“Germany 1990 is not Germany 1939” – The British response to German unification

Term Paper, 2009

22 Pages, Grade: 1,3


Table of content

1. Introduction

2. Germany 1989/1990 – The political-historic situation

3. The British fear about the ‘German question’
3.1 Margaret Thatcher’s response to German unification
3.2 The Nicholas Ridley affair
3.2.1 Public response to the Nicholas Ridley affair
3.3 The Chequers meeting
3.3.1 The press’ response to the Chequers memorandum

4. Conclusion

5. Sources

1. Introduction

When the first bricks and pieces of the Berlin Wall fell to the ground on 9 November 1989, the German soil might not have been the only thing that has been shaking on that day: As soon as the news arrived in Number 10 Downing Street, London, the floor in Margaret Thatcher’s office might have been shaking as well.

The metaphorical earthquake German reunification is considered today to have been in those days did not only cause disorientation and confusion in both German states but also in Great Britain.

Since the four victorious powers decided to split the German nation into four parts – that later became only two – at the Yalta conference, the British felt save from their greatest enemy during the Second World War. The balance of power between the Soviet Union and the West seemed to be restored after the Cold War. Germany was not strong enough to even try to start a new war, which caused a strong securely feeling among the British people and its government.

Now, that this stony guarantee for peace got its first cracks it forced the peaceful atmosphere – not only the British created in the bygone decades – to crack as well.

In this paper I want to describe the response of both British politicians and the British people to the events that happened in the months between November 1989 and October 1990, but mainly concentrate on two of the most important ones for British politics during this time, namely the Nicholas Ridley affair and the revelation of the minutes of the Chequers meeting.

The British press of course has not ignored these events. Since it became one of the most important commentators on the upheaval that went on in Germany and the British domestic discussions and affairs, I want to underline the statements and comments made by politicians or other spokesperson of public opinions with excerpts of British newspapers.

2. Germany 1989/1990 – The political-historic situation

After the newly settled Grundgesetz had passed the Bundesrat on 23 May 1949, the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) was founded the other day. The Soviet Occupation Zone (SOZ) needed about four months to react and finally the German Democratic Republic was founded on 7 October 1949. It were the ideological repercussions of the Cold War that made the governments of both newly founded republics think about a wall between their states. Although these plans have been denied by the then Staatsratsvorsitzender of the GDR, Walter Ulbricht, on 15 June 1961, East German workers started building the Berlin Wall almost two months later on 13 August 1961.1

At least 136 people died, trying to cross the inner German border without a permis­sion of the state until 9 November 19892, but sources differ a lot when it comes to concrete numbers (the ‘Arbeitsgemeinschaft 13. August’ indicates a number of over 200 fatalities3 ).

The opening of the Hungarian frontier to Austria on 11 September 1989 and the predictable collapse of the GDR system forced the government to open the borders and caused the fall of the Berlin Wall. Grosser mentions, that “the regime was no longer feared enough to be stable.”4 Another reason can be seen in the suffering from cancer of Erich Honecker, the then Staatsratsvorsitzender, who had to resign because of his bad health5, since the search for a suitable successor did not help the uncertain situation anyway.

Nevertheless the open Hungarian border can be seen as the most important catalyst for the breach of the Berlin Wall, since “more than 20,000 [East German citizens were] emigrating via Hungary by the end of [September 1989].”6 This incredible movement “was the beginning of the end of the regime.”7 From now on, nationwide protests in greater East German cities like Leipzig, the claim of the GDR inhabitants for freedom of travel and the increasing number of cases of so-called ‘Republikflucht’ started to play a big role in speeding up the process and finally lead to the so ‘Mauerfall’ in the night from 9 November to 10 November 1989.

When the West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl held a speech from the balcony of the Schöneberger Rathaus in the Western part of Berlin, the SPD honorary chairman and former Chancellor Willy Brandt commented the situation with his historical words: “That which belongs together comes together.”

On 28 November, Helmut Kohl presented his Ten-Point-Programme in the German Bundestag, which proposed a confederation between GDR and FRG and already included the wish to integrate this federation in the process of a European Union, which finally was supposed to lead to a fully achieved union of both German states. In December, the establishment of the SED as political permanent leader in the GDR has been extracted from the constitution.

In May 1990, both GDR and FRG signed a treaty, containing a shared monetary, economical and social union that came in to effect on 1 July 1990. Two months later, on 31 August, the leaders of FRG and GDR have signed the Treaty of union.

The most significant day – next to 9 November 1989 – was 3 October 1990 which has been codified as ‘Tag der Deutschen Einheit’ in the Treaty of union, that finally brought along the full unification of both states which actually was just an affiliation of the East German ‘Länder’ to the FRG and their assignation to its constitution.

3. The British fear about the ‘German question’

Whereas the Germans celebrated the reunification of their country, the British were deeply concerned about the international political situation they feared to become affected rather negatively by these ongoing changes:

[T]he British political Establishment last night united behind Mrs Thatcher in combin­ing a euphoric welcome for the fall of the Berlin Wall with a note of caution about its profound implications for both Germany and the rest of the Continent. But there was concern at British isolation from events.8

Germany was not just a country across the Channel tunnel for them, but their own worst enemy in World War II. Indeed, the British felt relieved and secure when they became aware of the inner German split in 1949, which became much more deepened with the building of the Berlin Wall.

The “German Question”, that was concerned with Germany’s striving for power, namely in the first half of the 20th century, seemed to be solved: “[T]he existence after 1945 of two [...] German states was a miraculous outcome devoutly to be welcom-ed”9 and “was seen as a stabilizing factor, even if these views were not openly expressed.”10

The British somehow perceived the inner German division – “[die nach] 40 Jahre[n] deutsche[r] Zweistaatlichkeit dazu geführt [hatte], daß im Bewußtsein vieler Briten die Teilung Deutschlands als unwiderruflich galt“11 – as a safeguarding step against militarism and nationalism that German people showed especially during the Nazi regime. Their thought went that a divided German people would never be strong enough to start a war.

