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1982-98 - Helmut Kohl

Helmut Kohl (CDU) was Federal Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany for 16 years. Many people remember him as the “Chancellor of Unity” because it was during his term in office that West and East Germany were reunified. Helmut Kohl was one of the most distinctive personalities in German contemporary history. Former U.S. President Bill Clinton, who served during Kohl's final years in office, called the tall, burly, lifelong politician "the most important European statesman since the second World War."

Helmut Kohl was born in 1930 in Ludwigshafen in the heavily Roman Catholic and conservative Rhineland-Palatinate. Kohl's father and older brother served in World War II; his brother died in the war while still a teenager. Kohl joined the Hitler Youth at age 15, like most German boys his age, and was briefly put to work unearthing bodies after Allied bombing raids. Shortly after the end of the war, Kohl joined the newly formed Christian Democratic Union, helped found the party's youth organization in his hometown, and thus began a life of public service.

He rose to Germany's highest office through a series of local positions, championing domestic policies such as education reform and transportation. He served as minister president of the Rhineland-Palatinate from 1969 to 1976, and in the 1976 national elections he ran unsuccessfully against SPD candidate Chancellor Schmidt for the office of chancellor.

In the 1980 national elections, Franz Josef Strauss was the CDU/CSU candidate for chancellor. Strauss, Bavaria's minister president and head of the CSU, was one of Germany's most influential and colorful politicians. He believed the CDU/CSU could come to power in Bonn without the help of the FDP. After Strauss lost the elections and Schmidt remained chancellor, however, Kohl began to steer toward an eventual coalition with the FDP because he did not think that conservatives could win an absolute majority at the national level.

The SPD-FDP coalition formed in 1969 became increasingly strained in the early 1980s, leading to concerns among the FDP leadership about its stability. The SPD had become deeply divided because many of its members found Chancellor Schmidt's policies too conservative. Particularly troublesome was his position on NATO's Dual-Track Decision, which required the stationing of new missiles in West Germany if Soviet missiles were not withdrawn. FDP chairman Genscher feared that Schmidt would lose the backing of the SPD as its left wing became more influential. As a result of these fears, Genscher began to urge a change in the political constellation governing West Germany and the formation of a coalition with the CDU/CSU.

The SPD-FDP coalition broke apart in September 1982 when the FDP minister of economics, Otto Lambsdorff, advocated cutting social welfare expenditures. Schmidt countered by threatening to fire Lambsdorff. The threat prompted the resignation of all FDP cabinet members. Schmidt presided over a minority government for a few days until the FDP, together with the CDU/CSU, raised a constructive vote of no-confidence against the government. Schmidt lost the vote, and Helmut Kohl, head of the CDU, formed a new coalition government composed of the CDU, its sister party the CSU, and the FDP.

Helmut Kohl became chancellor on October 1, 1982. Kohl came to power following a constructive vote of no confidence. The FDP/SPD coalition had fallen apart and the FDP Members of the Bundestag plus the CDU and CSU Members of the Bundestag voted him in as Chancellor. It was the first change in government and chancellor in the history of West Germany that did not come about as the result of elections. During the early elections to the Bundestag in March 1983, voters confirmed the coalition comprising the CDU/CSU and the FDP in office. The results gave Kohl's government a clear majority and confirmed him as chancellor. Since those elections the Green Party had also been represented in the Bundestag.

When Helmut Kohl became Chancellor in September 1982, he became the third conservative leader of a major Western country to assume office about that time. Margaret Thatcher had become British Prime Minister in 1979, and Ronald Reagan entered office in January 1981. Many observers expected Kohl to follow more or less the anti-union, anti-welfare-state, militantly anti-Communist, and strongly pro-free-enterprise rhetoric and policy initiatives of Thatcher and Reagan. While Kohl and his party, the CDU/CSU, and his coalition partner, the FDP, sympathized to some extent with the efforts of Thatcher and Reagan to cut back on the welfare state, reduce government spending in general, and stand up to Soviet intimidation by their SS-20 missiles aimed at Europe, he was not willing or able, due to domestic pressures, to follow them entirely.

As regards foreign policy, Helmut Kohl continued the policy of détente with the Eastern bloc countries and deepened transatlantic relations in the 1980s. In 1984, he and then-French President Francois Mitterand shook hands at an emotional remembrance ceremony of the Battle of Verdun, a long, brutal struggle between French and German forces in northeastern France during World War I. The meeting cemented a close political relationship between the two men even as it symbolized reconciliation between the two nations. The new Secretary-General of the Communist Party in the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, introduced a policy of reform in his country. It will always be associated with two terms: “Glasnost” (openness) and “Perestroika” (renewal).

