Essay for Photo BookCommemorating Helmut Kohl’s 8Oth Birthday

Helmut Kohl served as Chancellor during one of the most crucial periods of German history. No one did more to achieve the unification of his country. He was one of the builders of a united Europe. He played a central role in sustaining the Atlantic Alliance. Who has done more to shape this period?

Bismarck once remarked that the best a statesman could do was to listen for the footsteps of God, take a hold of the hem of His cloak and walk with Him a few steps of the way. The phrase applies to what Helmut Kohl achieved two decades ago. Bismarck had effected the unification of Germany, taking advantage of England’s distraction, France’s truculence, Austria’s overestimation of itself and the growing German national momentum to forge a unified German Empire in 1871.

Over a century later, a second unifier of Germany, Helmut Kohl, heard the footsteps of destiny. He understood earlier than almost anyone the historical forces at work in Europe and rode those forces in the service of his goal of a united and free Germany as part of a united Europe and a vital Atlantic Alliance. The issues arose with astonishing speed in 1989 from many deep historical currents: the growing evidence of the bankruptcy of Soviet-style political systems in Eastern Europe, the pent-up demand for freedom of expression and fundamental human and political rights as embodied in the Helsinki Accords, the retrenchment of the Soviet Empire imposed by a collapsing economy. But it was also the outcome of specific choices made by individual statesmen, and no one made more fateful choices than Helmut Kohl.

Early in his Chancellorship during the 1980s, Kohl strongly supported the NATO decision to deploy Pershing missiles in Germany, in the face of impassioned opposition and a concerted effort by Moscow to sow discord within the Alliance. That decision is now recognized as having convinced Moscow to agree to the elimination of an entire category of weapons through the INF (Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces) Treaty. Kohl’s political “compass,” as he put it, always drew him to a close relationship with France and the United States. His core vision was unity—of the German people, and of Europe.

Germany was not in a position to breach the Berlin Wall alone. The existence of the Atlantic Alliance and the policies of Germany's allies made significant contributions. But the final act of German unification was importantly the product of Kohl's vision and his decisions. In retrospect, every great historic event appears inevitable. In fact, matters could have turned out very differently. In November 1989, the most probable outcome in the minds of many observers would have been two German states no longer separated by a Wall, perhaps in some type of confederation, living more or less amicably beside one another. There were few voices loudly calling for unification in the near term. And there were many voices—in London, Paris and Moscow—urging caution or even opposing a united Germany.

Kohl had come to office in 1982 with limited foreign policy experience and continued the policy of his highly regarded foreign minister, Hans Dietrich Genscher. Genscher stood for a continuation of the Ostpolitik pioneered by Willy Brandt and Helmut Schmidt in the 1970s. Ostpolitik envisioned a gradual transformation of East Germany into a more open, free and compatible counterpart and a Europe gradually brought closer through increased political and commercial contact with the West. It strove for stability through mutual recognition. During the 1980s, German reunification seemed a distant goal left to the processes of history, not specific political decisions.

Kohl represented a throwback to the Adenauer tradition of West German foreign policy. Adenauer insisted that the postwar settlement dividing Germany between two blocs be treated as provisional. Harmony would come to central Europe not so much through confidence-building measures between East and West as through the dismantling of East Germany and the eventual integration of its population into the democratic West.

Kohl embodied the struggle of his generation to wrestle with overcoming the stigma of the Nazi past, while his country rose phoenix-like from destruction to prosperity and stable democracy. Kohl was fifteen years old when the war ended and he learned of the atrocities that were committed in the name of German nationalism. He never shrank from acknowledging them. Yet he refused to let guilt for the Nazi era be the defining characteristic of himself personally or of his country. When he spoke of the “absolution of late birth,” many critics asserted that he was seeking to whitewash German history. In fact, he wanted to give his generation the opportunity to be known for its own achievements rather than the sins of its fathers; for what it accomplished, not for what it inherited.

A stolid figure who never lost his Rhenish accent or his taste for the hearty local fare of his region, Kohl personified the industrious, bourgeois economics-oriented postwar West Germany. He made no apologies for it. German nationalism had been perverted and misused in the past; Kohl strove to put it in the service of German democracy and chose ties with the West.

During the fateful months of November 1989, when the Wall fell, to March 1990, when unification was substantially achieved, Kohl seized the coattails of history with mastery. It was the period when the other European powers were ambivalent. Few of Germany's allies really wanted to see Germany unified, yet none wished to be perceived as obstructing the will of the German people. Many of Kohl’s own German colleagues were urging to go slowly, and most observers who supported a united Germany were thinking in terms of a five-year timetable to achieve it.

