Mrs. Thatcher’s triumphant Czechoslovak procession, the Union Jack car, and what to do with Denis

Margaret Thatcher, photo: CC BY-SA 3.0

One of the annual milestone events in history is the annual New Year release of British government archives. Most of them become public after a period of 30 years. In the latest haul of documents being made public under a different timetable are papers from the Prime Minister’s Office and the Cabinet Office from 1989 and 1990. They give a picture of how Margaret Thatcher’s government and officials were struggling to get to grips with the rapid melt down of Communist regimes in Eastern Europe and the prospects of a united Germany.

Margaret Thatcher, photo: Margaret Thatcher Foundation, CC BY-SA 3.0
The latest archives add to the picture about how Western governments struggled to keep pace with the fast changing evolution of events in Central and Eastern Europe, with Poland, East Germany, and Hungary leading the way, and Czechoslovakia somewhat slow to follow. Some of the picture has already come from other sources released earlier, such as the annual reports on the situation in Czechoslovakia made by the British Embassy in Prague.

Richard Dunley is an historian at the National Archives in Kew, London, and explained to Czech Radio’s Jiří Hošek:

“I think it’s quite clear from the files that there’s a perception that change is coming and throughout this period there is an acknowledgement that something is happening here. I think what constantly comes out is how surprised British officials are at the pace of change – and the snowball effect, particularly in 1989, really does take people by surprise. And you see the reports going round the embassies in Eastern Europe and coming back to the Foreign Office and the Prime Minister’s Office and I think everyone is surprised at how quickly these events are taking place.”

The latest papers are a bit higher up the chain of command than the Prague Embassy, many for the Prime Minister’s eyes and often being drafted or annotated by her chief foreign policy advisor Charles Powell. Not surprising given West Germany’s leading position in Europe and the fact that Britain and the other former World War II allies still had a stake in the defence of West Germany and West Berlin, East Germany commanded a lot of attention back in 1989 and into 1990 as the possibilities and format for unification were forged. Richard Dunley again:

Everyone is surprised at how quickly these events are taking place.

“The material released today is heavily focused on East Germany with some material on the rest of Central and Eastern Europe. So from that picture you get quite a strong focus on the East German aspect. So it’s difficult to gauge without seeing other bits of information that would fit into the jigsaw, but obviously the events in Hungary at this time are very significant and the two things are feeding off each other.”

Having fought two world wars against Germany, there were clearly some misgivings about Germany being united again. Those most famously came forth when Prime Minister Thatcher held an informal meeting with several top historians about the topic at her country retreat at Chequers. The leaked reports that came out afterwards gave an impression that many feared that many feared that Germans almost had a genetic propensity to aggression and domination. Richard Dunley suggests the archives give the impression that the misgivings became diluted over time:

“It’s quite interesting, you do get an insight about what is happening with regard to the unification of Germany. And it does seem that there is a certain uneasiness at some points, especially early on, about the concept of reunification. But I think that very quickly fades as the realisation of what is actually happening, the pragmatic concepts of what is actually happening on the ground become clear. And I think it very rapidly turns around that the British are actually very supportive of reunification from what we can see in the material here.”

Helmut Kohl, Bundesarchiv, B 145 Bild-F074398-0021 / Engelbert Reineke / CC-BY-SA 3.0
It’s fairly well known that there was little personal chemistry between Margaret Thatcher and German Chancellor Helmut Kohl. She found him ponderous and heavy work. But the archives do reveal a personal letter later from Kohl thanking “Dear Margaret” for her help in paving the way for unification.

