The Times’s Michael Binyon recounts Sir Christopher Mallaby’s experiences as Britain’s Ambassador in Bonn and the twists and turns of getting Mrs Thatcher to agree to German unification
what do you do as an ambassador if you are convinced that the policy your government is following towards the country where you are posted is wrong? Should you resign? Should you refuse to carry out your government’s instructions? Or should you attempt to change the policy at home and argue for a different approach?
None of these options are straight-forward. And the more vital the issue, the more it matters. Sir Christopher Mallaby wrestled with the dilemma for more than a year. He was Britain’s Ambassador to West Germany at the crucial time, in 1989, when the Berlin Wall came down and when the prospect of reunification between East and West Germany suddenly appeared possible.
For years, the West had argued that Germany, split into zones of occupation by the UK, France, the US and the Soviet Union at the end of World War II, should eventually be allowed to reunify as one nation. In 1949, the three Western allies had already allowed their zones to come together to constitute the Federal Republic of Germany, with a ‘temporary’ capital in Bonn. The Soviet zone, however, was set up as a separate communist state, known as the German Democratic Republic, with its capital in East Berlin.
Throughout the Cold War, Berlin was the flashpoint, the barometer of relations between East and West. Mallaby saw this at first hand from both sides of the divide. As a young diplomat, he was assigned to the British Embassy in Moscow. He had learnt Russian soon after joining the Foreign Office in 1959 and spent 10 weeks living with a Georgian aristocratic lady in Paris, meeting many of the children of the exiled Russian nobility who had fled from the Revolution. He arrived in Moscow in 1961, and barely 20 months later, at the age of 24, found himself in the thick of the most dangerous nuclear confrontation the world had ever known – the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. Would American bombs suddenly rain down on Moscow, possibly killing him and his young French bride along with thousands of others?
The crisis was averted, the Mallabys survived and life in Moscow, under the erratic and unpredictable Khrushchev, continued. Mallaby travelled all over the Soviet Union, using his post as deputy cultural attaché to make friends with Soviet artists, dancers and intellectuals and see something of the human face of Russia.
A few years later, he experienced the Cold War from the other side – from West Berlin, the isolated and vulnerable Western enclave deep in communist East Germany. The political situation was frozen as though it were still 1945: all flights to Berlin had to go through designated air corridors, all Western dealings with the authorities in the eastern zone had to be with the Russians and not with the unrecognised East German government, and all power in West Berlin resided formally – though not in day-to-day practice – with the three allied commanding officers. British diplomats could see for themselves the costs of division: the harshness of family separation, the occasional escape attempts and shootings at the wall. But any attempt to ease things for ordinary Germans risked upsetting the fragile stability and hard-won concessions by the Russians.
No one then foresaw the momentous events some 20 years later, when the tottering East German regime, virtually abandoned by an impatient Gorbachev, lost control of the situation and allowed the bewildered border guards to open the barriers to the West on that fateful evening of 9 November 1989.
Mallaby was by then Britain’s Ambassador in Bonn. He had watched the growing turmoil in the whole of the Eastern bloc. He had seen the cracks in the communist system grow suddenly wider. He had also seen the tide of East Europeans, free of fear and constraints, swarm across the borders into the West. And nowhere was that tide more powerful or politically destabilising that in East Germany. Suddenly a dream was being revived, long buried by the realpolitik of the postwar settlement: could the two Germanies one day be reunited?
Mallaby at first thought the idea still a pipedream. The closest the two countries would come, he thought, might be some kind of confederation. But things were moving fast, as he warned London. He saw big problems in reconciling Chancellor Kohl’s decision to keep Germany within Nato and the likely Soviet reluctance to allow East Germany to leave the Warsaw Pact and join the Western Alliance. But he recognised, early on, that Kohl was determined to push things forward. By December 1989, Mallaby was telling the Foreign Office that authority was breaking down in East Germany, and up to 80 per cent of the population wanted unification.
Thatcher, however, was not to be moved. She distrusted Germany instinctively because of two world wars. She did not like the idea of reunification and she did not get on well personally with Helmut Kohl. What should Mallaby do?
He goes over the options in his lively memoir, Living the Cold War, in which he looks at his life in the thick of the 70-year confrontation between communism and the West. In Germany, however, the confrontation now threatened to be between himself and Thatcher. “I wanted the UK to take a public position that would increase our clout in the international discussions about the current changes,” he said. “I was by now convinced that unification would become certain before long. To oppose it would be futile. I hoped that my acute differences with the Prime Minister would then dissolve.”
He was helped both in London and in Bonn. In London, Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary, realised that the idea was catching on and that Britain should prepare for some kind of transition period – for about five years. In Germany, he had cultivated good relations with Kohl, who was anxious not to alienate Nato allies. But even after the so-called ‘2+4’ negotiating procedure (the two German foreign ministers plus the ministers from the four allied powers) had been set up, Thatcher continued speaking out against unification. She continued her resistance in February 1990 when unification had become certain, and after Gorbachev had also accepted it. As a result, Britain tried to be helpful in the talks but Thatcher publicly opposed their aim. “We helped but we looked unhelpful. Not good diplomacy!” Mallaby commented crisply in his memoir.
Thatcher had made it clear that she had been annoyed by Mallaby’s advocacy of unification. He had to tread carefully. Too big a push, and he would be recalled from Bonn. The key was to get Hurd to argue the case for him. Luckily, he did so.
In the end, however, it was Russia that decided the case. Gorbachev, to Thatcher’s intense irritation, withdrew Moscow’s objections and supported unification. Mallaby never quite fathomed why, but suggests that he was improvising policy on Germany, partly because of the failure of Soviet ideology and partly because the Soviet Union desperately needed German goods and money.
Looking back, Mallaby said the West had managed the great changes well. But he added: “I regret that the UK, in a plainly wrong-headed public stance, had been negative about unification.” The challenge, he admitted, had been the most important period of his career, and he relished it. But it was a high-risk strategy. Most ambassadors find it hard to go against the policies of their governments and remain in post, as Britain’s recent top diplomat in Brussels found. Clearly, Mallaby’s time in Moscow and in Whitehall – where he had worked closely with Thatcher during the Falklands war – allowed him to move adroitly. London did not, in the end, derail unification. Germany was relieved – and so was Mallaby.