A German Giant The Political Legacy of Helmut Kohl
He was the chancellor who reunited Germany and advanced European unification. He governed longer than any other German leader before him and became a global statesman who dedicated his life to his country, even if scandals threatened to obscure parts of his legacy.
Helmut Kohl pushed Germany forward. On top of that, he gave Europe the decisive boost for deeper integration and understanding. He was a great statesman, whose services to the country are little diminished by the relatively trivial, self-created scandal shortly after his time in office.
He had almost always found success in his political career -- he was almost always the youngest and at 1.93 meters tall (six feet, four inches), always one of the tallest. When he joined his party, the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU), at 16, he became its youngest member. Later, he would be the youngest person to serve as the head of the CDU's party caucus in his state parliament. Then he became the youngest governor before rising to become the country's youngest chancellor. He remained chancellor for 16 years unchallenged, until the voters finally wielded their power over him -- pushing aside a man whose primary political currency had been power.
His career outside of politics, was an altogether different story. In terms of career preparation, Kohl was something of a late bloomer. He didn't finish high school until the age of 20 in his cherished hometown of Ludwigshafen and he balanced out extremely poor grades in mathematics with nearly perfect ones in German. Of course, school wasn't really about being a talented speaker (grade: poor) or possessing management qualities (grade: satisfactory) nor persistence (excellent). After 16 semesters at the universities in Frankfurt and Heidelberg, he graduated with a cum laude doctorate in history. He was 28 years old at the time -- and had already been a member of the board of the state chapter of the CDU in his home state of Rhineland-Palatinate for three years.
Kohl's Life Goal: To Never Experience War Again
But it wasn't just his drive for politics that slowed the start of his career -- it also had to do with World War II and the turmoil of the postwar period. If it were possible to formulate a life goal for the young Kohl, then it would be this: He never wanted to experience another war.
Shortly before his older brother Walter fell in the war, he had made Helmut promise that he would always take care of their mother. But even more formative for Kohl were the periods shortly before and after the war. During a celebration on his 15th birthday, he was sworn in at a Nazi facility in Berchtesgaden as a member of the Hitler Youth. Five weeks later, the German Reich, Hitler and all the other authorities would disappear.
Basically still a child, Kohl, together with a group of comrades of the same age, began wandering without money, without food and really without any hope for almost two months on foot through a southern Germany destroyed by the ravages of war until they finally caught a glimpse of their hometown across the Rhine River from Mannheim. But the Rhine Bridge had been blown up and the young men had no ID papers. After all the exertion they had gone through, the American military officials only let them return to their parents on the other, French-occupied side of the river several days later. It was an awful time.
Kohl didn't have to decide to become a politician -- the adverse conditions drove him to it. At school, he soon became his class- and later school president because he quickly gained the trust of fellow students and showed talent for organizing good parties, field trips or school lunches. It had a knock-on effect: The pride he found in his achievements provided him with the boost he needed for his next task.
At the time he got involved in the CDU, it was still a party of gray-haired conservatives from the Weimar Republic generation. But he familiarized himself with every current within, and facet of, the party and he quickly adopted one of the basic principles of democracy -- that all that one does for society can also turn out to be beneficial to oneself. As a young university student, he likewise realized that embedding personal relations within a fixed network was vital to a successful career. It was the only way to continue climbing the rungs on the ladder of success -- it was how you rose from the district level to the regional level and then to the state level.
With incredibly hard work and a Lambretta scooter he had saved up to buy with money from his student job as a stone polisher at BASF, he soon began his slow rise within the party, initially working his way up through regional party committees, where he first got to know his later role model Konrad Adenauer (from afar). He put up posters and urged fellow residents of the Palatinate region, who lacked experience with democracy after the years of Nazi dictatorship, from a truck with a loudspeaker to get out and vote. This is how he rose, at the age of 23, to membership in the local party board in the Palatinate region. It was already an early breakthrough for the budding politician.
Establishing the Kohl System
Yet even then, it was possible to discern what would develop into a reliance on personal connections to stay in power as head of the national party. He had discovered the "Kohl System," which holds that, if you know a lot of people, there are a lot of people you can rely on -- people who can then benefit from having provided that help.
