer British foreign policy after her central role in supporting Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika reforms. In contrast to her warm relationship with Mr Gorbachev, she was frequently wary of Mr Kohl.
She tried to obstruct German reunification, the chancellor’s grand project, fearing it would undermine Nato. In her memoirs, Thatcher said that was the “one instance in which a foreign policy I pursued met with unambiguous failure”. In his memoirs, Mr Kohl accused her of being “ice-cold” and “dangerous”.
The files show relations became so bad that Mr Kohl suggested he might use Mr Hurd as “a political point of contact”, instead of Thatcher. That was flatly rejected by the prime minister, who wrote “NO” in the margin of one document.
Although Germany and Britain were working together to complete the single market, Thatcher’s advisers opined that Britain “might one day need a closer relationship with the Soviet Union to balance an over-mighty Germany”.
[Germans were characterised by] angst [underlined], aggressiveness, assertiveness, bullying, egotism, inferiority complex, sentimentality
Her Chequers seminar on Germany included historians Hugh Trevor-Roper (Lord Dacre) and Timothy Garton-Ash. A minute taken by her private secretary Charles Powell concluded that the Germans were using “their elbows . . . in the European Community”, and that Britain should “be nice” while remaining wary. The “real credit” for German reunification “should go to the people of eastern Europe and to Mr Gorbachev” — not to the Germans themselves.
Norman Stone, a historian who was among the attendees, told the Financial Times that Thatcher’s thinking was influenced by her 1930s childhood, including her friendship with a Jewish girl in Vienna persecuted by the Nazis. He added that the prime minister’s opposition to European monetary union had proved “dead right”.
Thatcher and Mr Kohl were at the time seeking to dampen press rumours of difficulties in their relationship. Among their disagreements, the prime minister wanted less strict sanctions on South Africa, while the chancellor took offence to what he saw as rudeness. In February 1990, British diplomats reported that Mr Kohl “was not happy at the state of our official relations”, and was offended by Thatcher having accused him of nationalism.
Paddy Ashdown, the Liberal Democrat politician, said that “whenever Kohl used the word ‘Margaret’ he looked in the opposite direction and injected a certain steely tone into his voice”. However, relations between the two leaders did occasionally thaw — including a meeting in March 1990 when both leaders were “rather jovial”.