Witness to a grave slice of history

The outgoing German ambassador describes the animosity between Blair and Schroder. Mary Riddell inte

Thomas Matussek, German ambassador to the Court of St James, is moving on, headed for unknown terrain. He had expected New Delhi and a ringside seat at the birth of the Indian superpower. But the new German chancellor, Angela Merkel, reshuffled her diplomatic pack, with the result that he is now bound for the United Nations in New York. Goodbye, Taj Mahal. Fraught deal-making beckons. Not that Matussek would be so impolite about his bureaucratic berth. The silkiest of career diplomats, he is disposed to be charmed wherever possible. He considers the Duke of Edinburgh to be "big fun", for example, while sounding much keener than most Brits on other scions of the House of Windsor.

In particular, he decries British carping about the complaining "black spider" memos dispensed by Prince Charles to government ministers. While Matus- sek has not himself been "spidered", he has every sympathy with the prince's demand to be heard. "I really feel for members of the royal family. Of course, I cannot comment on the constitu- tional side. But, from one human being to another, I am sometimes very sorry for him."

If anyone understands the nastier side of Britain, it is Matussek. His first posting here, in the late 1970s, provided a taster of Dambuster UK and its easy prejudices against most things German - with the possible exception of Black Forest gateau. He must have thought himself inured to headlines about Sour Krauts and beach towels when he returned in July 2002. But he was shocked.

"Things had got even worse since the Seventies. Before, you had all the stereotypes and cliches, but this country also knew the reality of Germany. You had the British army on the Rhine, and many, many tourists who visited in camper vans. Hardly any Brits spend holidays in Germany now." Matussek cites new signs of cross-cultural traffic, such as Ryanair and the forthcoming football World Cup, but given the sort of visitor likely to be disgorged on to German soil, he sounds a hopeful man.

Matussek's tenure required all the optimism he could mus- ter. He arrived in London "at the height of the Iraq crisis" and leaves on the third anniversary of the start of war that resulted in the "terrible mess" of today. In between, he was the key witness to an almost unchronicled slice of history, in which the warm friendship between Tony Blair and Gerhard Schroder, the former chancellor, corroded into mutual loathing.

Matussek has never spoken publicly about the months in which he watched the gravest meltdown of British/German relations since the Second World War. Though Blair and Schroder mostly met one-to-one, no ambassador waiting outside, listening to the raised voices, could have doubted their detestation. Indeed, usually Schroder would give Matussek a debrief of the fury that had passed between them. As Matussek puts it, tactfully: "Politicians are human beings, and Schroder is a very emotional human being. Both of them were, on occasion, very, very cross with one another." In Schroder's eyes, Blair had proved to be a grave disappointment by failing to honour his commitments to Europe, either on the war or on moving towards the euro and ratifying a European constitution. "That is certainly the way Schroder saw it."

Schroder, who had won his election campaign on an anti-war ticket, needed to build bridges with Bush, fast. What better middleman than Tony Blair, who promised the US president that he could persuade Germany to sign up to his war or, at the least, not to oppose it? "If he [Blair] believed that, he must have mis-read public opinion and the position of all the major parties in Germany," Matussek says. "I can tell you that if Schroder had brought that issue to the German parliament, he would have been voted down by 90 per cent [of its members]. It was totally unthinkable that the Germans would have joined the war. I suspect that must have been clear to Blair. I was never present in a meeting where Blair told Schroder, 'You must join the war,' but there were a number of meetings I did not know about. I honestly don't know if Blair said that." Whatever the method of persuasion, it is clear now that Blair had no hope of persuading Germany to sign up to a second resolution.

The poisoning of the camaraderie between the two leaders did not stop, Matussek says, at Iraq. "I still believe that the non-referendum on the euro and the stand taken on various European issues by this government are a secondary function of Iraq. Blair had a lot to do on other fronts, so it was obvious that Europe was not necessarily his main concern. The German political class had thought that here was a prime minister determined to bring Britain off the fence into the hub of Europe. We [learned] that Blair's ability to deliver was hampered by the aftermath of Iraq."

As Blair's political capital ran dry at home, the leaders of France and Germany were livid, Matussek says, about another broken promise, this time on the constitutional referendum. Jacques Chirac and Schroder were under the firm impression that Blair intended to put the constitution to parliament, not the country. "They both believed, rightly or wrongly, that Blair had assured them he would have no referendum."

All water under the bridge. The constitution is dead, and Schroder gone. No doubt, as Matussek concedes, Blair must sometimes have felt stitched up, too. Matussek's own links with Blairites have been warm, if you discount John Reid, who once heckled him throughout a speech stating Germany's position on the war. "Reid told me: 'Your arguments are on an intellectual level that even the lowest of my constituents would not buy.' But he called me the next day and invited me round for tea."

A non-political ambassador, Matussek discards any notion that Merkel is looking dangerously pliant on domestic policy. "Why is compromise dangerous?" he asks. "She would be the first to deny that she's a Margaret Thatcher." Matussek predicts a reformist future and an end to economic blight.

He is equally eager to detect green shoots in Britain. While the amount of German taught in British schools is disappointing - only 2.4 per cent of pupils do German A-level, and that small percentage is decreasing - he thinks a new strategy will improve matters. In history, the curriculum has finally been broadened beyond Nazi studies. "Teaching no longer stops at 1945. We owe that to Charles Clarke. If the impressions of young Brits and young Germans are just framed by the Nazi period, you have a situation from which can grow xenophobia, hatred and all the things that led up to the terrible past of the last century."

There have, he says, been a number of hate attacks by British youngsters on Germans. "That does happen, but I wouldn't overplay it. This [issue] is more fundamental than German schoolchildren being attacked. Though that is bad, and we have to do something about it."

Countering xenophobia is now for his successor. This summer, Matussek will begin his three years at the UN, before finally, he hopes, heading to New Delhi and the last posting of his career. In New York, he will lobby for Germany's permanent membership of the Security Council, although he - the ardent European - still hankers after the forlorn prospect of Britain and France relinquishing their seats and signing up to one joint vote.

On curbing Iran's nuclear ambitions, he will caution against sanctions. The Security Council should, in his view, merely note concerns. "A tendency in politics to rush to arms has given way to a new sobriety. You don't find many people, even in the present American administration, who say we have to bomb Iran."

If only, Matussek must think, that lesson had been learned three years ago. Instead he waited on two furious leaders whose altercations reflected the arguments that convulsed Britain in the weeks before the war. But that was then. Schroder is beaten, Blair on his way out, and Matussek packs his bags this week. The caravan moves on.

The chapter of history that Matussek witnessed is gone, but its consequences hang heavily on the world. Iraq stands on the brink of civil war. Europe is out of sorts. Some rows do not permit a happy ending.