Kohl deftly applied his youthful drive in areas like education. At the time, the older generation still clung to the outmoded teaching style of traditional village schools, over which the local priest constantly held a protective hand. He also rallied against the ossification in party leadership positions, targeting the state's governor at the time, the authoritarian Peter Altmeier. As he did so, he continually sought out support from newfound friends. When an unnerved Altmeier stepped down in 1969 after 22 years in office, he offered an exhaustive thanks to his chauffeur but didn't dedicate a single word to his successor, Helmut Kohl.
By that point, Kohl no longer needed that kind of attention anyway. The youngest head of a state government in Germany, he already had his sights set on the national level. That same year, 1969, he was elected as the deputy chair of the national CDU party and also announced his candidacy a year later for party chair after the election loss suffered by former Chancellor Kurt Georg Kiesinger in the 1969 Bundestag election.
Kohl at the Peak of His Power Nationally
But then, the man whose political career had only known one direction to that point lost his first important vote. In October 1971, Rainer Barzel, opposition floor leader in federal parliament, was chosen to lead the CDU, garnering twice the number of votes as his challenger Kohl. He overcame the shame it brought only two years later after Barzel spectacularly failed in his effort to topple center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) Chancellor Willy Brandt with a confidence vote in parliament. Barzel stepped down from his leadership role and 86 percent of the party's delegates voted Kohl in as the CDU's chairman -- an initial high point in his aim to secure national power.
Germany's conservatives at the time were still having trouble getting used to their new role in the opposition after being voted out of power in 1969. For years, Kohl would face bitter and even malicious adversary Franz Josef Strauss, the chairman of Christian Social Union -- the Bavarian sister party to the CDU that often acted more like a squabbling sibling than a partner. Strauss also had his sights set on the Chancellery and he worked tenaciously to try to derail the possibility of a Kohl candidacy, telling people he was "totally incapable" and even threatening to end the decades-long partnership between the two parties and transform the Bavarian party into a national one. This all happened in 1976 at a time when Kohl achieved an impressive election result (with 48.6 percent of the votes) and just barely missed obtaining an absolute majority in parliament.
Kohl then moved to the West German capital of Bonn to become opposition floor leader and, in a clever tactical move, yielded the next chancellor candidacy to Strauss who, as widely predicted, suffered a worse defeat in the 1980 election. This paved the way for Kohl to assume the unchallenged leadership role over Germany's conservatives.
Now all Kohl had to do was wait until then Chancellor Helmut Schmidt of the SPD lost the trust of the left-wing of his own party and, thus, his majority in parliament. With his brash personality and his NATO rearmament policies, Schmidt had strained his relations with leftist SPD members to the point that many preferred to go into opposition than remain in power. After 13 years, SPD rule had come to an end.
Election as Chancellor
Kohl reached his goal in autumn 1982. The Free Democratic Party (FDP), which had been the SPD's junior coalition partner, switched its allegiance to the CDU and parliament elected Helmut Kohl as West Germany's sixth chancellor. At first, Kohl faced considerable headwinds from the media he liked to call the "Hamburg opinion mafia" -- German public broadcaster ARD, Der Spiegel, Stern and Die Zeit -- but also from those intellectuals who were still clinging to their vision of a leftist, socially liberal society. For its part, the FDP had long since abandoned that vision. In 1983, Chancellor Kohl and his coalition government were re-elected for the first time, completing the transition to a socially conservative government.
During his election campaign, he had brashly called for a "spiritual and moral renewal," which many progressives took to mean the end of all reforms and a relapse to the gray, staunch-conservativism of the Adenauer era. Yet despite all indications to the contrary, the CDU chancellor proved to be a pragmatist. He stayed true to the reforms that his two predecessors had undertaken and he maintained their détente-oriented policies with Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. He even assigned an important role to his eternal adversary Strauss in the form of a multibillion mark contract with East Germany, which was in economic dire straits. In 1987, he was re-elected, despite a pair of scandals.
- Part 1: The Political Legacy of Helmut Kohl
- Part 2: The Scandals That Threatened Kohl's Legacy