In the first half of the 1980s, West German politics were dominated by the heated discussion of NATO's Dual-Track Decision. The peace movement mounted numerous demonstrations to protest the possible stationing of United States missiles in West Germany should the Soviet Union not remove its newly stationed SS-20 missiles from Eastern Europe. Chancellor Kohl and his new government were determined to stand by West Germany's commitment to its NATO partners.

The domestic opposition to these missiles was severe on the grounds that they were a provocation and made Germany potentially a major nuclear target. Demonstrations against them put considerable pressure on the Kohl government. The most controversial subject at the time Kohl came into office was the Dual-Track NATO decision regarding the Soviet SS-20 missiles. Kohl’s relations with the SPD, which had rejected former Chancellor Schmidt’s arguments for the missiles and left him virtually isolated in his own party, also became more strained. Even though negotiations between NATO and the Soviets continued, they did not resolve the issues, and it became clear that NATO missiles would be deployed in response, mostly in Germany.

But Kohl remained steadfast, and by late 1983 the first missiles were deployed. After a lengthy debate in the Bundestag, the CDU/CSU-FDP majority coalition voted for deployment, with the SPD and the Greens opposing. Stationing of the missiles began immediately, and the Soviet Union withdrew from the Geneva negotiations.

Once this happened, the demonstrations decreased, to the surprise of many, and many opponents seemed reluctantly to accept the missiles or became resigned to their introduction. When Mikhail Gorbachev assumed the leadership of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in March 1985, relations between East and West began to change dramatically, and in December 1987, President Reagan and Gorbachev signed an agreement that eliminated the medium range missiles in Europe that had caused so much tension between NATO and the Soviet Union and so much internal opposition within Germany.

After that agreement, however, another controversy arose regarding the modernization of NATO short-range missiles that were aimed at East Germany. Of course the Soviets also had short-range missiles aimed at the Federal Republic, so both German governments were interested in the elimination of these so-called battlefield nuclear weapons. As one conservative German politician noted: “The shorter the range, the deader the Germans.” This controversy was not really resolved until the opening of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

By the mid-1980s, as international tensions began to ease, public attention turned to new prospects for détente between West and East. Even though Kohl backed the NATO Dual-track decision with the support of his party and his coalition partner, the FDP, he also continued the Ostpolitik of former chancellors Brandt and Schmidt and their SPD/FDP coalition governments. The Germans tried to improve relations with the countries of Eastern Europe, and they continued to deal with the East German government in an effort to relieve tensions between the two German states. Some large loans to the East Germans were granted, and the East German leader, Erich Honecker, was invited to the Federal Republic in 1987 for a state visit, the first time the leaders of East and West Germany sat down together since the country was split between democracy and communism at the end of World War II. Both Honecker and Kohl argued that in spite of the increased tensions in Europe brought about by the missile conflicts and Reagan’s decision to engage in research and development of an anti-ballistic missile defense system (“Starwars”), detente was essential for the two Germanys. Nevertheless, Kohl and his government welcomed Reagan’s call in front of the Berlin Wall in 1988 for Gorbachev “to tear down this Wall.”

In its first years in government, Helmut Kohl’s coalition introduced tax reforms to ensure that the people of Germany had more money in their pockets. It also reduced the country’s national debt. The result was strong economic recovery. This sound economic basis was to make it easier to tackle the enormous task of redeveloping the former eastern federal states after 1989. The introduction of parental leave and the Child and Youth Services Act were hugely significant for families. In 1994 Helmut Kohl’s government introduced long-term nursing care insurance, on the basis of which those requiring long-term nursing care and their relatives are entitled to financial assistance.

Kohl also pursued economic policies that differed from the Thatcher and Reagan models. While he and his government believed the very generous German welfare state had become too expensive and that labor costs were making it increasingly difficult for German products to compete in the world market, he and the CDU were not opposed in principle to many aspects of the welfare state. Indeed, in spite of certain cuts, new programs were introduced under Kohl — e.g., even more generous family leave policies that protected the jobs and benefits especially of women with small children, and a new social insurance program for nursing home or at-home care for the aged. These and other examples can be seen not as “socialism,” but as policies conforming to Catholic social doctrine regarding state support for families.

In June 1989, President George Bush visited the Federal Republic, called for German self-determination, and suggested that Germany would become America’s major partner in Europe. This statement was not welcomed by Prime Minister Thatcher, but it did recognize the growing German influence in world affairs and, especially, in the increasingly important European Community. Shortly after Bush’s visit, Gorbachev visited Germany and received an enthusiastic welcome. He was seen as a progressive, dynamic leader who was encouraging and allowing major changes in Eastern Europe as well as the Soviet Union. His reform policies were much less appreciated by the East German government, which had gone so far as to prohibit the distribution of certain Soviet publications that were considered subversive by East German authorities.

