Published in the Spiegel on 22 June 2017
Father and figurehead
I was 16 when I first consciously took note of Helmut Kohl. It was during the Bundestag election campaign of 1976, which pitched Helmut Schmidt against Helmut Kohl. Speaking at the marketplace in Goslar, Kohl extolled the virtues of freedom over socialism. And we young Socialists held up our hand-painted poster with the words, “Allow yourselves to be duped by Kohl and you’ll be fleeced by Strauß,” complete with a caricature of Kohl with an ostrich (Strauß in German) on his shoulder. In those days, election campaigns were still far more suffused with ideology than they are today, and one may wonder if Helmut Kohl himself might later have seen the funny side of branding Helmut Schmidt an illiberal Socialist.
When Kohl became Chancellor, I was a young student. When he left office, I was Chairman of the SPD Parliamentary Group in Lower Saxony. Back then, I thought of Kohl as the eternal Chancellor. The fact that he remained in office for so long was due to his single-minded desire for power, his exceptional political instincts and the firm convictions he held as a German and European patriot. These can be summed up in a single sentence: Never again should there be war in Europe.
I have often asked myself where someone like that came from – someone who with astonishing endurance first sought democratic power and then successfully wielded it and clung to it in the face of so much resistance. The young Kohl was a party moderniser who rose rapidly in the provinces. He never denied his provincial roots, although he was ridiculed for them from early on in his political career. What mockery and malice he endured! He was taunted by the media, by cabaretists, satirists and impersonators from the start of his Chancellorship. No CEO in the private sector would have put up with this media frenzy for more than three months! Kohl bore it without a word of public complaint, he simply sat it out, and ultimately emerged as a cult figure. But at the time, nobody thought he had the makings of a historic statesman.
The critical moment came in the middle of his Chancellorship, when it came down to doing the right thing for his country and for Europe. He evinced that courage to take risks which one only sees in those who are ready and able to take decisive action at such moments in history. During the months after the Fall of the Berlin Wall, Kohl paved the way for German unity and for conciliation in Europe. Without him there would have been no Maastricht Treaty and no single currency. He enjoyed international confidence as the guarantor of a peaceful Germany. He was perceived as a provincial politician, but he had no qualms about turning the wheel of history.
His domestic achievements after 16 long years in power were not nearly as impressive. During his time in office, the media also took great pleasure in broadcasting his mistakes. Especially in the final years of his Chancellorship, a proverbial “mildew” had settled on Germany. “Reformstau” - a backlog of reforms – was the word of the year in 1997. Kohl himself is said to have foretold the end of his Chancellorship, allegedly jotting “Schröder, 1998” on a beermat. This story, too, was just like him, since nobody in his party had the courage or the strength to challenge or topple him. He was the father and figurehead of “his” CDU, which he ruled like no other before. His grip on power was absolute.
After losing his post as Chancellor in 1998, the dark side of Kohl’s at times complete dominance over the CDU became ever more apparent, a dark side that keen observers had always supposed was there. His refusal to name the big donors – who have remained unknown to this day – and his way of dealing with party donations in general has profoundly scarred “his” CDU, as well as his political life‑time achievements. It was above all his self-righteous attitude in the light of these transgressions that prevented his political legacy from being heralded during his lifetime. He stood in his own way. Triumph and tragedy were only a hair’s breadth apart, in his private life too.
What remains? His outstanding political achievements for the cause of freedom and for coexistence in Germany and Europe still reverberate today. He had an instinct for hitting the right note, for tempo and timing. As a passionate European, Kohl completed the project begun by his predecessors in office, Adenauer, Brandt and Schmidt, of making the Franco-German friendship part of Germany’s raison d’état. He never treated the smaller EU member states with condescension. He was a maker of history of almost Shakespearean proportions. And when one looks at Europe today and at the recurring strangely pusillanimous debates on our country’s financial contributions to this same Europe, a return of this Kohlean passion seems highly desirable. He was always aware that the corollary of a single currency was a willingness to shoulder mutual responsibility at some cost to us Germans. But for Kohl, those were investments in our own future, which would pay dividends for the Germans in particular. He was a great patriot – and a great European. Much greater than I ever could have suspected back in Goslar in 1976.