The Alf Garnett version of history

We are still being fed a distorted picture of Germany and Lady Thatcher is to blame, says Tony Barber
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The Independent Online
Politicians and diplomats always knew it. But only now is the British public learning just how much damage Baroness Thatcher inflicted on Britain's relations with Germany during her final years in office.

The legacy is plain for all to see. Last summer, during the Euro 96 football championship, it took the form of a childish, but vicious tabloid campaign comparing England's game against Germany with Britain's war effort against the Nazis more than 50 years ago.

In today's Tory party, it takes the form of ignorant right-wingers yelling that Germany's support for European economic and monetary union is actually a device to impose German domination on Europe. Far more than in the pre- Thatcher years, a significant body of opinion-formers, in politics and the "respectable" press, shows no shame about associating Germany with extremism, expansionism, bullying and, worst of all, a Fourth Reich.

Meanwhile, the real Germany continues down the non-extremist, non-expansionist path that it has trodden since the formation of the Federal Republic in 1949. As any Briton who lives or has lived in the real Germany will tell you, it is a Germany that bears less and less resemblance to the wild fantasies of certain politicians and commentators in Britain.

Margaret Thatcher bears a heavy responsibility for the distorted impressions of Germany that are fed to the British people. Two new books paint a devastating picture of a prime minister whose views on Germany were little short of neanderthal.

One, called Diplomacy and Disillusion at the Court of Margaret Thatcher, is by the scholar George Urban, whom she consulted on foreign policy matters throughout the Eighties. At a meeting in London in December 1989, as West and East Germany were moving swiftly towards unification, she voiced her profound opposition to the whole process.

"You know, George," the author quotes her as saying, "there are things that people of your generation and mine ought never to forget. We've been through the war and we know perfectly well what the Germans are like, and what dictators can do, and how national character doesn't basically change."

As Urban notes, "I was amazed to hear her uttering views about people and countries, especially Germany, which were not all that different from the Alf Garnett version of history."

Urban was one of six British and American experts whom Mrs Thatcher summoned to Chequers in March 1990 to discuss Germany and the implications of unification. The six were unanimous in the view that Germany had proved a model liberal democracy since the war and there was little prospect of renewed dictatorship.

If only the British public had had the opportunity to hear this eminently sensible assessment of modern Germany. Instead, a memorandum summing up the Chequers talks was drawn up by Mrs Thatcher's foreign policy adviser, Charles Powell, who put a disgraceful anti-German slant on the experts' views.

Thus when the memorandum was leaked and published in the Independent on Sunday, it appeared that the experts believed that Germany threw its weight around in Europe and that German national characteristics included "angst, aggressiveness, assertiveness, bullying, egotism, inferiority complex, sentimentality". British public opinion was misled about Germany because a senior Downing Street adviser had prepared a memorandum to suit Mrs Thatcher's anti-German views.

The second book, I Wanted German Unity by Helmut Kohl, reveals that the Chancellor "had terrible rows" with Mrs Thatcher "on more than one occasion". She even branded him a coward at a Nato meeting when he expressed opposition to the deployment of short-range nuclear weapons on German soil.

Mr Kohl replied: "When I look around, I am the only one here who is the father of two reserve officers. I don't need a lecture from anyone."

The inevitable consequence of Mrs Thatcher's hostility to Germany was that Britain's opinion counted for less and less in Bonn. However, it is interesting that even though President Francois Mitterrand of France was at first just as sceptical as Mrs Thatcher about German unification, Mr Kohl refuses to criticise him in his book.

Instead, he conveniently blames the French press for trying to whip up anti-unification feeling. Mr Kohl forgave Mitterrand, but not Mrs Thatcher, because in contrast to the French leader she was unrepentantly anti-German and anti-European.

After Mrs Thatcher was swept from office, John Major and Chris Patten, then Tory party chairman, made a genuine effort to reconstruct British- German relations on an amicable basis. Major went to Bonn and declared that Britain should be "at the heart of Europe", and Patten sought to cast the Tories in a Christian Democratic image like that of Mr Kohl's own party.

It was an effort to which Germany gave a warm response, even if there were doubts in Bonn about how far the Tories were capable of going in a pro-European direction. In retrospect, that brief period of positive diplomacy looks like a golden age in comparison with the snarling and whingeing that pass these days for the British Government's policy towards Germany.

To appreciate what really concerns Mr Kohl and his fellow Germans, one only has to read his speech last week on the sixth anniversary of unification. "As a leading export nation, we Germans must do everything to make our country fit for the challenges of the future. That is the only way to create the basis for new and secure jobs ... The most important thing is our firm will to fashion the future together - a future in peace and freedom for Germany and Europe."

One can almost hear the Mandy Rice-Davies-like response of the loony Tory right: "Well, he would say that, wouldn't he?" The real questions for Britain, though, are different.

How much damage is anti-German propaganda causing to our relations with Germany and our position in Europe? How bad must British-German relations become before we realise the calamity we have inflicted on ourselves? Above all, how long before sensible people in Britain rally together to extract the anti-German poison sown in the public's ear by Mrs Thatcher and her acolytes?