Primary Source

Margaret Thatcher discusses the fall of the Berlin Wall

Annotation

Margaret Thatcher held an impromptu press conference outside of her official residence, No. 10 Downing Street, on the morning following the initial opening of the Berlin Wall. In her remarks, it is clear that she is hesitant to reply directly to the idea of a unified German state. Instead, she expressed a desire to move slowly and to facilitate the internal growth of democracy from within East German society. This hesitant approach by Thatcher would continue throughout the year until she finally agreed to allow German unification as a result of the Two Plus Four Talks in Ottawa during the summer of 1990.

The reporters also raised issues concerning how the revolutions in Eastern Europe would pressure the European Community to either expand or adapt to the new situation. Here, it seems that Thatcher is more open to pursuing new levels of cooperation between the EC and Eastern Europe, reminding the reporters that countries like Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Poland have always been a part of Europe.

Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, "Margaret Thatcher discusses the fall of the Berlin Wall," Making the History of 1989, Item #70

Text

Margaret Thatcher’s Remarks on the Berlin Wall (fall thereof)
10 November 1989

Question

Can I ask you what your reaction is to the events in Berlin?

Prime Minister

I think it is a great day for freedom. I watched the scenes on
television last night and again this morning because I felt one ought
not only hear about them but see them because you see the joy on
people's faces and you see what freedom means to them; it makes
you realise that you cannot stifle or suppress people's desire for
liberty and so I watched with the same joy as everyone else and I
hope that they will be a prelude to the Berlin Wall coming down.

Question

Did you ever imagine that that would happen? You have been to the
Berlin Wall yourself, you have seen it. Did you in your heart of
hearts think that it would open up this fast?

Prime Minister

I do not know that we realised the speed with which things would
go after Mr. Gorbachev opened up the whole question in the Soviet
Union of more liberty for the Soviet people and after we saw Poland,
which also began to run very fast and Hungary. We just have to
remember that in the interim it was in East Germany that we got the
first uprising after the last War; then in Poland; then in Hungary;
then in Czechoslovakia and, of course, we hope that this will spread
to other East European countries too.

Question

Are there dangers in a possible reunification of the Germanys?

Prime Minister

I think you are going much too fast, much too fast! You have to take
these things step-by-step and handle them very wisely.

They say now that they want a genuine democracy in East Germany.
It is one thing to say it, but you really have to apply yourself to
build it. You have to build up the parties, you have to build up an
election system and bring it into effect. That is the first stage—they
are also doing that in Poland and Germany [sic].

Poland and Hungary are poorer countries and, of course, as well as
the political reform they have to bring about the economic reform.
That does not just happen, you have to work for it, so let us go one
step at a time. The task now is to build a genuine democracy in East
Germany.

I shall hope to be talking to Chancellor Kohl this evening. He is
returning today and I hope to have a word with him on the
telephone—as we do from time to time—about these great matters
and then I shall also be going to see President Bush on November
14. It has been arranged for some time and, of course, will be
before he sees Mr. Gorbachev.

It is a great day for liberty!

Question

Do you agree with Chancellor Kohl that it would be better if people
stayed in East Germany?

Prime Minister

Well you cannot have everyone pouring out of East Germany, 17 or
18 million people, it is not possible.

Some people have come out but I think that now they realise that
there is going to be a democracy and they have to apply themselves
to bring that about so that it is quite clear that it is an irreversible
movement, it is a genuine democracy, they are going to have
genuine democracy there, that it is a very good stimulus to stay and
take part and help to build it.

Question

What pressure can Britain bring to bear to help East Germany
reform itself or, indeed, what aid can it give?

Prime Minister

I think the whole world has welcomed this as a great day for
freedom. I hope it will be the prelude to the Wall coming down.

We shall, of course, discuss aid in the European Community but I
think you would expect that the major portion of aid would come
from Germany which after all is a very prosperous country and has
an enormous balance of payments surplus with the rest of Europe.

Already East Germany does have some very special privileges with
the European Community because goods from East Germany come
into the Community without paying any levy and if the rest of us
import goods from other countries outside then we have to pay a
levy.

Question

Is a united Germany an idea you could live with within your lifetime?

Prime Minister

I think you are going much too fast.

