The death of Helmut Kohl last week was understandably overshadowed by more dramatic events in Blighty, but I’ll be fair and declare that Kohl (for good or ill) was the most influential German since Franz Beckenbauer or the collective members of Kraftwerk, rather than that funny fellow with the toothbrush moustache – who was really an Austrian, anyway. Kohl passed away on Friday at the age of 87, having retired from public office in 1998; but he was German Chancellor at the most crucial stage of the country’s post-war existence, overseeing unification in 1990 and consequently becoming the first properly elected Chancellor of a united Germany since a certain Mr Hitler in 1933.
Born in Bavaria in 1930, the timing of his birth meant Kohl was legally required to join the Hitler Youth when turning fifteen, though he avoided being recruited into Adolf’s increasingly juvenile forces on account of the Second World War ending at the moment he was drafted. As with many factors in the life of Helmut Kohl – including growing up in West rather than East Germany – he found himself in the right place at the right time. Spared military service, he studied Law in Frankfurt and then history and political science in Heidelberg before entering the business world, though he’d been active in politics from university onwards, joining the newly-formed Christian Democratic Union Party. In divided post-war Germany, the legacy of the recent past necessitated a clean slate in politics as much as every other aspect of daily life, and Helmut Kohl was in attendance right at the very birth of modern German politics.
Kohl’s professional political career began in earnest with his election to the state assembly of the Rhineland-Palatinate Landtag in 1959, and he moved up the greasy pole of federal government throughout the 60s, elected Minister-President of Rhineland-Palatinate in 1969. With his centre-right stance, Kohl was at odds with the more conservative wing of the CDU; but the loss of power for the party after twenty years to the Social Democrats of Willie Brandt was compounded by Brandt’s attitude towards the GDR, which the CDU (unlike Kohl himself) officially opposed. In 1972, as West German Chancellor, Brandt instigated the Ostpolitik, a programme of rapprochement towards East Germany that attempted to establish formal relations between the two separate German states for the first time since their division.
The CDU leader Rainer Barzel gambled on public opposition to Brandt’s East German policies when he first provoked a vote of no-confidence in Brandt’s government (which he lost) and then ran as the CDU candidate for Chancellor in the 1972 federal elections; the gamble backfired again and Brandt was re-elected. Barzel’s failure gifted Helmut Kohl a clear run to becoming West Germany’s effective opposition leader, elected as Chairman of the CDU in 1973. After being a prominent figure on the German political scene for the best part of twenty years, Kohl finally led his party back into power in October 1982 at the expense of a coalition led by the Social Democrats’ Helmut Schmidt, which collapsed after losing a vote of no-confidence; and Kohl then strengthened his position via the ballot-box in the federal elections of 1983.
The previous decade had been a traumatic one for West Germany; the country’s economy may have emerged as one of Central Europe’s strongest (certainly when compared to the UK’s at the time), but the nation was as vulnerable to terrorist assaults as we were. The notorious Baader-Meinhof Gang – or, as they were more commonly known in Germany, the Red Army Faction – had repeatedly targeted holders of public office they claimed had been Nazi Party members during WWII; whatever legitimate grievances they may have held, however, were undermined by the violent means with which they addressed Germany’s recent past. Those born either during or after the war carried the guilt of their parents and resented the fact; Helmut Kohl, born before it, was equally determined to address Germany’s recent past, but by diplomatic and economic means.
Keen to forge a stronger bond with one of Germany’s oldest enemies, Kohl developed a close friendship with French President François Mitterrand; but Kohl’s plans for greater European integration and Germany being central to it were hampered by the inconvenient fact that his country remained divided. However, when the Berlin Wall tumbled down following the unexpected collapse of the East German Government in the autumn of 1989, Kohl had the opportunity he’d been waiting for. After eliciting the support of the USSR, Kohl wasted little time in drafting a reunification treaty that was signed within a year of the first civilian hammer hitting the Berlin Wall. Germany was back in one piece and Helmut Kohl now had the chance to, well, ‘make Germany great again’.
Along with Mitterrand, Kohl was the prime mover behind the Maastricht Treaty, the evolution of the EEC into the EU, and the creation of the Euro. Angela Merkel, an East German whose entry onto the national stage of German politics was as a member of Kohl’s first post-unification administration, is the most notable beneficiary of the rebirth of Germany her former boss instigated, whereas the rest of Europe now views Kohl’s achievement with decidedly mixed emotions.
Wherever one stands on the EU issue, however, there’s no denying Helmut Kohl was perhaps the most influential European politician of his generation, a man whose career spans the entire post-war history of Europe, and a man who played a major part in shaping that history by remaking the continent in his own image. That’s no mean feat.
© The Editor