From the FT archive: Brittle bonds of friendship
This article was first published in the Financial Times on July 18, 1990.
‘For 300 years the history of our continent has been basically determined by England’s world politics through balanced, mutually interlocking relations of power …. The more difficult England's situation became, the more necessary it seemed to the leaders of the British empire to keep the individual state powers of Europe in a state of general paralysis resulting from mutual rivalries.’
- Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf, 1925, 1927
'We've always played the balance of power in Europe. It has always been Britain's role to keep these various powers balanced, and never has it been more necessary than now, with Germany so uppity.'
Last week's outburst by Mr Nicholas Ridley has succeeded in restoring some enduring cliches about Britain's relationship with the country previously ranked as its most important ally on the Continent. Mr Ridley has resigned, and the Bonn Government says officially that the affair is settled.
Chancellor Helmut Kohl, in rollicking form at his press conference in Bonn yesterday, said: 'Write in your newspaper that we haven't taken this badly.' But the postwar bonds of friendship and understanding between Britain and Germany - especially in the light of the new German-Soviet rapprochement are now looking brittle indeed.
Anti-German propaganda in the UK, a wholly justifiable weapon in time of armed conflict, was an essential condition for Britain's victory in the Second World War. The residue of anti-Germanism — rather like Britain's cherished status as an 'independent' nuclear weapons power - has since acquired an almost desperate element of self-perpetuation. And it has flared up again at a time when the UK is looking with unease at the resurgence of the new Germany.
Britain's caricatural fears about German leaders marching over the Continent in spiked helmets are not important enough to alter Germany's course towards reunification - especially since this now has the blessing of Mr Gorbachev. But they are likely to be sufficiently powerful to undermine Britain's influence and restraint on a renascent German nation - whatever the future state of European integration.
Mr Ridley's weekend exit coincided with the leak of the devastatingly one-sided Whitehall memorandum drawn up after Mrs Margaret Thatcher's Chequers discussions in March with historians and experts on Germany. This was printed on Sunday, notably in The Independent, but also, in full, in Der Spiegel. So the Hamburg-based news magazine's 5m readers now have a full insight into the British Government's analysis of their collective character defects.
Among the less unpleasant of these faults, a little up the list from 'angst, aggressiveness, assertiveness, bullying, egotism, inferiority complex, sentimentality,' was recorded 'a strong inclination to self-pity.' Mr Rudiger von Wechmar, the shrewd and humorous former West German ambassador in London (up to the end of 1988) admits that self-pity is indeed an attribute of his compatriots. Now he can be forgiven for indulging in it. 'I'm rather glad that I'm no longer the ambassador,' he says.
Mr von Wechmar recently took exception to remarks, quoted in the German press, by Mr Norman Tebbit, former chairman of the British Conservative Party, who compared the Bundesbank to a 'Panzer.' Mr von Wechmar wrote to Mr Tebbit accusing him of 'nonsense.' Mr Tebbit replied that this was a misunderstanding. After reading Mr Ridley's interview, Mr von Wechmar is no longer sure whether this was really the case.
Once suspicion finds a bore-hole, it can tunnel deep. Germany's right to eventual reunification - with 'a liberal-democratic constitution,' and 'integrated within the European community,' to use the words of the 1955 Deutschlandvertrag - was at the centre of Britain's policies towards Germany during the 1950s and 1960s. Mr Anthony Eden, Britain's Foreign Secretary, told the four-power conference in Berlin in 1954, 'So long as the Germans remain artificially divided, there can be no unity or stability in Europe.' A British government document published just after the building of the Berlin Wall in 1961 recorded: 'The Germans would regard it as a betrayal of the alliance if Britain and the other western powers were to accept the division of Germany as permanent.'
Many Germans are now asking whether these were simply honeyed platitudes, no longer to be trusted - along with what else besides? In Cambridge in March - five days after her Chequers meeting - Mrs Thatcher attended a dinner at St Catharine's College to celebrate 40 years of Anglo-German friendship at the annual Konigswinter conference. 'You need another 40 years before we can forget what you have done,' she told another former German ambassador, who wrote the words down lest they might indeed slip out of his mind.
Mr Thomas Kielinger, editor of the weekly newspaper Rheinischer Merkur, and a frequent attender at the annual Konigswinter events, asks whether Britain may have a 'Jekyll and Hyde' attitude towards Germany. 'You treat her with friendliness during the day, but after hours, cut loose with the old archaisms.'
Mr Ridley got on well enough with Mr Helmut Haussmann, the West German Economics Minister, when he came to visit him in Bonn last October. 'It was a good atmosphere - wide-ranging agreement,' recalls one German official. At a press briefing afterwards at the residence of the British ambassador, at which this writer was present, Mr Ridley praised the 'charming and excellent' nature of his talks. He said: 'There is practically nothing where we diverge - it is a harmonious relationship' - almost as though he were anticipating the sanctimonious conclusion of the Chequers memo, 'We should be nice to the Germans.'
Foreign governments' analyses of German character defects have never been a very good guide to policy. Mr James Gerard, US ambassador in Berlin at the beginning of the First World War, wrote that 'heavy eating and large consumption of wine and beer' made the Germans 'aggressive and irritable.' Sir Nevile Henderson, Britain's ambassador before the Second World War, wrote of Hitler's Reichsmarshal Hermann Goering, 'However little compassion he may have had, like so many Germans, for his fellow men, he loved animals and children.'
Mr Michael Sturmer, head of the Bonn-backed foreign policy think-tank Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik, knows personally all six of the experts who sat down with Mrs Thatcher at Chequers. Yesterday he called the leaked memo a collection of 'national stereotypes. It was very poor.'
This, and the Ridley affair, 'will not have a lasting effect on Anglo-German relations. Realities are much more important,' Mr Sturmer said. But he added: 'Britain and Germany are going through a very bitter period of adjustment to the enormous transition in Europe. There will be more bitterness to come.