Blog Post

Helmut Kohl – A Towering Figure

June 10, 2017
Shutterstock - Former Chancellor Helmut Kohl at a panel discussion in the Traenenpalast in Berlin Mitte.

In our time of strategic challenges and intellectual confusion, the passing of Helmut Kohl reminds us of the good old days. Here is a man of principle who was able to combine being a German patriot with being a dedicated European and a steadfast Atlanticist. In today’s parlance, the signature achievement of his 16 year tenure as chancellor — the reunification of his then divided homeland — would be called a “Germany first” policy. He was able to identify a historic window of opportunity and make use of it with a unique sense of purpose. In less than a year, starting with the night the wall fell in Berlin in November 1989, he got it done. This was single-minded determination in pursuance of the national interest.

But the basis of his success had nothing to do with the ideas that are fashionable in some quarters today. In fact, Helmut Kohl’s thinking could not be further removed from the new nationalist school of foreign policy that finds competition to be the elemental nature of the relationship among nations. Helmut Kohl was not a nationalist, he was an internationalist. He believed that there are win-win situations to be found in international relations. He was convinced that, through international cooperation, competing interests of nations could most often be accommodated.

In order to succeed, personal trust was necessary among statesmen. To his partners, Helmut Kohl became the embodiment of the reliable German — as opposed to the ugly German that many of them had seen too often in their earlier lives. Crucially, he earned the trust of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, whose country had half a million soldiers under arms on German soil when the negotiations about German unification started. American President George H.W. Bush trusted Kohl in a way that seems as exemplary as it appears unbelievable today. In December 1989, when White House press asked the president about Helmut Kohl’s 10-point plan for unification, the White House had only just received it from Kohl. Bush had had no time to review it, but advised his team to endorse it anyway — simply because, in this historic moment, Bush trusted that Kohl would not do anything that the Americans could not live with.

While personal trust was important, Kohl knew it was not enough. Helmut believed in the value of institutions. He knew that institutions, not just deals, matter. Only institutions could help to steer the foreign policy of nations over long periods of time and create a cohesion that far exceeds the attachment that the interest of the day ever could. Kohl, by instinct, was a Westerner, but he knew that only the treaty-based system of NATO could provide for security long term. This is why, during the negotiations about German unification, he was adamant about including all of Germany — not just the Western part — in NATO.

The international treaty concerning German unification, dubbed “Two-plus-Four,” was Kohl’s masterpiece. He was able to claim ownership just as much as the other parties to the treaty. It became the cornerstone of the post-Cold War era and the foundation of the inclusive system that —under the headline of “Europe whole and free” — allowed Central and Eastern Europe to become part of the Western institutions.

Helmut Kohl knew that German unification was only possible as part of a larger European unification with a Germany that would embed itself in that structure. Consequently, Kohl became a strong supporter of all Central and Eastern European countries that wanted to join the EU and NATO. These countries did not forget his support. In turn, they became supporters of Germany within the European Union. It was Helmut Kohl’s farsighted strategy that increased Germany’s power and prestige on the continent for many years — perhaps until his successor, Angela Merkel, undermined this trust my moving unilaterally during the refugee crisis in 2015. Helmut Kohl, in one of his last public statements, reminded her at the time.

In 1989, Kohl was well aware of the concern of others in Europe that a united Germany would attempt to dominate the continent once again. No one was more straightforward than British Prime Minister Margret Thatcher who said: “We beat the Germans twice, and now they’re back.” And no one was more consequential than French President Francois Mitterand who demanded that Germany embed itself in a European currency union without creating a political union, including central decision-making first. Kohl thought that the euro was a premature delivery. He feared the German people’s opposition who saw their stable postwar currency as an object of national pride. But Kohl finally agreed to the French demand in order to achieve unification. The price of this decision to introduce an incomplete currency union is still felt today after years of an enduring eurozone crisis. Helmut Kohl did not live to see the fix that the next generation of French and German leaders will now have to propose.

Despite his historic significance as a Western statesman and unifier of his country, Helmut Kohl is not universally liked in Germany. Even some of the early obituaries repeat the mocking tone that accompanied his tenure in office. Cartoonists used to depict him as a pear because of his body shape. His critics always mocked his provincialism, his penchant for fat food, his dialect, his folksiness. To them he was not urban, not cosmopolitan, not polished enough. He was seen as too old fashioned and too conservative, an old school patriarch. But it was certainly not during his time in office that a far right populist party emerged on the scene. He must have done something right.

What will mar his memory, at least domestically, is the scandal that broke shortly after he left office in 1998. The question was whether he had sold decisions of the chancellery in return for campaign donations. He refused to name his donors because he had promised them to do so while the law demanded transparency. Helmut Kohl took that secret with him. On the day he died he was still in violation of the law.

Internationally, Helmut Kohl will be remembered as a towering figure of postwar Europe. His wartime memories as a child educated his European policies. With Kohl, the last of the “never again” generation leaves the scene. There are certainly ways to carry on in his spirit. There must be.