Why Thatcher defended the Berlin Wall
Secret Kremlin minutes from 1989 reveal that anti-communist Western leaders were privately terrified about the demise of the Soviet bloc.
Amid all the dross and gossip that masquerades as serious news these days, there occasionally occurs an under-reported story that gives a genuine insight into the making of the world in which we live. One such show-stopping story turned up last Friday, 11 September, in The Times (London) under the headline ‘Thatcher told Gorbachev Britain did not want German reunification’.
The article reported the publication of 20-year-old secret Kremlin minutes of a meeting in Moscow between then British Tory prime minister Margaret Thatcher and Mikhail Gorbachev, reformist leader of the Soviet Union. Thatcher’s visit took place in 1989 as the Soviet bloc in Eastern Europe was collapsing, which raised the prospect of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the re-unification of Germany, divided since the end of the Second World War.
The UK prime minister and her close American allies, Presidents Ronald Reagan and George HW Bush, were ardent anti-communists who had long and loudly championed the fall of the Wall. But having first asked that her remarks should not be recorded, Thatcher told Gorbachev to ignore these public statements, since they did not represent the real views of the Western leadership. Instead, she privately urged the Soviet leadership to do what it could to keep Germany and Europe divided. ‘We do not want a united Germany’, she said. ‘This would lead to a change to postwar borders, and we cannot allow that because such a development would undermine the stability of the whole international situation and could endanger our security.’
Thatcher was no maverick voice in the West on this issue. She assured Gorbachev that President Bush also wanted to do nothing that would endanger the security of the Soviet Union – a position later spelt out in person by the Americans during a US-Soviet summit. Shortly after the Berlin Wall was opened in November 1989, the secret Kremlin minutes record that a top adviser to France’s President Mitterrand told the Soviet leadership that the prospect of the Kremlin doing nothing to stop German reunification had ’caused a fear approaching panic’ in France. He reiterated Thatcher’s blunt message: ‘France by no means wants German reunification, although it realises that in the end it is inevitable.’
The contrast between the public and private statements of the Western leadership could hardly have been starker. Thatcher, famed as the Iron Lady of anti-communist politics, emerges here more as the Iron Curtain Lady desperate to maintain the East-West divide, whilst Reagan and Bush are revealed as defenders of the Soviet ‘evil empire’.
This may come as a shock to those who take – or at least used to take – the anti-Soviet statements of Western leaders at face value. Some of us, however, recognised at the time that the strategic interests of many in the Western elites did not lie with the reunification of Germany and Europe. In the December 1989 issue of Living Marxism, the monthly magazine of which I was editor, we published a feature entitled ‘The West will miss the Berlin Wall’, which argued that ‘Despite the political mileage they have made out of cheering the opening of the Berlin Wall, the prospect of German reunification frightens the Western powers far more than the Cold War.’ We suggested that ‘No doubt many in Washington would be happy to undertake a private arrangement to pay for the upkeep of the Berlin Wall.’
So why did Thatcher and Co dread the fall of the Wall – and have their fears proved justified over the intervening 20 years?
The East-West division of Germany and Europe had, in Thatcher’s words, been key to ‘the stability of the whole international situation’ in the post-Second World War era. The Cold War established America’s position as the leader of the Western world and global superpower, whilst leaving the East under the control of the Soviet Union as regional power. Despite the warlike rhetoric on both sides and occasional proxy clashes, this stand-off between the Soviets and the West created a far more stable global situation for the elites than the conflicts and world wars of the first half of the twentieth century. Anti-communism became the unifying ideology of the Western world, cementing the capitalist bloc together under undisputed American leadership.
The division of Germany and Europe after 1945, symbolised by the Berlin Wall after it was built in 1961, was also accepted as a solution to – or at least a suspension of – the historic ‘German question’. By the time Germany had emerged as a fully-fledged capitalist powerhouse in the late nineteenth century, much of the world’s territories and markets had been divided up between the older imperialist powers of Britain and France and the dynamic USA. The question of how to achieve a global balance of power and accommodate Germany’s drive to expand became a central issue of international relations, leading to two world wars.
After Germany’s defeat in the Second World War, the US authorities even discussed a plan to neutralise Germany by ‘pasturalising’ its economy – that is, turning it into a huge farm. A more practicable option was to leave it divided with the East as part the Soviet bloc, and to rebuild West Germany by incorporating it into a new European economy. This arrangement also suited the German capitalist elite through the post-war era. Its links with the Nazis had destroyed its authority and discredited German nationalism. The new Cold War creed of anti-communism and economic prosperity became a substitute ideology for the weakened West German establishment.
For some 40 years, the Cold War served to freeze international politics, leaving the world in a state of suspended animation. It finally ended because the decrepit bureaucratic system of Stalinism in the East collapsed in on itself. Other secret minutes of Kremlin meetings from 1989-90 reveal the consternation and bewilderment within the Stalinist elite, faced with the collapse of its ramshackle empire. Even if he had been willing to try, Gorbachev was in no position to do the bidding of Thatcher and Bush by holding back the disintegration of the Soviet bloc.
Behind the rhetorical triumphalism about the victory of capitalism over communism, the minutes of those top-level diplomatic meetings in Moscow reveal that what worried Western leaders and sparked ‘fear approaching panic’ was that borders and power relations were about to become unfrozen in a way that would ‘undermine the stability of the whole international situation’ that had served them so well for decades. While Western intellectuals pontificated about whether the fall of the Wall and triumph of liberal capitalism marked ‘the End of History’, the worry in the corridors of Western power was more that History, as a process of change and conflict, was about to start up again on the international stage.
