Nuclear Disarmament How Helmut Kohl Nearly Prolonged the Cold War

Newly released secret documents reveal that Chancellor Helmut Kohl opposed negotiating with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in the late stages of the Cold War. Had the West German leader prevailed, it's likely the conflict would have ended very differently.

From left to right: Chancellor Helmut Kohl, Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in 1990.
Sven Simon

From left to right: Chancellor Helmut Kohl, Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in 1990.


The interview with Hans-Dietrich Genscher had come to an end and the former German foreign minister was standing in the door of his home near Bonn to see out his visitor.

But there was time for one last question: What had Genscher's relationship with his former coalition partner, ex-Chancellor Helmut Kohl, been like? Did he like him? The answer, on this spring day several years ago, was "yes." There was a personal connection, Genscher said, but also a lot of wounds that went "more than just skin deep."

From 1982 to 1992, Genscher and Kohl governed West Germany, and then Germany, together. They negotiated German reunification and paved the way for the euro. But at the same time, the two men -- who addressed each other using the informal "du" -- spent years waging a protracted feud, a battle that overshadowed their relationship until the end of their lives. Information was leaked, accusations leveled and insults spread.

Kohl, a member of the center-right Christian Democrats (CDU), called Genscher a "master of self-promotion." Genscher, from the pro-business Free Democrats (FDP), maintained that the chancellor was not an international political heavyweight, saying there was simply nothing there.

Some of it was just muscle flexing. But there were also considerable, substantive differences, with far-reaching consequences. The most important conflict centered around Soviet reformer Mikhail Gorbachev, who took over the Kremlin in 1985 and pursued a policy of détente. While Genscher saw Moscow's new policy as an opportunity, Kohl was far more skeptical.

Secret documents from 1987 that have now been released show the extent of the discord -- and how lucky the Germans were. The Institute of Contemporary History in Munich published the paper at the behest of the German Foreign Ministry: ambassadors' reports, analyses from department heads, conversation transcripts from the archives of the Foreign Ministry and the Chancellery, and several letters from Kohl's private home in Oggersheim.

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The documents reveal that when Kohl met with other heads of state and government, he would rail against the new Soviet leader in Moscow, and the German leader tried to put the brakes on the Soviets' disarmament initiatives. The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF Treaty), which banned nuclear intermediate-range missiles, is now considered a major turning point of the Cold War. Back then, though, it seemed for a time as though it would fail due to Bonn's concerns.

Kohl's Skepticism

In May 1987, Kohl was even secretly preparing a new arms initiative. He wanted European NATO member states to join together and demand the stationing of new U.S. nuclear missiles in Europe. On May 6, he asked Belgian Prime Minister Wilfried Martens if his country would join in the effort. If he would, Kohl said, it "could succeed in winning over the Italians, and thus create a European position that could be presented to the U.S.A." Kohl told his officials not to pass along the memo pertaining to the conversation to the Foreign Ministry.

If Kohl had succeeded, it's hard to believe Gorbachev would have accepted the fall of the Berlin Wall and German reunification just two years later.

Ultimately, though, Genscher managed to get his way. Kohl retreated from his plan because he was afraid of triggering "serious friction within the coalition," as he put it. Frank Elbe, who was then Genscher's deputy office manager, said it "required tremendous effort to change the chancellor's mind."

Still, the two coalition partners were largely working well together. After the coalition came out on top after the federal election in January 1987, Genscher sent Kohl a hand-written note in which he assured him three times of his "friendly fellowship."

Soon thereafter, though, it became clear how differently the chancellor and his foreign minister perceived the new man in Moscow. Kohl said that he viewed the Soviet leader's reform policies "without enthusiasm, coolly." Genscher, meanwhile, said at the World Economic Forum in Davos that instead of waiting for Gorbachev "with arms crossed," the West should take initiative -- something Kohl neither could do nor wanted to.

Because Gorbachev was dismissive of Kohl. He pushed back a visit to Bonn several times, preferring instead to extend invitations to the chancellor's rivals: first German President Richard von Weizsäcker; then Franz Josef Strauß, head of the Christian Social Union, the Bavarian sister party of the CDU; then the governor of the German state of Baden Württemberg, Lothar Späth; and finally Genscher.

