Did Kohl Give Up the Deutsche Mark for East Germany?

Der Spiegel has a long, in-depth article covering Franco-German machinations on the eve of German Reunification. Specifically, it deals with an alleged “deal” between François Mitterrand and Helmut Kohl tying German unity to the abandonment of the Deustche Mark.  Everyone with an interest in this period should read the article as it sums up perfectly both the narrative of events and the enjeux de mémoire (“stakes of memory”) of this little-known aspect of 1989. Indeed, the article promises evidence from “[p]reviously classified documents from the archives of the German Foreign Ministry” showing that “Mitterrand bluntly warned the German government that it could itself isolated in Europe ‘as in 1913’”.

Many French officials and historians will tell you that Mitterrand wanted to force the German and European unifications to run parallel, or better still, that the latter precede the former. As Hubert Védrine, French foreign policy adviser at the time, puts it: “Mitterrand did not want reunification without advances toward greater European integration,” and that “the currency was the only topic that was open to debate.” This is controversial in Germany. In particular, current the current Finance Minister, then chief negotiator for reunification, Wolfgang Schäuble has rejected the claims of other politicians that “[a]bandoning the Deutsche Mark for the (equally) stable euro was one of the concessions that helped pave the way to German reunification.” Schäuble maintains that “No such trade-off ever occurred.”

The issue is of great importance to historical memory in Germany. Der Spiegel rightly identifies the stakes in how we remember these events: “if the French are right, it would do more than cast a shadow over Germany’s day of national celebration.” Worse still, the already unpopular euro, that Gerhard Schröder called a “sickly premature baby” and hashas forced Germany to “bailout Greece,” will also have apparently been imposed under duress.

So what evidence does Der Spiegel bring? It makes the following points (skip if you have read the article):

  • Prior to Reunification, progress towards Economic and Monetary Union had been mostly empty talk since the days of Charles de Gaulle and Konrad Adenauer.
  • In the existing system, where the Bank of France had to shadow rates set in Frankfurt, Mitterrand felt “at the mercy of the humiliating dictates of Germany’s central bank”.
  • In the 1980s, Mitterrand said something akin to “The Deutsche Mark is their atomic bomb.”
  • Mitterrand and Kohl argued throughout 1989 over the pace of monetary integration, in particular on the date of a major intergovernmental conference (IGC) to address this subject.
  • Kohl was reticent, he told George H. W. Bush that “The Deutsche Mark is our national pride,” and said to Mitterrand that “Public opinion is not yet ready to give up the Deutsche Mark.”
  • After the fall of the Berlin Wall, Kohl’s unilateral proposal of a 10-Point Plan for Reunification led to Mitterrand having “a small temper tantrum lasting several hours.”
  • Mitterrand, and his advisers, genuinely feared a new German giant in the centre of Europe, perhaps taking Austria too. Margaret Thatcher did as well.
  • Der Spiegel’s new evidence is  the minutes to an emergency meeting with Hans-Dietrich Genscher, Germany’s then foreign minister, where Mitterrand said that “Germany can only hope for reunification if it is part of a strong community,” made dark references to “1913” and other similar statements for 45 minutes.
  • Genscher considered this his “most important” conversation with Mitterrand. He agreed to hold the IGC on monetary union at an earlier date.
  • At the December 8, 1989 Strasbourg Conference of European heads of state/government, an icy cold bloc formed against the Germans and forced an earlier date for the IGC on monetary union.
  • In early January 1990 at Mitterrand’s country retreat of Latché, he and Kohl walked along the Atlantic at coast for several hours. From then Mitterrand stopped his opposition to Reunification.
  • In February 1992, the Maastricht Treaty that would introduce the euro was signed. A moment of great pride for Genscher, as his memoirs state: “For me this act symbolized the fulfillment of the promises I had made during the reunification process that a united Germany would continue to pursue the politics of European integration in a determined and no less dedicated manner.”

I actually worked on the issue of France and German Reunification during my studies. Der Spiegel does not actually bring to light anything really new. Two historians, the German Tilo Schabert (also in French) and the Frenchman Frédéric Bozo (also in English) have already written long, well-documented books on the subject with copious use of the archives (including the Mitterrand-Genscher meeting). With mind-splitting cognitive dissonance, both authors claim to be “defending” Mitterrand from perceptions of Machiavellianism or having forced anything on Germany. The actual content of their books, however, very clearly show in great detail a hard-headed “realist” attitude on the French side and a will to slow down German reunification while accelerating European integration as much as possible.

In that sense, nothing is new in the article and it seems the talk of “secret documents” taken from dusty archives is meant to give the illusion of new ground to a piece carefully timed for Reunification’s twentieth anniversary. It is nonetheless a very good summary and really beats going through 800 plodding pages of Schabert-and-Bozo. (Presseurope’s version of the piece, in contrast, evidences extremely bad, misleading journalism in the title and photo subtext.)

Der Spiegel is admirably guarded in its conclusions. It is very careful to stress the ambiguity of the situation. It is actually very hard to say, concretely, whether Kohl and Mitterrand “made a deal” on Reunification and the Deutsche Mark, and what that would even mean. In 1988, when East Germany seemed as stable as ever, all Europeans agreed in principle to Economic and Monetary Union (EMU) as described in the Delors Plan. Maastricht would only be signed in 1992 while euro coins and bills would only appear in 2002. At any time during that decade, the Germans could have scuttled or “eternally temporized” the project, as is so often done in European politics.

All we can say for sure, is that Mitterrand was extremely fearful of German Reunification that he was apparently willing to pull all the stops to get European integration first. (Thatcher had the same fears but could not channel them in any useful way.) However, all that Mitterrand and the other Europeans got out of Germany in winter 1989, with all the pressure and veiled threats, was a promise to a hold a year early an already-agreed conference. This isn’t exactly a spectacular concession, especially if one considers that French (or Soviet or other) ability to slow down Reunification collapsed completely in 1990 with the decomposition of East Germany. German negotiators on EMU throughout the 1990s to 2002, then, were essentially free of duress.

I think it is also worth noting that Mitterrand’s veiled threats and “game of chicken” in 1989 were nothing new. In a 1983 monetary dispute with the Germans he threatened to scuttle the existing European monetary system (again with a deadline) and also used similar strategems in very different foreign crises (notably in the wars in Chad and the Gulf). This would make the the winter 1989 Franco-German “crisis” evidence of a common Mitterrandian negotiating tactic rather than a genuine risk of a breakdown in relations.

“Did Kohl trade the Deutsche Mark for East Germany?” Better would be “How did German Reunification (including the French pressure that ensued) influence a decade-long process of monetary unification?” Here the issue becomes extremely complicated and no “stunning revelation” in the archives could clarify it. We’re left with uncertainty. Senior officials like Védrine, Pöhl and Bern Pfaffenbach believe the euro could not have been created without Reunification. Pöhl said that as Bundesbank President he “was convinced we’d have to wait at least 100 years for that [EMU].” We will not have simple answers. Rather, as with all great and complex events, Mitterrand’s diplomacy and European unification in general will allow a thousand academics to make their careers by writing tomes shedding light and polemicking on this or that aspect…

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