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Celebrations in front of the Reichstag on October 3, 1990
Germany was reunited on October 3, 1990

Fall of the Wall

September 11, 2009

A few months before the 20th anniversary of the Berlin Wall's fall, the British Foreign Office has released thousands of declassified documents detailing the UK government's reactions to the reunification of Germany.


The briefs released on Friday include previously unpublished diplomatic correspondence, notes from meetings and personal diary entries.

The documents reportedly refute the commonly held view that the British government, at that time under Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, was not supportive of a swift German reunification once the Berlin Wall fell.

German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, who led West Germany and was elected chancellor of the reunited country, was known to have had a problematic relationship with Thatcher at that time.

Among the most revealing parts of the published documents are extensive minutes from Charles Powell, the prime minister's private secretary for foreign affairs. His meticulous minutes on Thatcher's various meetings with fellow politicians, both British and foreign, reveal the extent of her hostility towards a resurgence in Germany's power.

Swift progress

Former prime minister Margaret Thatcher stands while clapping
Thatcher was known as the "Iron Lady" by contemporariesImage: AP

On Nov. 12, 1989, the Berlin Wall was overcome as a barrier between East and West Berlin, and in the following months the divided Germany was peacefully reunified, bringing an end to the Cold War.

But the speed of the reunification caught some Western powers by surprise, not least the UK. Thatcher had often voiced her concern that a speedy reunification would not be ideal.

"I thought some time ago that the transition from two Germany's to one should be taken in slower time so that we could in fact get things sorted out rather more easily," she said following the fall of the Wall.

"Germany will be very dominant in the community, but that is up to the rest of us. There's France, there's ourselves, Spain, Italy. It's up to the rest of us not to allow (Germany) to be dominant."

British diplomats "active"

Despite the opposition from Thatcher, the documents are said to show that many British government officials were much more supportive of German reunification than previously thought.

"What they do is they correct the impression that was around at the time, and later, that Britain was negative towards this process," said Patrick Salmon, chief historian at the British Foreign Office.

Celebrations in front of the Brandenburg Gate in November 1989
In Germany there was widespread support for a united countryImage: picture alliance / dpa

"British diplomats were certainly very active. They played a full part in the 'Two-Plus-Four' negotiations from the spring of 1990 onwards," he said, referring to the talks held between the four Allied powers from World War II and the two Germanys. "They also show, of course, reservations on the part of the prime minister, but that's how it was at the time.

"There wasn't much, if any, hostility towards German unification in any part of the government. They were just trying to get on with the job. They sometimes found it slightly annoying when the prime minister said things that made that job more difficult."

The newly released documents also include correspondence from then British ambassadors to the two German states. They reportedly urged the UK government on several occasions to prepare for a swift reunification, and to use the opportunity to Britain's advantage.

The documents also reveal the concerns held by then French president Francois Mitterrand and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev toward a reunified Germany.

Author: Julian Bohne/dfm/svs
Editor: Andreas Illmer

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