The Chequers Affair

In July this year, in the midst of far, far more important developments, such as NATO’s London Declaration, the 28th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, and the Stavropol accord giving Soviet approval to the full sovereignty of a united Germany, Anglo-German relations suffered a little shake. The first part of this little shake was an interview given to The Spectator by Britain’s then secretary for trade and industry, Nicholas Ridley, in which, after lunch, but just one glass of wine, Mr. Ridley talked about the proposed European Monetary Union as “a German racket designed to take over the whole of Europe,” and declared that if you were prepared to give up sovereignty to the Commission of the European Communities, “you might just as well give it to Adolf Hitler, frankly.” Saltily written up by the new editor of The Spectator, Dominic Lawson, son of former Chancellor of the Exchequer Nigel Lawson, and adorned with a characteristically vivid cartoon by Nicholas Garland showing a schoolboy-like Mr. Ridley daubing a poster of Chancellor Kohl with a Hitler moustache, this “outbreak of the Euro-hooligan Ridley,” as the normally restrained Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung described it, caused a political storm and the resignation of Mr. Ridley.

The second part of this little shake was the publication in The Independent on Sunday and Der Spiegel of a leaked, highly confidential memorandum of a meeting between Mrs. Thatcher and a small group of historians held at Chequers, the prime minister’s country residence, on March 24, to discuss Germany. The memorandum, which I had not seen until its publication, although I participated in the Chequers meeting, was written by Mrs. Thatcher’s influential private secretary for foreign affairs, Charles Powell. “Ver-bloody-batim” was how one British minister reportedly described this singular document. But ver-bloody-batim is precisely what it was not. Rather it was a report, with no views attributed specifically to anyone, but some by implication to all. And like all good Whitehall rapporteurs, Mr. Powell managed to flavor this rich cream soup with a little of his own particular spice.

One sentence was especially rich:

Some even less flattering attributes were also mentioned [at the meeting] as an abiding part of the German character: in alphabetical order, angst, aggressiveness, assertiveness, bullying, egotism, inferiority complex, sentimentality. [sic]

Well, perhaps in the course of a long discussion those attributes were mentioned by some participants, along with many more positive ones. But plainly they were never listed like that by anyone, nor, indeed, was there anything like a collective view of “the German character”—if such a thing exists. Still, as one might expect, this was the sentence that made the headlines, whether in London, Paris, or Frankfurt.

What really happened was this. Mrs. Thatcher invited six independent experts on Germany to give their views. Besides two leading American historians of Germany, Fritz Stern of Columbia University and Gordon Craig of Stanford, there were four British historians and commentators, Lord Dacre (Hugh Trevor-Roper …

This article is available to Online Edition and Print Premium subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.