The first thing is to get a proper, genuine democracy, a multi-party
democracy, in East Germany. That is what will keep people
rebuilding East Germany and staying there, and I hope that that
movement will spread to the rest of Eastern Europe.

Question

Are you worried in a sense that things are going just too fast?

Prime Minister

I think when things go very fast it does require great steadiness to
deal with them. That is why when some of the questions come they
are sort of instant questions and one must not give instant answers.
The joy has happened and it is great joy. We do not realise what it is
like to come to freedom not having had it, but we must be
immensely grateful to those people behind the Iron Curtain who
never lost their faith in liberty. But now it is the hard work, the
practical work of building the democracy and then we have to see
what happens.

It does remind me very much of what I did say at the beginning of
the Bruges speech—that Europe is not just the Community, that
Warsaw, Prague and Budapest were just as much European cities
and therefore the Community must not be inward-looking, must
not be an enclave, but must be outward-looking, and I think that
we shall all have to discuss this very carefully indeed and we shall
have to adhere very firmly to NATO because it is that which has
safeguarded our liberty until this happened. This could never have
happened if we had not way back before many of you were born, in
1948, stood firm and had a Berlin Air Lift, stood firm and created
NATO, and we must adhere to those things which have kept
liberty.

Question

Does the pace of change in Eastern Europe make you think at all
about the pace of integration in Western Europe?

Prime Minister

Western Europe is a community. I think that this coming to liberty
really puts some of the problems of the European Community in
perspective, very much in perspective, when we see these much
larger movements which will affect the lives of people even more
than some of the internal problems we have in the Community.

Question

What about specific help from the British Government for this huge
task of resettlement?

Prime Minister

There is no possibility of all the people from East Germany coming
to West Germany. As you saw on the television, most of them do
not want it, they want to be in their homes; they have a very much
greater incentive to stay in their homes when they are going to real
democracy.

The Federal Government of Western Germany did approach us
because on our military bases in Western Germany, our NATO
bases, there is some land which could be used for housing some of
the people and, of course, we have offered it—of course you would
expect us to do that.

Question

It all puts a tremendous responsibility, does it not, on Mr.
Gorbachev? There are those who worry that the reactionary forces
still will take fright at the terrific speed that all this is going at.

Prime Minister

I hope not. Look! The fact is none of this would have happened
without the vision and the courage of Mr. Gorbachev, who started to
enlarge liberty in the Soviet Union, who saw what was happening in
Poland and then said: "Look! So long as you stay in the Warsaw Pact
group of countries, yes, rebuild your own democracy!"—and in
Hungary. That is really a visionary man who has known what it was
like to live under the old system and wishes better things for his
people.

But you know, we have always known that when you get a reform
movement started it tends to go faster than you ever thought. That
is natural. You saw it in coming from Colonial territories to
independence; it does tend to go faster but that is a case for
keeping a very cool head and being very steady and being very
practical about it and saying: "Now get down to building the
democracy! If we can help, if you want any advice, we will give it
gladly!" but be very practical and very steady.

Question

Do we still need to modernise battlefield nuclear weapons in this
context?

Prime Minister

We shall have to discuss in NATO but do not forget none of this
would have happened unless we had been determined to defend
our liberty in the post-war period when we did not think it was
going to be necessary to form military alliances. Then, as you know,
Berlin was cut off, the corridors to Berlin were cut off and we had an
air lift. We formed NATO.

It is NATO's determination to defend liberty—and we never
flinched—which has been one of the factors which have helped to
bring about change in the Soviet Union. We knew our system was
much better; we were not going to risk it. It is still the best system
and do not think that people just by wanting to have a democracy
can have it—that does not build it—you have got steadily to build it.

Question

But the Germans are going to be even more hostile now, are they
not, to rearmament?

Prime Minister

NATO is still vital.

May I say this to you: had America stayed in Europe after the First
World War and we had had a NATO then, I do not believe we should
have had a Second World War. Let us learn that lesson!

Thank you very much!

Sorry it is raining!

Credits

Margaret Thatcher. "Remarks on the Berlin Wall (fall thereof)," speech, No. 10 Downing St., London, England, November 10, 1989, Margaret Thatcher Foundation, Archive, Thatcher Foundation (accessed May 15, 2008).

How to Cite This Source
Margaret Thatcher discusses the fall of the Berlin Wall in World History Commons,