What's the German for saving face?

July 15, 2009
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The German word “angst” entered regular English usage only after the second world war. But it’s now a feeling all too familiar to foreign office mandarins fretting about the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall this November. Two decades ago, fearing European domination, Margaret Thatcher tried unsuccessfully to derail German reunification. Chancellor Kohl wrote in his memoirs of his annoyance at Thatcher’s foot stamping in meetings, and even overheard her say: “we beat them twice, and here they are again!”

Behind the scenes, FCO top brass weren’t as sceptical as the iron lady, seeing a unified Germany as all but inevitable. And today—in a desperate attempt to show off their spadework and put to rest lingering German annoyance—David Miliband’s finest have decided to rush out a series of internal archives a full decade before they are due under the 30-year rule. The documents, which will be released in October, include minutes of meetings, as well as of negotiations between Bush Snr, Gorbachev, Mitterrand and Kohl. They graphically illustrate Thatcher’s attitude—including some pointed annotations in the margins of briefings—as well as, by contrast, the more the more benign, pro-unification tactics of the FCO. Clearly, our government believes in freedom of information—so long as it’s all good news.

This article appears in the July edition of Prospect, now on sale