Germany was split into a Western oriented part, namely the FRG, and an Eastern part, that rather sympathised with the USSR, the GDR. This clearly defined split between East and West in the very (geographical) middle of Europe became a guarantee for peace and a balance of power between both sides The breach of the Berlin Wall, which in the heads of people already meant a unifi­cation between both states in a way, was then “likely to upset the balance of power and threaten the stability that the division of Germany had helped to establish.”12

Germany has been “[b]ombarded by expressions of mistrust by its friends and neighbours”13 and “uneasiness about Germany’s new role in Europe probably exten­ded to every European capital.”14 But London obviously became the centre of it:

Ströhmann and Lippert express the British fear about the newly revived ‘German question’ in the following way:

Britain [...] regarded the German question primarily as a question of European security. The initial British response to unification focused on two main preoccupations: first, how could the existing European security structures be adapted to the changes that German unification would bring about, and what impact would unification have on Germany’s role in NATO and the politico-military status of the USSR; and second, would Germany become more powerful and pose a threat to its neighbours?15

It has been subject to debates quite often, whether the first or the latter was felt to be more important for the British people and its government, but the newspaper articles showed a clear dominance of the fear of a new German superpower.

3.1 Margaret Thatcher’s response to German unification

The most famous person in the United Kingdom to voice her personal concern about German reunification in public was Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Though she told German Chancellor Helmut Kohl in a phone call on 10 November that “the scenes she had witnessed on television were the most historic she had ever seen”16, she was not pleased by the changed circumstances at all.

Thatcher sounded her first detailed response to the breach of the Berlin Wall Mrs in public four days after the events of 9 November at the traditional banquette of Lord Major in London: “Sie forderte, mit Vorsicht auf die Ereignisse zu reagieren. Ziel müsse es sein, in der DDR eine echte Demokratie mit freien Wahlen zu entwickeln. Dies allein wäre schon eine gewaltige Leistung.”17 The question about a possible unification of both German states she left unanswered.

Later she declared, “that talk of a reunited Germany was 'going much too fast. You have to take these things step by step'”18 and that in her eyes a “reunited [German] country would represent an unacceptable concentration of economic power, and therefore of all other kinds of power.”19 As if that was not harsh enough she even added that “nothing good could ever come from the Germans.”20 Furthermore, she strongly expressed that “until the GDR and its neighbouring countries became democratic, she would rather that Germany remained divided.”21


1 vgl. O-Ton Berlin. Kalter Krieg im Äther. CD-Edition zur gleichnamigen Ausstellung im Zentrum für Berlin-Studien.

2 Chronik-der-Mauer.de. Unknown Releasedate. Todesopfer an der Berliner Mauer. 2 March 2009.

3 13. August 1961. 13 August 2007. DDR-Grenzer sollten Frauen und Kinder töten. 2 March 2009.

4 Grosser, Dieter [Ed.]: German Unification. The Unexpected Challenge, p. 14.

5 ibid.

6 ibid.

7 ibid.

8 Anonymous: Parties join Thatcher in welcoming change. In: The Guardian, 11 Nov. 1989.

9 Gott, R.: STATE OF ANXIETY. Wednesday marks the end of the post-war era, a new Germany gains its sovereignty and the four powers relinquish control. In: The Guardian, 28 Sept. 1990.

10 Lippert, Barbara et al.: German Unification and EC Integration, p. 1.

11 Kaeselitz, Hella: Die Ängste der Margaret Thatcher. Einige Aspekte der britischen Haltung zur deut-schen Vereinigung, p.64.

12 Gerbet, Pierre: German reunification: an international and European issue. (Translated by the CVCE). On: European Navigator. 2 March 2009.

13 Grosser, Dieter [Ed.]: German Unification. The Unexpected Challenge, p. 140.

14 Grosser, Dieter [Ed.]: German Unification. The Unexpected Challenge, p. 137.

15 Lippert, Barbara et al.: German Unification and EC Integration, p. 14.

16 Anonymous: Thatcher and Kohl discuss East German turmoil, urge calm. In: Reuters News, 11. Nov. 1989.

17 Ines Lehmann: Die deutsche Vereinigung von außen gesehen. Bd. 1: Die Presse der Vereinigten Staaten, Großbritanniens und Frankreichs, S. 275.

18 Anonymous: Parties join Thatcher in welcoming change. In: The Guardian, 11 Nov. 1989.

19 Brock, George: Thatcher’s personal struggle to accept reunification of Germany. In: The Times, 16 July 1990.

20 ibid.

21 Gerbet, Pierre: German reunification: an international and European issue. (Translated by the CVCE). On: European Navigator. 2 March 2009.

Excerpt out of 22 pages


“Germany 1990 is not Germany 1939” – The British response to German unification
Dresden Technical University  (Anglistik/Amerikanistik)
Seminar "Britain in Europe - Europe in Britain"
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
542 KB
unification, Berlin wall, reunification, Chequers meeting, Nicholas Ridley
Quote paper
Markus Mehlig (Author), 2009, “Germany 1990 is not Germany 1939” – The British response to German unification, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/126192


  • No comments yet.
Read the ebook
Title: “Germany 1990 is not Germany 1939” – The British response to German unification

Upload papers

Your term paper / thesis:

- Publication as eBook and book
- High royalties for the sales
- Completely free - with ISBN
- It only takes five minutes
- Every paper finds readers

Publish now - it's free