Kohl’s Legacy

5 minute read

Helmut Kohl was brought so low last week that it was sometimes hard to remember how the German leader once rode so high. Foreign capitals, especially, had elevated him to the status of a political colossus who purposefully managed some of the most beneficial events of post-bellum Europe: NATO’s missile deployment in the ’80s, German reunification in 1990, and the euro in 1997. That’s why so many other Western leaders, including some on the left, privately rooted for his re-election in the last German balloting. That’s why, as Kohl received an honorary degree in Poland earlier this month, the Archbishop of Breslau complained that despite his “mistake,” Kohl should be accorded more “respect.” That’s why some Italian conservatives, grateful for Kohl’s decisive help ushering Italy into Euroland, go so far as to call him a contemporary Bismarck.

“Kohl has to be ranked with Adenauer as one of postwar Germany’s two most important Chancellors,” concludes Franz Josef Meiers, foreign policy fellow at Bonn University’s Center for European Integration Studies. “Adenauer for West Germany’s readmission as a respected member of the Western community, Kohl for German unification and the euro. Both of them were the right leaders in the right place at the right time.”

That glowing international stature clashes with Kohl’s long record on the home front as a domineering, even vengeful party boss. When he first came to power in 1982 as a big ungainly former leader of the conservative Christian Democratic Union’s youth wing and later premier of semi-rural Rhineland Palatinate, Kohl was given the country-bumpkin treatment by Bonn’s urbane but shortsighted political commentators. He never forgave them, and has stiff-armed the despised press ever since. He built the party into a personal fiefdom and ran it like a betentacled control freak, making dozens of daily calls throughout the party and state apparatus from his chancellery phone.

When conflict arose, his style was often to stand aloof and let it play itself out. “Let them dance on the table until they get tired,” he remarked knowingly during one party fracas. On another occasion he was loudly accused of stirring up old animosities with a series of impassioned speeches to Germans expelled from the lost German territories of Sudetenland and Silesia. Kohl paid no heed; he knew what the critics did not, that six months later those people would be sure to vote CDU. Defiant regional leaders in the party, or potential rivals with rising popularity of their own, were swiftly silenced, sacked or banished to the political wilderness. Former party chieftains or cabinet members such as Heiner Geissler, Jenoptik president Lothar Spth, former Bundestag president Rita Sssmuth and Saxony premier Kurt Biedenkopf can attest to the ostracism or banishment that defying Kohl could bring.

Kohl privately admitted that he was bored by domestic economic policy, and may one day be blamed not only for his “black-money” accounts but also for his failure during 16 years in power to deliver Germany’s badly needed economic reforms. What fired him up was the peculiar European preoccupation with diplomacy. Schooled as a political historian, he seemed to embody 19th century Italian statesman Camillo Benso Conte di Cavour’s edict about there being “only one policy–foreign policy.” To that, Kohl added an unshakable, deep-in-the-belly sense of his own rightness.

The first of his three major international triumphs was Germany’s adherence during the cold war to NATO’s so-called dual-track decision that required the deployment of U.S. Cruise and Pershing missiles on German soil. Demonstrations against the missiles raged across a country grown weary of nearly 40 years of cold war and steeped in a decade of Ostpolitik. Kohl faced down the protests. Once he flew low over 250,000 angry young protesters massed in Bonn’s Hofgarten, then impassively assured another passenger in the helicopter he would not change his position one iota. He carried the vote in the Bundestag and the missiles were deployed. They were later judged to have been instrumental in forcing the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Force treaty.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, Kohl delivered his second and probably most momentous triumph by promoting the reunion of the two Germanies with the zeal of a mystic and the force of a bulldozer. He understood that neither Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev nor Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze was prepared for any sort of “Tiananmen Square” solution to the hemorrhage of humanity heading west to freedom. Kohl flew to Moscow and, drinking vodka with Gorbachev until the early hours on the banks of the Volga , as his foreign policy adviser Horst Teltschik later recalled, he persuaded the Soviet leader to accept the idea of a united Germany remaining in the NATO alliance.

The euro, Kohl’s third masterstroke, grew out of a strategic vision formed in large part from the memory of his teen years during World War II and, especially, the loss of his soldier brother Walter in the fighting. Kohl believed that Germany can exercise renewed leadership in Europe without alarming its old enemies only if it is cushioned inside an enveloping family of nations. The euro represents a score of commercial and financial motives too, but for Kohl it was most of all a political means for deepening European integration. Kohl’s proudest boast during his election campaign against Gerhard Schrder 16 months ago was about unprecedented peace. “Germany today has friendly relations with every one of the nine neighbors on our borders,” he declared. “It’s the first time we can say that in our history.”

True enough, though it was insufficient to stave off a lopsided election defeat. CDU party chairman Wolfgang Schuble was later to admit privately that it came as no surprise and that he and Kohl had for some months expected that they were going to lose. Little did they know that defeat would be followed by scandal, debacle and disgrace.

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