Twenty years on, their fears for the future have proved justified, though not in the way some expected. Those who predicted a speedy re-run of the conflicts of the past with the re-emergence of a powerful united Germany have been proved a little wide of the mark – so far. The economic powerhouse of Germany has certainly assumed its place at the centre of Europe, a status institutionalised through the European Union (EU) and the Eurozone. Many of the new east European states have been brought within the German sphere of influence. In political terms, Germany has lately begun to play a more assertive and independent role in international affairs, again often under the banner of the EU, and has pushed for a place on the UN Security Council. Yet, despite diplomatic tensions between the EU and the USA over various issues, Germany has largely been content to work within the status quo and remain a close ally of Washington and part of the Western alliance under American leadership.
However, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War did prove the catalyst for a more profound problem for the West. By removing the unifying factor of the external ‘Red menace’, it exposed the crisis of authority within Western society itself.
The Berlin Wall fell because, despite the image of strength it represented, behind it the Stalinist system in the east was internally corroding and eventually collapsing. Yet the Wall had also served to conceal weaknesses in the West.
The Cold War focus on anti-communism served as a coherent ideological outlook in the absence of anything much else. Western capitalism reached new heights of prosperity in the post-war boom of the Fifties and Sixties. Paradoxically, however, it also became politically impoverished. All of the traditional conservative values of the Western elites – to do with empire, race, nation and religion – had been called into question by the devastating impact of the Second World War and the cultural changes that followed. The Nazi Holocaust discredited notions of Western imperial superiority, not only in Germany, but around the world. And on social issues ranging from abortion or atheism to drugs or divorce, there was no longer any clear-cut moral consensus in the West on where the line lay between right and wrong or even good and evil.
Even in the boom years, the capitalist market alone could not provide Western society with a confident sense of its mission or of moral certitude. Almost all that remained to fill that gap and hold Western society together was the ideology of anti-communism, focused on the Soviet threat/Red menace/Evil Empire, which was embodied for a generation by the Berlin Wall.
Once the Wall came down and the Soviet Union followed it onto the scrap heap of history, ending the Cold War, the Western elite was faced with some more fundamental questions. Such as: alright, that was what we defined ourselves Against, and it has gone. Now, apart from making (and losing) money, what exactly can we define ourselves as being For? It was a question to which nobody appeared to have any very convincing answers.
The collapse of the Soviet Union devastated the West’s traditional parties of the Left, all of which had relied upon the idea of state socialism to one degree or another. Yet the political crisis quickly spread to those parties of the Right that had subsisted on a diet of anti-communism. Hence the collapse of the powerful Italian Communist Party was followed by the demise of the Christian Democratic Party which, having ruled Italy for decades as the bastion of anti-communism, now found itself with no raison d’être.
Yes, the fall of the Berlin Wall was followed by a moment of capitalist triumphalism – but that was to be followed by two decades in which the crisis of political authority in Western society has become increasingly acute. The end of the Cold War erased the last semblance of a sense of real purpose or clear mission from within the Western elites. As Thatcher had warned in that 1989 Moscow meeting, the reunification of Germany did indeed endanger the security of the Western alliance – not immediately by posing the external threat that she feared, but by undermining its sense of internal security and certainty.
Twenty years later, as spiked writers have analysed in depth elsewhere, the crisis of American and Western authority for which the end of the Cold War was the catalyst is evident in the response to every crisis from the recession to war. As Frank Furedi shows in his book Invitation to Terror, Washington and Whitehall have made a self-conscious attempt to substitute the War on Terror for the Cold War, as a political weapon to fight their battles at home and abroad. But a handful of would-be Islamist bombers from Walthamstow are not even a pale imitation of the million-strong Red Army. Instead of a political fear focused on the Red menace, Western society is left with a generalised fear of an amorphous terrorism and many other threats, both real and imagined. That is no basis on which to create a positive consensus in society.
Some Western nostalgists have even sought to cling to the comfort blanket of the old days by depicting tensions between Russia and the West in recent years as the start a ‘new Cold War’. The Obama administration’s move to dump the proposed US missile system in east Europe has exposed that shadow-boxing charade. What these diplomatic games really show today is that neither Moscow nor Washington has the power they once did.
Yet the big questions about Western society that were brought to the surface 20 years ago have so far been successfully evaded. Largely this is because the old Left’s politics went down with the Wall, and critics of capitalism have never managed to come up with a convincing alternative. In the absence of any serious opposition, the Western elite has been able to rely on Thatcher’s mate TINA – There is No Alternative – to stay on top, even though they have offered nothing more substantial to believe in than easy credit – which is never enough to buy true loyalty to a society. Even that thin veneer of prosperity-for-all has been ripped away by the economic crisis, the impact of which is far from over despite wishful thinking to the contrary.
Today we are faced not with the German question, but the bigger Western question, the capitalist question, the imperialist question. In what does our society believe? What sort of world do we want to live in? What do we stand for – and what are we prepared to destroy in order to make changes for better?
It is high time to pose the questions about the West that Margaret Thatcher wanted to bury and that her successors have successfully been evading for 20 years. It is time to break down the wall of silence about the future.
Mick Hume is spiked’s editor-at-large.
Previously on spiked
After the war in Georgia, Frank Furedi explained why the West can’t kick its Cold War habit. Julia Svetlichnaja and James Heartfield looked at how the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko gave rise to fantasies about a new Cold War. Sean Collins considered the role of the Reagan factor in American politics. Emily Hill reviewed The Lives of Others, about the omnipresent surveillance in East Germany. Or read more at spiked issue Europe.