Kohl understood that decisive moments are fleeting; they cannot be deposited as in a savings bank. Kohl was a man of action, not a theoretician. So he boldly seized the agenda rather than debate it. In a speech, he proclaimed that German unity was at hand and set forth a ten-point program for unity. Next, he visited Moscow. On his return, he announced that he had received a “green light” to move on unification, thereby creating irresistible momentum within East Germany. Three months after the fall of the Wall, in February 1990, Kohl travelled to East Germany to campaign for the elections there to be held in March. He conducted himself as if he were campaigning in his home country. On this trip to East Germany, Kohl’s political instincts were flawless. Less than two months after his first official visit to the East, Kohl traversed the country, making virtually no acknowledgement that he was on technically foreign soil. His appeals were direct because there was no artifice in his rhetoric. Kohl spoke from a deep-seated aspiration for German unity: not the nationalism that had led to two World Wars but dedication to the cause of freedom and European unity.

The results of the East German elections were stunning. Before Kohl’s campaigning, the various parties in the East, which favored the evolution toward a confederative state arrangement in Germany, held a sizeable lead. In the March 18 results, Kohl’s Christian Democratic Union-affiliated Alliance for Germany scored a resounding victory—a clear mandate for the outright merging of East Germany with the West, which Kohl had advocated. Kohl had effectively brought about German unification, not from blood and iron, as Bismarck had done, but at the ballot box.

Kohl’s Germany was a novel construction in European history. Its original impetus came from the Catholic Germany of the Rhineland and Bavaria extolled by Adenauer, closely tied to Latin culture. It was the Germany of Beethoven, of Joseph Görres, of the Frankfurt Parliament, the Cologne Cathedral, the Germany of the Pfälzer vineyards that Kohl adored. It was a Germany that had grown out of the self-abnegating decision of the 1950s to risk delaying unification so that the country might first join Europe and the West.

Unification would naturally alter the character and demographic composition of the Federal Republic. This task was all the more complex because unification was not the merger of equals but rather the absorption of a failed state. Kohl instinctively understood that psychological dimension.

The East Germans could not be treated as the poor step-children of the West. During the first half of 1990, there seemed to be a real possibility that Germany east of the Elbe would be drained of its most active people seeking greater opportunities in the West. In order to stem this westward migration, Kohl, in July 1990, adopted full monetary union. East Germans were able to exchange their currency for West German marks at a one-for-one exchange rate. Though vastly overvalued, parity for East German currency conveyed that unification was not so much about legal arrangements as to give East Germans a sense of shared nationhood.

Kohl’s decision for an early monetary union, as well as to raise East German wages to West German levels, was widely criticized. Critics argued that he had moved too far too fast and made East Germany less attractive as a source of outside investment and its goods less competitive thereby hastening the collapse of its industrial sector. From an economist’s perspective, there was some merit in these arguments. East Germany did not immediately transform into the “blooming landscapes” that Kohl had envisioned. But in forging a common currency, Kohl was acting again as much out of political instinct as out of economic analysis. He grasped the psychological fragility of the East Germans. Unlike the Poles, the Czechs or the Hungarians who, after four decades of a failed experiment in Communism, could summon nationalism to rebuild their country, the failure of the German Democratic Republic meant also the evaporation of an identity that had been nurtured for four decades. Whatever loyalties to the state its population possessed had to be given a new direction. The “Ossis” needed a new identity as Germans, and Kohl understood that the deutschmark was a central component of the edifice.

A second critical element of Kohl’s approach to German unification was to ensure that the new Germany remained firmly anchored in the West. This raised the issue of membership of the united Germany in NATO. Many observers called for a neutral Germany in Central Europe. Others saw Germany as having a special role as a “bridge” between East and West.

As talks over Germany progressed into the spring and summer of 1990, it became clear that the membership of a united Germany in NATO was becoming the most controversial issue. Mikhail Gorbachev had drawn his line in the sand, saying that Moscow could not tolerate a united Germany within NATO. The Soviets were proposing a nebulous formula in which Germany would have a sort of special status outside of both western and eastern alliances.

The idea of a neutral Germany in the center of Europe, first proposed by Stalin, had been rejected by Adenauer; it was also rebuffed by Kohl. He rejected the argument that the insistence on Germany being part of NATO might unravel everything that had been achieved so far. Gorbachev, so the argument went, could be toppled in Moscow if he conceded this point. Kohl, backed by President George H.W. Bush, refused to renounce the commitment of a generation to the West; they insisted on keeping Germany anchored in NATO.

Kohl succeeded in carrying out his vision because of the trust that the principal international actors in this unfolding drama had developed for one another. Kohl, Genscher, Bush, Baker, Gorbachev and Shevardnadze were connected by strong personal relationships based on tested joint experiences. Kohl was a principal contributor to this spirit. Matters reached a point that, by July 1990, American and Soviet diplomats were actually cooperating on the language that would enshrine united Germany’s membership in NATO.

