Helmut Kohl, obituary: The man who reunified Germany and encouraged European integration

He was the youngest ever Chancellor of Germany, until Angela Merkel assumed the role in 2005. He was considered a poor public speaker, but his ruthless and shrewd back-room negotiating skills served him well  

David Childs
Friday 16 June 2017 18:25 BST
Margaret Thatcher and her German counterpart Helmut Kohl at a press conference in 1983
Margaret Thatcher and her German counterpart Helmut Kohl at a press conference in 1983

Helmut Kohl will be best known as the Chancellor who presided over German reunification in 1990 and as an influential proponent of European integration. Elected 6th Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany, in 1982, he held the record as the youngest until Angela Merkel was elected in 2005. Up to now he held the record as the longest-serving Chancellor. He was also the first of the post-war generation who were too young to have been involved in the Second World War.

Born 1930, in Ludwigshafen am Rhein, Helmut Kohl grew up in a family whose strong patriotism was tempered by Roman Catholicism. His father, a tax official, had been promoted from the ranks to officer in the First World War. His older brother was killed in the Second World War. Luckily for Helmut, the war ended just in time and he was able to leave his pre-military training camp and head for his devastated home town.

At 17, while still at the Max Planck Gymnasium (grammar school), he was one of the co-founders of the Junge Union branch, the youth movement of the Christian Democrats (CDU), in Ludwigshafen. Kohl studied history and politics at Frankfurt and Heidelberg universities being awarded a doctorate for a dissertation on the rebirth, after 1945, of political parties in the Palatinate.

On leaving university, he was appointed full-time official of the Chemical Industry Association. At the same time he was advancing his political career. He served on his local town council, in the regional parliament and, still only 35, was elected the CDU Chairman in Rhineland-Palatinate.

At 39 he was elected, 19 May 1969, Minister-President (Prime Minister) of the Rhineland-Palatinate, the youngest leader of West Germany’s 11 regional states. He was also Deputy Chairman of the Federal CDU. As Prime Minister, until 1976, Kohl reformed the administrative structure in the Rhineland-Palatinate, introduced job-creation schemes, presided over the establishment of a second university, Trier-Kaiserlautern, and, despite his Catholicism, abolished faith schools.

In May 1972 Kohl was elected CDU Chairman. He was selected to be his party’s candidate for the Chancellorship in 1976 opposing the charismatic Social Democratic Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, with the slogan, ‘Freiheit statt Sozialismus’ (Freedom instead of Socialism). He was regarded as a shrewd back-room negotiator, ruthless, yet lacking a platform personality. He was considered a poor speaker, articulating as he did, with a strong regional accent. He was much underestimated.

Although the CDU made some progress, and Kohl was elected to the Bundestag, it was not enough to dislodge Schmidt. Kohl decided to not seek the Chancellorship at the election of 1980 and his career seemed to be in decline. However, the failure of the Christian Democratic challenger, Franz-Josef Strauss, to defeat Schmidt, improved Kohl’s chance of the top job in German politics. Schmidt’s SPD was divided over defence, nuclear policy, anti-terrorist strategy, and measures to combat rising unemployment following the oil crisis of 1979.

Its pro-business partner, the FDP, withdrew from the coalition and backed Kohl for Chancellor. He was duly elected, on 1 October 1982, by the Bundestag. He went to the country in March 1983, and to the surprise of some, the Christian Democrats won 244 seats with 34 for the FDP. The SPD was reduced to 198 and the Greens, cashing in on anti-nuclear feeling, entering the Bundestag for the first time, with 27 seats. Despite, considerable loss of support, on a lower turnout, Kohl’s Christian Democrats saw off a challenge in the election of 1987.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and former Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi (right) accompany former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl at a gala evening in his honour at the Deutsches Museum in 2012 

Kohl’s party was reduced to 223 seats, its FDP coalition partner improved its position to 46 seats, with the Greens gaining 42, and the SPD further reduced to 186. A new leader had appeared on the international stage, in 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev, and West German Foreign Minister and FDP leader, Hans-Dietrich Genscher, recognised him as a man of peace. At first Gorbachev did not appreciate Kohl. In 1986 he even likened him to Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels.

Their assessment of each other soon changed. When the Soviet leader and his wife flew to Bonn on 12 June, 1989, they received an ecstatic welcome. Ordinary Germans lined the streets shouting ‘Gorby’ ‘Gorby’. These scenes and the reception given to the Gorbachevs by Hannelore Kohl, in the Kohl’s modest home, convinced Gorbachev that West Germany was not revanchist. By then Gorbachev had made many reforms at home and promised not to intervene in the internal affairs of Soviet-bloc states.

Meanwhile, Kohl worked closely with French, Socialist, François Mitterrand, President since May 1981, and other European leaders to increase cooperation among the European nations. He was able to improve West Germany’s economy and the nation’s standing among European allies and with the United States led, since 1981, by Ronald Reagan. Kohl appeared to be more Atlanticist than his predecessor yet, in 1987, he received East German leader Erich Honecker - the first ever visit by an East German head of state to West Germany. This is generally seen as an indication that Kohl pursued Ostpolitik, a policy of detente between East and West,as vigorously as Schmidt had done.

Kohl was on an official visit in Poland when the Berlin Wall came down on the night of 9 November 1989. While the Chancellor encouraged movement towards democracy in the East and quietly supported the concept of German reunification, he had to tread carefully for fear of provoking a Soviet-backed crackdown in the GDR. Additionally, Kohl was concerned about the growing number of eastern refugees flooding into West Germany.

