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Thirty years on from the fall of the Berlin Wall, Germany has emerged as a world power - but not in the way many predicted

People from East Germany and West Germany gather for the opening of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin on December 22, 1989.
The fall of the Berlin Wall 30 years ago was greeted with scenes of jubilation, but there were also concerns in Western capitals Credit: PATRICK HERTZOG/AFP

Not everyone shared in the euphoria on the November night thirty years ago when the Berlin Wall fell. One notable exception was Margaret Thatcher. 

The scenes of jubilation in Berlin were vindication for the Cold War strategy in which Lady Thatcher had stood shoulder to shoulder with Ronald Reagan’s US. But she also feared what a reunified Germany might mean for Europe and the world.

“We beat the Germans twice, and now they’re back,” she told a meeting of European leaders a month later, according to Helmut Kohl.

Mr Kohl, at the time chancellor of West Germany, had brought his plans for German reunification to discuss with his European counterparts. In his memoirs, he wrote of how he was stunned by the coldness of their response.

West Germany was a key ally in the Western alliance that had just triumphed over communism. Long considered the likeliest point for a Soviet invasion of Western Europe, it was home to thousands of British and American Nato troops.

But Mrs Thatcher was not alone in her rejection of a reunited Germany. Over lunch in the Elysee Palace, France’s President Francois Mitterand told her of his fears that reunification would give Germany more influence over Europe than Hitler ever had, according to declassified Foreign Office memos.

He told Mrs Thatcher he feared a return of the “bad Germans", according to notes made by her adviser Charles Powell.

Margaret Thatcher feared that a reunified Germany would become a military threat Credit: JOHNNY EGGITT/AFP/Getty Images

Thirty years later, those gloomy forecasts appear wide of the mark. Germany has become the dominant power in the European Union — but Angela Merkel’s influence does not come close to that of Hitler, who had power of life and death over a continent.

Instead Germany has emerged as a faltering world power, which often seems limited more by its own people’s doubts over their dark national past than by any external influence.

West Germany was already an economic power in 1989. The “economic miracle” of the postwar years had left it with the world’s fifth highest GDP, well ahead of Britain and France. 

But it was half of a divided country, the physical presence of the Berlin Wall a constant reminder of its defeat in the Second World War. It was a visibly chastened Germany.

The division of the country had helped promote the idea of “good” and “bad” Germans in the Western consciousness. Our Nato allies in the West were the “good Germans”, while he sentry towers and machine-gun posts of the Berlin Wall and the novels of John Le Carre and Len Deighton cemented the image of the East as the “bad Germans”.

But in the wake of reunification there was no more room for such simple black-and-white divisions. 

Helmut Kohl (left) was shocked at the cold reception European leaders gave his plans for reunification Credit: AP Photo

If Mrs Thatcher and others feared that a reunified Germany would return to its military ambitions, they would be relieved — and perhaps a little puzzled — to learn that today the US' constant complaint is that Germany does not spend enough on its military.

In 1989, West Germany had one of the largest armies in Europe, with more than half a million active troops and six tank divisions. Stripped of its military after the Second World War, the country had been allowed to rearm and join Nato because of its key geographical position on the Cold War front line.

With the Cold War won, it was perhaps natural that a reunified Germany chose to reduce its troop numbers. Conscription was scrapped in 2011 and today the Bundeswehr has only 182,000 active troops.

But spending has been cut drastically and equipment shortages have grown. A few years ago, German troops were forced to use broomsticks on a Nato exercise because they didn’t have enough guns, and Mercedes vans because they didn’t have enough armoured vehicles. 

A damning report last year claimed that only four of the German military’s 128 Eurofighter jets were airworthy, and the German parliament’s own military watchdog has warned that shortages are so severe the country cannot meet its Nato obligations.

Far from the spectre of the old Germany returning, German disarmament has become one of the main threats to Europe.

Angela Merkel has been keen to preserve Germany's economic power Credit: Carsten Koall/Getty Images Europe

Despite all this, since reunification Germany has begun to send troops abroad for the first time since the Second World War. The Bundeswehr was founded as a purely defensive force, but it has contributed troops to international missions in Afghanistan, Bosnia, Kosovo and planes to the skies over Syria. 

Ever wary of anything that could be construed as a return to its past military ambitions, Germany has refused to commit ground troops in Syria or Iraq, and has generally avoided combat missions.

Again, the irony is that today the US and other Western allies complain that Germany does not contribute enough to military missions abroad.

It is when it comes to projection of economic power that the question of Germany’s role in the world becomes more complicated. Already the biggest economy in the European Union, it has profited from the introduction of the single currency while the weaker economies of the south have struggled.

When Greece was forced to ask for help to cope with its debt crisis, Mrs Merkel forced it to submit to tough conditions. She was hanged in effigy in Athens, and depicted as a Nazi by Greek cartoonists. More ominously for Germany, Greece reopened the issue of Second World War reparations, swiftly followed by Poland.

Reluctant to throw its military weight around for historic reasons, Germany has shown no similar compunction when it comes to flexing its economic might. 

“The problems will not be overcome by strengthening the European Community,” Lady Thatcher wrote in an internal memo in 1990. “Germany's ambitions would then become the dominant and active factor.”

Far from returning to its military ambitions, Germany has allowed its armed forces to become underfunded Credit: Alexander Koerner/ Getty Images Europe

Here her predictions proved more accurate: Germany has emerged as the predominant power in the EU. But its ambitions have not been as threatening as she feared. They are largely limited to ensuring the continued success of its own economy — at times, at the cost of its neighbours.

If anything, Germany has been the country that has limited the EU’s ambitions. When Emmanuel Macron came up with sweeping proposals to reform the Eurozone with a federal budget and a finance minister, Mrs Merkel was quick to shut them down.

The French proposals would have diluted Germany’s economic power, but Mrs Merkel was motivated as much by fear of ordinary German voters's reaction. A nation of savers, Germans  have a deep-seated antipathy towards anything they see as being forced to pay off the debts of more profligate member states.

Mrs Merkel, once the undisputed “Queen of Europe”, has proved a divisive figure in her twilight years as German chancellor. But she was probably responsible for the most decisive change in Germany’s image on the world stage.

Her controversial “open door” refugee policy may have split German public opinion down the middle and angered many of her European allies, but in the world beyond it has had a profound effect on how Germany is seen.

In the war-ravaged cities of Syria and Afghanistan, and across much of Africa and the Middle East, Germany is no longer the land of Hitler and the Nazis. It is the country of “Mother Merkel”, that took the refugees in.