While Germany occupied the foreground, the other Central European countries were also priorities because they were now viewed as “virgin” where the ebbing Soviet influence could be replaced by that of the West. And the archives show that the British Embassy in Prague showed some barely hidden delight in reporting at the end of 1989 that the ‘heavy’ French diplomatic initiative following the earlier visit of President Francois Mitterand had brought no evident result. The British had a similar agenda in what their Prague ambassador a year later described as “a battle for influence” which he reckoned had been “most staunchly fought.” Richard Dunley again:

“It is very clear that the British government saw huge opportunities in Eastern Europe, in terms of cultural exchange, in terms of economic exchange, in terms of trade. And they are very keen on trying to promote that as soon as possible, even in terms of supportive economic policies whether it be in Germany, slightly less so, but in Poland, and elsewhere in Eastern Europe. They are very keen to promote these sorts of things and try to take advantage of the new situation.”

It is very clear that the British government saw huge opportunities in Eastern Europe.

Fourteen British ministerial visits to Czechoslovakia took place in 1990 but London was also ready to roll out its heavy diplomatic artillery as well in 1990. President Václav Havel visited London in March and in September that year Margaret Thatcher made her first visit to the then Czechoslovakia.

“She visited Czechoslovakia relatively early on in this period and you get a strong sense of the drive to promote trade and economic links and even cultural links and talking about the film being made of Kafka’s Castle and the visit of Sir Alec Guinness and Jeremy Irons coming into Prague. So they are keen to really push this cultural connection.”

The background briefing from advisor Charles Powell ahead of the visit describes worries about the sharp rise in crime after the wide pardon given by the president, the tensions between Havel and finance minister Václav Klaus over the direction of economic policy, and the rising tensions between Czech and Slovak politicians about the degree of federalisation that should be pursued.

On a lighter note, Powell warned that president Václav Havel might overdo on the hospitality and some of his ideas for the visit. He pointed out that London had been forced to politely refuse the offer that Mrs. Thatcher’s visits in Czechoslovakia take place in a red white and blue BMW.

Václav Havel, photo: archive of Czech Radio
Another problem for the preparations was what to do with Mrs Thatcher’s husband, Denis. He was pencilled in for a trip to Brno for the international trade fair. There were worries though how he might cope with the two hour uncomfortable drive between Prague and Brno. If he went to Bratislava, he should sit through his wife’s speech to the National Assembly but could later relax on a boat trip on the river, it was pointed out. An offer was made to investigate other options to keep Denis occupied and involved.

While president Václav Havel was ideologically distant from Mrs Thatcher - she was a philosophical pin-up for Václav Klaus - he did admire her for her resolute standpoints and forthright approach to politics. Prague was giving solid support in the Gulf War, though as Havel pointed out, unlike Britain, Czechoslovakia could not offer a navy to help out in shipping the troops. And the admiration was mutual.

Thatcher’s programme included a meeting with the then Slovak prime minister Vladimír Meciar in Bratislava. And one of the leading proponents of the breakup of Czechoslovakia was, according to the records, was then willing to give assurances that Czechoslovakia would remain a federal state.

Prague ambassador Peter Laurence O’ Keeffe described the prime minister’s visit as a “triumphal progress.” But he also underlined the fact that commercial relations in the country were still slow to develop although 46 joint Czechoslovak-British ventures had been begun.

You get a strong sense of the drive to promote trade and economic links and even cultural links.

There was a clear enthusiasm to learn English and the popularity of the British Council was a subject for great satisfaction. The ambassador cautioned though that Czechoslovakia was not a third world country “where we can take the Anglophone inheritance for granted.”

And on a slightly more downbeat note, he noted that the British Council was still fighting for the return of its former facilities in the Kounický Palace. It was a battle the British were to lose.

Mrs. Thatcher herself had just two more months as head of government before a party rebellion forced her to resign. President Havel felt too embarrassed by his poor command of English to phone over his consolations and dismay over what had happened. The task was passed to advisor Karel Schwarzenberg along with the invitation to make a private visit to Prague Castle whenever she wanted and for as long as she wanted. And the Prague ambassador’s prediction for 1991 and beyond was that Czechoslovakia would survive the separatist Slovak strains. How wrong he was.