Bismarck’s Germany had been essentially an exclusionary nation-state trying to balance potential enemies against each other. Kohl’s approach to German unification took place within a larger consensual process. The process was hammered out in the context of the Four-plus-Two negotiations, the four occupation powers after the Second World War—the US, the Soviet Union, Britain and France—plus the two German states.

Even more fundamentally, Kohl sought to place German unity within the framework of growing European integration and unity. This was a key element in securing French support for German unification. Kohl promised François Mitterand, in March 1990, that he would, after unification, accelerate the development of European political and monetary union. Kohl envisioned German unity within a series of concentric circles—within Germany, within Europe and within the Atlantic Alliance—that were intended to be mutually reinforcing and promoting stability and peace. Lastly, Kohl understood that new cooperative frameworks between the West and the Soviet Union were necessary to ensure an enduring peace.

Kohl kept his word. By October 1990, he had become the principal advocate for European monetary union. Less than a year after German unification, in 1991, the Maastricht Treaty, laying the groundwork for European Monetary Union, was adopted.

During the mid-1990s, as Kohl became the godfather of the euro, his stature in Europe was extraordinary. Kohl faced a momentous decision in 1997. He could have put an end to a prestigious career. Recognizing that Germany was unlikely to meet the Maastricht fiscal criteria, Kohl could have moved to delay European monetary union. Or he could fudge the Maastricht budget deficit rules.

There were ample reasons not to push forward with monetary union. It was not a politically popular issue at home. Germans, by and large, were not eager to give up the deutschmark, the anchor and symbol of Germany’s postwar economic strength. Economists warned that failure to hold to the budgetary restraints agreed at Maastricht risked launching a weak currency subject to devaluation. Kohl had to worry how the southern European economies like Portugal, Spain, Italy or Greece would react if even Germany could not hold the line on budget deficits.

But Kohl placed his vision before his political interests. In 1997, he could have passed the dilemmas on to a successor. He had been Chancellor for fifteen years—longer than any Chancellor since Bismarck. His legacy and place in history were secure. Kohl was risking his legacy in placing himself front and center in the drive for the euro. As was the case with German unity, a yellow traffic light was, for Kohl, a signal to speed up. In 1997, he declared that he would run for Chancellor again and stake his political existence on the timely introduction of the euro.

By 1998, an entire generation of leadership had come and gone on Kohl’s watch, and he seemed to endure like a granite block. His mission to reunify Germany and forge a united Europe so that the continent would never again be ravaged by war seemed accomplished. New issues had come to the forefront. Economies became increasingly globalized, putting new competitive pressure on the Germans. Kohl hesitated to push through economic reforms that would make Germany more competitive internationally. He was defeated in September 1998, the first postwar Chancellor to be voted out of office.

Kohl, whom President George H.W. Bush has called the greatest leader in postwar Europe, disdained extended ruminations about his place in history. Although he was highly educated in history, politics were his real milieu. He was an activist, not a philosopher. I recall having lunch with Kohl shortly before a CDU Party Congress in the mid-1990s. Reports in the press and chatter in intellectual circles were rife with rumors that Kohl faced a party revolt and could imminently be toppled at the Congress. I was astonished at how relaxed Kohl seemed to be, enjoying a most leisurely lunch. When I asked him about his concerns regarding the upcoming Congress, he smiled and shrugged. He had no worries, he told me. The intellectuals to whom I had been talking would not be voting at the Congress. The local party CDU delegates would be, he said, and he had named practically every one of them.

Kohl sometimes cultivated an anti-intellectual demeanor that led many to overlook his shrewd intelligence and deep commitments. He was an astute and persistent negotiator, as his counterparts in the Four-plus-Two talks discovered. He did not explain his positions as part of an overarching historical vision, but he was unyielding regarding his deepest values. “My opponents have been underestimating me for years, and I've made a good living out of it,” was how Kohl put it.

Throughout Kohl’s career, his achievements were exceptional: at thirty, the youngest member of his state legislature; at forty-three, the youngest chairman of the Christian Democratic Union; and finally, in 1982, at fifty-two, the youngest Chancellor. His poll numbers were never stellar, but his achievements were. He embodied the values and hopes of his society even if his rhetoric did not always match his performance.

Early in Kohl’s career, few would have marked the provincial politician from Ludwigshafen as a potentially historic figure. But that is what he has become. He took his society from where it was to a fulfilled vision of the future. What more can be said of any statesman? It is an honor for me to count Helmut Kohl among my friends.