Kohl was displeased and took his revenge with unfriendly statements, occasionally including crude references to the Nazi era. He told the American Secretary of State that Gorbachev was "cold and rational" whereas Hitler had demonstrated "pathological traits." Kohl, who had completed a doctorate in history, said this represented the "decisive difference" between the Soviet Union and the Third Reich.

At other moments, he warned the Americans that Gorbachev was hoping that a "fool" would move into the White House and make the country more isolationist. Then, he said, the Kremlin would be able to "implement its political vision" in Europe with the help of the Social Democrats and the Green Party.

Interpersonal Conflict

But Gorbachev's behavior didn't conform to such scenarios. The Soviet leader wanted to reform the crumbling Soviet empire, particularly its economy, and put an end to the Cold War. He surprised the West by pursuing several disarmament initiatives, often at the expense of the Soviet military.

One initiative called for Washington and Moscow to destroy their land-based, intermediate-range nuclear missiles in Europe. The West had always called for such a plan, often referred to as the "zero solution." But Kohl apparently had only supported the proposal because he figured the Kremlin would never agree to it. Internally, he described the zero solution as a "mistake." After an "intense discussion," as Genscher described it, Kohl complied and stuck to the official position.

The atmosphere in the coalition, Elbe recalls, was icy at that point. He liked to compare Genscher to a "giant insect" which felt out its surroundings with its antennae, trying to figure out where to move forward and where to take a step back. In the spring of 1987, Genscher smelled an opportunity "to remove the towering Soviet dominance when it comes to nuclear weapons."

Kohl, meanwhile, followed sullenly from Bonn as the superpowers pushed forward the disarmament negotiations in Geneva -- and Gorbachev became the new darling of the Germans, a status that Kohl, to his disappointment, never attained. Noting that some in the West had nominated Gorbachev for the Nobel Peace Prize, Kohl said it was an "absurd idea." The Kremlin leader, he claimed, was only popular in Germany because he was manipulating the mood with "considerable amounts of money."

The chancellor tried to slow his Soviet rival down several times. When Gorbachev suggested that he was also ready to scrap shorter-range nuclear missiles -- the so-called double-zero option -- the German chancellor sought to put a stop to it in NATO. He also demanded that the 72 nuclear Pershing I missiles stationed in Germany be excluded from the Geneva negotiations. According to Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze, this was the "number one obstacle" for the far-reaching disarmament deal.

Even though the world was further from a nuclear catastrophe at that point than at any previous moment in the Cold War, the chancellor was still expecting the worst. If West Germany was attacked, he argued, NATO needed to be able to launch missiles from the country at the Soviet Union. As such, Kohl wanted to replace the aging Pershing I arsenal with new missiles and distribute them across NATO. He had already spoken to Belgium about it.

But Genscher countered him on all points. For weeks, a conflict raged that none of those involved would ever forget. In one of the few letters to Genscher still in existence, now in the files kept by his widow, Maike Kohl-Richter, the chancellor warned the foreign minister against "taking another big step" towards compromise with the Soviet Union. He added threateningly that he would "monitor developments particularly closely."

Kohl Beaten Down

Genscher said many years later that Kohl had difficulty accepting that someone could stand in his way who he couldn't circumvent. The FDP politician, however, had two powerful allies: U.S. President Ronald Reagan, who was nearing the end of his tenure and dreaming of a nuclear-free world. He absolutely wanted the deal with Moscow. And he had the peace movement, too, which was often criticized for being overly susceptible to Soviet propaganda.

But politicians in Bonn had no interest in further conflicts with the movement. In 1987, the mass demonstrations against NATO's Double-Track Decision, the offer to Warsaw Pact countries to limit ballistic missiles paired with a threat should they refuse, had only taken place a couple of years previously. The West German government didn't want a new armament debate, which made it willing to compromise with Gorbachev.

At the end of August, Kohl acquiesced, saying he had resigned himself to "the security policy of Hans-Dietrich Genscher." Several months later, Gorbachev and Reagan signed the INF Agreement. The document was a milestone in the history of disarmament, marking the first time an entire weapons category had been banned and making further agreements easier in the years to come.

Gorbachev was restrained in his gratitude for Bonn's contribution to the breakthrough. He sent Kohl a letter saying that the chancellor had done "what we, like all the Europeans, were entitled to expect from West Germany."

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