However, the changes came much faster than Kohl, Horst Teltschik, his foreign policy adviser, or most other people, had anticipated. When he visited the East German city, Dresden, in December 1989, he made an unscheduled speech to an East German crowd and was taken a back by the enthusiasm of his audience. This and other incidents convinced him of the desire of very many East Germans to gain reunification with West Germany. On 28 November, three weeks after East Germany’s border was opened, Kohl stunned the Bundestag — and the world — by unveiling a 10-point plan for German unity based on a confederation of the two states.

Early in 1990, Kohl threw his weight behind the GDR parties seeking reunification. In March 1990 the Alliance for Germany, which backed reunification, won the first democratic election. On 18 May 1990, Kohl signed an economic and social union treaty with the GDR. Against the will of the president of the German federal bank, he agreed a 1:1 conversion course for wages, interest and rent between the West and East Marks, a move that he hoped would prevent economic collapse in the GDR and slow down the increasing numbers going to the West. In the end, this policy would seriously hurt businesses in the GDR. Kohl later admitted that he had been taken in by Communist claims about the strength of the GDR economy.

On reunification, Kohl had to placate the leaders of the ‘big four’ nations, George Bush, Mikhail Gorbachev, Margaret Thatcher and Francois Mitterrand. In the event, Bush was the most supportive and Thatcher the least. All were under pressure from the East Germans themselves. On 23 August the East German parliament passed, with a large majority, entry of the GDR to the area of jurisdiction of the constitution (Basic Law) of the Federal Republic. The Two-Plus-Four talks followed, involving the foreign ministers of the US, Soviet Union, Britain and France, and the two German states. Hard-working Genscher signed for the Federal Republic. They were concluded in September in favour of reunification.

At the same time, Kohl’s government worked out another treaty with the GDR, the Eingigungsvertrag extending most West German laws to the territory of the GDR and making Berlin the future capital of the united country. Both agreements were approved in September. Reunification was achieved on 3 October, 1990. After the 1990 elections — the first free and democratic all-German elections since the Weimar Republic before 1933— Kohl won by a landslide over opposition candidate and Prime Minister of Saarland, Oskar Lafontaine, who had prevaricated on re-unification.

Because German reunification represented such a dramatic change in the European landscape Kohl was under greater pressure from Paris to further integrate Germany into the European Community. He was the architect, together with François Mitterrand, of the Maastricht Treaty, 1992, which created the European Union.

In elections in September 1998 the Social Democratic Party (SPD) of Gerhard Schröder, in alliance with the Green Party, defeated Kohl’s ruling coalition. The CDU/CSU lost 49 seats in the 669-seat lower house of parliament, to finish with 245. The SPD gained 46 seats, to finish with 298, and the Green Party garnered 47. As the head of the CDU, Kohl took responsibility for the defeat and resigned as party leader, although loyal party members immediately voted to name him honorary chairman.

Once out of office Kohl faced attacks on his integrity in late 1999 and early 2000 as a scandal involving millions of marks in illegal funds rocked the CDU. At the centre of the scandal was Kohl’s admittance that he had accepted large sums in secret campaign contributions between 1993 and 1998. He refused to identify the donors, violating German election laws. As the investigation widened, many called for Kohl to be expelled from the CDU, and in January 2000 he stood down as as honorary chairman of the party. In February 2001 prosecutors agreed to drop a criminal investigation into Kohl’s fundraising practices in exchange for his payment of a fine.

Separately, Kohl won a court battle to prevent publication of hundreds of his private conversations taped during the Cold War by the East German secret police, Stasi. Kohl’s political enemies have claimed that he feared the Stasi might have picked up details relating to a network funds and Swiss bank accounts set up by his party in the Seventies and Eighties.

Kohl’s private life also came under the spotlight. On 5 July 5, 2001, Kohl’s wife, Hannelore, committed suicide, after suffering from photodermatitis for some years. Her excellent English and French were useful to Kohl who only spoke German. Born in Berlin (1933), she spent her childhood in Leipzig and this helped Helmut both before and during the reunification period. Attempts were made to link her death with Juliane Weber’s friendship with her husband for whom Weber had worked since 1965. Kohl was indirectly linked to a suspicious death in France. Diethelm Höner, a German millionaire friend of the Kohls, was found dead in his villa in Cannes in January, 2001. He had been their informal financial adviser, running the affairs of Hannelore Kohl’s charitable foundations. The financier, who had links to intelligence and business circles, had apparently fallen downstairs but French prosecutors investigated his death. Höner was connected with the Elf scandal, in which bribes were allegedly paid by the French oil company to Helmut Kohl’s CDU.

On 4 March, 2004, Kohl published the first volume of his autobiography, Erinnerungen, 1930-1982, (Memories, 1930-1982) which disappointed some as he wrote little about his childhood and youth. In the second volume, Erinnerungen, 1982-1990, published on 3 November, 2005, he did not deny his difficulties with British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, who “always gave me headaches”.

Above all, during the process of German reunification in 1989 she played an unfriendly, dangerous role.’ A third volume Erinnerungen, 1990-1994 dealt with Kohl’s happiest years in office but also with such problems as the gulf war and the break up of Yugoslavia. In Mein Tagebuch 1998 – 2000 (My Diary,1998-2000) he sought to expose his enemies and justify his actions especially in relations to his party finances.

In 1998, Kohl was only the second person to be awarded the Grand Cross of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany, the other being Konrad Adenauer. Among Kohl’s many other awards was the American Presidential Medal of Freedom awarded in 1999 by President Bill Clinton.

Helmut Josef Michael Kohl, former Chancellor of Germany, born 3 April, died 16 June 2017

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