Helmut Kohl died on June 16th, aged 87

The Economist, 16.06.2017
  • The former German chancellor piloted his country and Europe through unification

He was just 15 when the war ended. The first Americans he met gave him sweets. Had the war gone on longer, he would have been fighting them.

Helmut Kohl was always conscious of his good luck in having missed all that—die Gnade der späten Geburt, the mercy of a late birth, was how he put it to the Israeli Knesset in 1984. In that sense he was Germany’s first truly post-war politician. His predecessors were all personally burdened by its history: Konrad Adenauer was a political prisoner under Hitler; Ludwig Erhard risked persecution; Kurt Kiesinger was a Nazi Party member; Willy Brandt was in Swedish exile, and Helmut Schmidt fought on the eastern front.

The career politician from the Rhineland was another matter. His times pushed him neither to heroism nor to villainy. But they offered plenty of scope for his ambition, cunning and vision. His formative experience was the post-war economic miracle, the Wirtschaftswunder. West Germany went from ruins to riches, and from being a defeated pariah to a trusted ally. Mr Kohl’s task, when he took over the federal chancellery in 1982, was to finish the job. When he left office in 1998, Germany was reunited, and friends—for the first time—with every neighbour. The capital was about to move from sleepy Bonn to imperial Berlin. Russian forces had pulled out of Europe and NATO had offered membership to Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary. Europe’s single currency, the euro, was a done deal. Only ten years earlier, any of that would have seemed the wildest fantasy. And in every one of those changes Mr Kohl played a decisive role.

His giant girth was much mocked: his nickname was die Birne (“the Pear”). But people underestimated him at their peril. His unabashed provincialism grated with modern-minded Germans who expected their politicians to be cerebral, cultured and cosmopolitan. He spoke no foreign language, and some said his German was poor, too. He displayed only a token interest in art, music and literature. His personal life was fraught: his long-suffering wife Hannelore committed suicide in 2001. Outside politics, his main interest was food: solid German fare, and plenty of it. Asked if anything interrupted his sleep, he said it was night-time forays to the fridge.

But none could match him on tactics, whether inside his Christian Democratic Union or on the wider political stage. An early flash of genius came in the run-up to the 1980 election, when he stepped aside from the contest to make way for his brainy Bavarian rival, Franz-Joseph Strauss. The man from Munich suffered a thumping defeat—clearing the way for Mr Kohl to take over as conservative leader. In 1982 he expertly split Mr Schmidt’s coalition, winning the election which followed. His hold lasted for the next 16 years.

He took over a troubled country. The Baader-Meinhof terrorists had shattered West Germany’s self-image of tolerance and stability. Mr Kohl’s son Walter was an indirect victim: intrusive security meant he never had a normal childhood, he said in a miserable, caustic memoir. West Germany was divided over defence (whether to accept American medium-range nuclear missiles) and about nuclear power. Social changes, especially feminism, were shaking up society, while the division of Germany seemed eternal.

But Mr Kohl exuded certainty. He bulldozed his way through assorted scandals. Pursuing his own Ostpolitik, he scandalised diehard anti-communists by inviting East Germany’s leader, Erich Honecker, to visit. European integration was his passion, marked by a notable bond with France’s president, François Mitterrand; the two men held hands at a commemoration of the slaughter at Verdun. Yet all such efforts were framed by the central and unshakable alliance with America. He invited Ronald Reagan to honour Germany’s war dead at a military cemetery—a step too far, many thought, when it turned out that some SS men were buried there too.

Only with Margaret Thatcher could he strike no chord. When she was holidaying in his favourite lakeside resort he cut short a meeting, pleading “unbreakable commitments”. Walking down the street later, Britain’s leader saw Mr Kohl in a café, busy only with a large cream cake. Their relationship never recovered.


Too big a slice

His political skills were not always matched by judgment. Power-politics with the Kremlin was his forte, not dealing with dissidents. Many in the ex-communist world, perhaps unfairly, found him remote and unsympathetic. He insisted that East Germans’ worthless money should be swapped for Deutschmarks at a ratio of one for one. That was popular at first, but soon destroyed both the easterners’ competitiveness and their jobs. The euro was a political masterstroke, but he ignored warnings, prescient in retrospect, that a common currency needed common political foundations. Gerhard Schröder, his Social Democrat nemesis, inherited (and reformed) an ossified German economy.

Although he made Germany into Europe’s leader, he disliked the controversy it provoked. He disowned his erstwhile protégée Angela Merkel—das Mädchen (“the girl”), as he called her. “She is making my Europe kaputt,” he complained, with unfeigned proprietorial anguish.

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