It was not long before people in East Germany were also organising mass demonstrations and calling for more freedoms. By the late summer of 1989, thousands of East Germans were leaving the GDR by traveling “on vacation” to Hungary. The Hungarian Communist regime had been taken over by reformers who had decided to open their borders with Austria in spite of an agreement with the GDR not to do so. This was the beginning of the end for the Communist regime in East Germany, because once it became known that it was possible to escape East Germany via Hungary, there was little the East Germans could do but prohibit its citizens to travel even to other East European countries from which they could proceed to Hungary. This would have produced an explosive situation in the GDR. However, before the East Germans could devise a counter strategy, they lost control of the population — just about the time of the fortieth anniversary of the GDR in October 1989. The Wall was opened on November 9, 1989.

Calls for German reunification got louder and louder. This led to the historic opportunity to reinstate Germany’s unity. And Helmut Kohl grasped the opportunity. He put forward a 10-point plan in the Bundestag whose ultimate goal was Germany’s reunification. Germany’s neighbours had mixed reactions to its upcoming rapid unification . But Kohl made it clear that in his eyes a unified Germany could only be firmly embedded within the European Union. For him German unity and European unity were inextricably linked.

Helmut Kohl put all his efforts within the group of Western allies and in dealings with the then Soviet Union into bringing about rapid reunification. In July 1990 he met Mikhail Gorbachev for what would be crucial talks. Kohl’s policies also ensured than smaller neighbors in the East such as Poland and the Czech Republic gained trust in a German state that was growing together and thus getting larger.

From the beginning of the disintegration of the Communist regimes in Eastern Europe — and especially in East Germany — the United States under President Bush made clear its support for German reunification. This had been official Western policy and NATO policy for decades, but once reunification appeared possible (which few people had believed would actually happen even well into the next century), the voices of unequivocal support were few and far between. Prime Minister Thatcher expressed her reservations rather openly, warning against taking precipitous action, and President Mitterrand of France was also skeptical, even flying to Moscow to suggest Soviet-French cooperation in checking reunification efforts.

Soon, however, Mitterrand, like Gorbachev, accepted the inevitability of German reunification, and Kohl was able during the first half of 1990 to get the approval of the four Allies for reunification. Without Soviet approval, of course, reunification could not have occurred, and even though Gorbachev seemed sympathetic, it was doubtful that he would accept a united Germany’s membership in NATO. But the Americans and Germans pointed out that united Germany’s integration in NATO actually offered the Soviets more security than a Germany without moorings. Kohl and Gorbachev met in the Caucasus in July 1990, and Kohl, to make Soviet acceptance easier, offered several billion dollars to the Soviets for the withdrawal of their armed forces from East Germany by 1994. The Soviets accepted, and the road to reunification was open.

The two parts of Germany were reunited on 3 October 1990. Monetary, economic and social union meant that people living in the former East Germany were able to share in the success of the social market economy model. Through the “solidarity pact” the people of Germany have since been providing the funding to ensure that living conditions in the eastern German federal states are brought more and more into line with those in the western federal states.

Even before reunification, Kohl had been a strong supporter of the European Community and efforts to further European integration. He realized in 1990 that German reunification would raise a number of concerns in neighboring countries, and in order to demonstrate Germany’s good will, he urged that Germany become even more integrated in Europe: “a European Germany, not a German Europe.” This was a French goal as well, and it was to be accomplished at the meeting at Maastricht, Holland, in December 1991, when a treaty was negotiated that would bring about an “ever closer union” and create the European Union.

There were many Germans, especially in the SPD and Greens, who argued that the Basic Law (Constitution) prohibits so-called “out-of-area” actions, i.e., German military involvement in areas outside of the boundaries of NATO countries. This became a bitterly debated issue with Kohl and his government, among others, arguing that this was a misinterpretation of the Basic Law. The Federal Constitutional Court finally ruled in 1994 that German forces could be deployed “out-of-area” but only with parliamentary approval. In spite of this decision, even German conservatives remain very reluctant to see German forces participate in conflicts abroad.

It was on account of the fact that Germany was able to reunite after 40 years of division with the consent of all its foreign policy partners and allies in peace and freedom that Helmut Kohl has become known as the “Chancellor of Unity”. In the 1990s Helmut Kohl worked hard to ensure the European Union expanded and deepened. His services to Europe and his role as one of the “fathers” of the euro, Europe’s common currency, led to him being made a “Freeman of Europe”.

