Leading Article: Unlikely allies in fear of a mighty Germany

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'I understand the Germans. They'll always jump from one leg to the other, weak one minute, strong the next . . . Unity has always been a disaster . . . German unity, from Bismarck to Hitler, was the basis for Auschwitz.' Who is speaking? Margaret Thatcher, perhaps, in the latest excerpt from the memoirs that show how deeply she distrusts the Germans and how strongly she opposed German unification in 1989-90. She is in hot water in Germany for descrbing the German character as 'swerving unpredictably between aggression and self-doubt'. A united Germany, she felt, would be a destabilising force in Europe.

In fact, the quotation above is from Gunter Grass, the left-wing German author of The Tin Drum and, more recently, The Call of the Toad, a fantasy in which an attempt at German-Polish reconciliation is swept aside by German economic imperialism. Grass fears that Germany could again be corrupted by power. He was not the only German to oppose unification. The Greens were openly hostile and the Social Democrats were split on the issue. Many on the left, including Oskar Lafontaine, then the party's candidate for the chancellorship, were so sceptical that the party received only 33.5 per cent in the election of December 1990. The party had developed intimate relations with the East German regime and clung to hopes that the Communist state could be made viable, so two German states could coexist.

Although Lady Thatcher's main reason for opposing German unity was that it would reduce British influence in Europe, she joined the German left in fearing that the disastrous history of German unity from 1871 to 1945 might repeat itself. What she failed to realise is that modern Germans distrust themselves even more. Of course, they are becoming a little more assertive, but so far their vulnerability, their insecurity and their capacity for self-criticism are more evident than imperial ambition.