Helmut Kohl: Legacy of Unity By Richard R. Moeller
Germany’s longest serving post-war chancellor has died at the age of 87. Helmut Kohl was a mentor to Angela Merkel as well as the figure head of the politically dominant Christian Democrats (CDU). He will be remembered by many for a variety of reasons. Indeed, some loved him and others despised him. Without stretching the analogy too far, he’s like Reagan in the US; everyone who lived through his tenure of leadership has an opinion of who he was to them. After all, Kohl served from 1982 until 1998 – 16 years.
His was almost a generation of leadership. He shaped the 1980s and 1990s in Germany. When he took office, it was West Germany. He oversaw a reunited Germany. Some even maintain that he led Europe too. Kohl’s death has many (mostly Europeanists) now claiming affiliation with him. European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker called him “the very essence of Europe” on the day of his death. If we didn’t know any better, we might believe all this admiration. Yet, Kohl was a polemic character, but almost always calm and relaxed (sometimes falling asleep during loquacious speeches). If there’s one thing that tops all the forced connectivity and veneration of Kohl today by the political expedient, it was the elite spurned, courageous position he took on a reunited Germany.
In September of 1989 (two months before the Berlin Wall came down) at the Christian Democratic Union (CDU)’s conference in Bremen, he announced, “[T]he end of communism is nigh, and with it, more than any other time in history, the establishment of one Germany.” Those of us who lived in Germany right before the Berlin Wall fell, understood that many (most really) in the establishment domain of German politics wanted nothing to do with this excitable topic. Reunification (‘One Germany’) was wrapped up in discussions about German territory lost in both wars, the creation of Poland (Versailles by extension), social services for the so-called unproductive Ossi (easterner), European enlargement, and a new type of Anschluss (take over) by the West. In fact, the Social Democrats (SPD), as chief rivals to the CDU, created an Ostpolitik (Eastern Policy – 1960s and on) that logically explored a “two-state solution” after the Wall came down. The German people wanted no such arrangement and Kohl’s leadership along with his party became stronger for it.
Kohl was laser focused on creating a unified Germany. Moreover, Kohl wanted nothing to do with all the complications surrounding a single German state in 1989/90 although he had to deal with these. Many academics and political figures insinuated or stated outright that he was simplistic and daft; however, this was his success then and how we view him today. He was a proud German when it was not popular and he suffered at the time with insinuations of German nationalism over international unity and his cozy relationship with Reagan/Bush 41 and Margaret Thatcher. In 1992, at the European Summit in Edinburgh (where I was a Ph.D. student at the time writing about Ostpolitik), Kohl saw a European association as the best way to anchor the new, united Germany in the changed strategic environment. For all intents and purposes, Kohl pushed for France (and others) to agree with a broad continental union in order to disconnect Germany as much as possible from its past and move forward with real leadership in a new Europe. What that was at the time was unknown.
Helmut Kohl’s death reveals that he succeeded much more than was anticipated at the time, especially by his detractors. It’s true that he was a great promoter of European integration until his death, positioned Germany so that its vigor (not past) could determine its future, and work with the US without “neighborly” oversight. But most importantly, Helmut Kohl embraced German unity above all. The impact of one man, Helmut Kohl, cannot be ignored as we examine and reflect on what he did for Germany. Indeed, sluggish ambivalence was the (Cold War) trend at that time. He bucked the trend and established a new Germany through a prompt election within a year. Without Kohl, the Germany of today would not be as independent and imposing as it is. Without Kohl, Europe would be similarly quite different as well.
Richard R. Moeller is an Associate Professor of Political Science at The Metropolitan State University of Denver.