At the start of his chancellorship, Helmut Kohl was the target of much scorn and malice and frequently criticized for his "provincialism." The appraisal had improved by the time Kohl's 16-year reign ended in 1998. The Süddeutsche Zeitung, for example, published a piece titled "His Cultural Sovereign, the Chancellor," which seemed to blend irony with genuine respect for the fact that the government's art expenditures had trebled under Kohl's tenure. Kohl, a historian, had learned during his studies that culture and history are indivisible. This shaped his politics.

After reunification in 1990, Kohl successfully prevented the abrupt collapse of cultural institutions in the former states of the German Democratic Republic by allocating the equivalent of about 1.5 billion euros to an asset maintenance program, infrastructure and a memorial protection initiative between 1991 and 1993. This "transitional financing of culture" preserved orchestras, theaters and museums. It was the basis for the rescue of countless historical buildings.

Throughout his life, Helmut Kohl had an outstanding sense of when the time was right. It was his instinct and his uncompromising resolution that ended the division of Germany and thus paved the way for the European Union as we know it today. He recognized the historic opportunity as such, took action and did not allow himself to be deterred from his purpose - with a disregard for consequences that led to some collateral damage, including on the personal front. The former German chancellor thus did not just make friends. But with these qualities, he created the foundation for the house of Europe.

Throughout his career, Kohl demonstrated a strong determination, extraordinary political skills, and a keen sense for the political will of the German people. His key role in the German reunification process deservedly earned him a position of distinction in German history.

Helmut Kohl was a symbol of the changed times and climate. Born in 1930, he was the first chancellor who was too young to play any part in the Hitler era, including performing military service. He claimed to exemplify a new generation of leaders untainted by the past and sought to appeal to those Germans, including those on the center-left, who want again to feel proud of their country. He used the word Vaterland in his speeches, and his encouragement to play the national anthem more often helped make it possible to close the day's television programming with its melody. In short, he wanted to help produce a "normal patriotism," the kind that is taken for granted in other countries. Germans still show little enthusiasm for such symbols.

Nevertheless, national feelings, which were taboo for a long time, are slightly stronger. Kohl's efforts to apply total normalcy to relations with other countries did not always succeed. Sometimes foreign countries are still unwilling to regard the FRG solely as an economically strong, socially just, and stable democracy that is a reliable trading partner and NATO ally. Fritz Stern, an American historian who fled from Hitler, was correct when he noted that "the past dominates the present to an extraordinary degree, and the past cannot be erased."

Dissatisfaction with the Kohl system grew among Germans, with many of them regarding the chancellor as only interested in holding onto power. In October 1998, a coalition of the Social Democratic Party and the Greens won parliamentary elections and after 16 years - a record for Germany - Kohl was once more a member of the German parliament's opposition.

News in 1999 that "his CDU" was involved in accepting illegal donations through a number of secret bank accounts would tarnish his reputation. At first, Kohl denied any involvement in the scandal and said his conduct was beyond reproach. Despite his reassurances, the CDU eventually revoked his honorary party membership and at a special party convention Kohl was asked to give up his seat in parliament as well. He later admitted to having received millions of deutschmarks worth of illegal contributions, without ever disclosing the donors' names. Court charges against him were dropped in return for paying a fine, and the ex-chancellor largely left the German political stage.

Frank-Walter Steinmeier was appointed state secretary of the chancellery under Gerhard Schröder after Kohl's electoral defeat in 1998, and filed charges against Kohl, accusing him of having destroyed files during the transition of power. The investigation that followed proved fruitless, and Kohl was cleared of the charges.

In July 2001, Kohl's wife, Hannelore, committed suicide taking an overdose of sleeping pills. She had suffered from photodermatitis, a form of sun allergy. At the age of 78, Kohl remarried. Former companions went on record as saying that Kohl's new wife, Maike Richter, kept an overly watchful eye on him, assuming control over his social life. The relationship to Kohl's sons from his first marriage and, most recently, collaboration with his long-time ghostwriter Heribert Schwan were affected in similar ways.

Helmut Kohl died 16 June 2017 at the age of 87. Some of the comments under obituaries appearing on news sites and on social media are almost unprecedented in their maliciousness. So much for not speaking ill of the dead. As Germany's leader for 16 years, he is remembered for reuniting the country and for making a huge political and economic contribution to Europe's integration.

His old friend Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the EU Commission, organized a European state funeral for him? It's a suitable measure given Kohl's European achievements, but it's also never been done before.




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Page last modified: 03-07-2017 12:26:47 ZULU