HELMUT KOHL’S CAREER began inauspiciously. His Christian Democratic Union had schemed its way to power in 1982, undermining the ruling coalition by making backroom deals with the junior Free Democratic Party. It was a controversial move, especially after Kohl gamed the system to call an early election. Mocked for his stocky stature and provincial accent, Kohl earned the nickname Birne – meaning pear – though this quickly became an affectionate one. But, having won a comfortable majority in 1983, and using his substantial skill at building personal relationships, he was able to cement his position at the heart of German political life.
One of his early targets as chancellor was the French president François Mitterrand. Both committed to European integration, they made a symbolic gesture of shaking hands before the Verdun Memorial in France, signalling the reconciliation between their two nations. Though they could never be described as friends, they built an strong working relationship which became the engine for the European project. The same could not be said of Margaret Thatcher, whose relationship with Kohl was so bad that the chancellor once called a an early halt to a meeting, only to be later spotted by the prime minister happily eating cake at a local café.
In 1989, before the fall of the Berlin Wall, Margaret Thatcher met her Soviet counterpart Mikhail Gorbachev. Already there was a sense that the Cold War was coming to a close, and this brought with it the long-dormant spectre of German unification. Thatcher, at this point an ardent Eurosceptic, was one of many contemporary politicians concerned about the potential threat that unified Germany might pose. She told Gorbachev in no uncertain terms ‘we do not want a united Germany’, urging the Soviet president to use his influence over East Germany to prevent it.
Mocked for his stocky stature and provincial accent, Kohl earned the nickname Birne – meaning pear.
From our present vantage point, fear of German warmongering seems outmoded and prejudiced. But to the contemporary European leadership, who still remembered the Second World War and the Nazi regime, there was a very real fear that expansionist militarism was inherent to the German national character. A more pressing concern was that a unified Germany would be able to economically dominate Europe, squeezing out Britain and France and creating an empire-by-default. François Mitterrand, who had been detained as a prisoner of war by the Germans in 1940, warned Thatcher that the new Germany could ‘make more ground than even Hitler had.’
In the end, events took the continent by surprise. The pace of unrest in East Germany accelerated in late 1989, and it became increasingly clear that the Socialist Unity Party was beginning to lose its grip. Such was the overwhelming shift in mood, that during a 70,000-strong demonstration in Leipzig on 9 October, authorities refused to obey party leader Erich Honecker’s shoot to kill order; over the following weeks, first 120,000, then 300,000 emboldened protesters took to the streets. On 18 October, Honecker was deposed, and less than a month later the bewildered authorities could only watch as the streets of East Berlin were swamped by a million people demanding their freedom.
When the Berlin Wall came down on 9 November, Helmut Kohl acted decisively. Realising that a delay could force the intervention of sceptical allies, he swiftly put together a 10-point plan for reunification, informing neither his NATO allies nor his coalition partners, the FDP. At this point, support for unification was up to 70% among West Germans, and the common refrain from East German protesters had become ‘we are one people!’ Kohl could therefore claim to be acting according to the will of the German people rather than to political ends, thereby assuaging the concerns of his allies, to whom the 10-point plan was a significant source of irritation.
Nonetheless, the United States and France saw a chance to extract compromises. President Bush insisted that the unification state remain a member of NATO, despite the objections of the Soviet Union, while Mitterrand, who had long since resigned himself to unification, looked to hasten the establishment of the European single currency. To strengthen his hand, and win further concessions from Germany, he told Thatcher to continue voicing her opposition. Mikhail Gorbachev, meanwhile, met with Kohl in February 1990, clearing the path for unification on West Germany’s terms: he stated afterwards that ‘the Germans must decide for themselves what path they choose to follow’, much to the astonishment of Europe.
Mikhail Gorbachev stated that ‘the Germans must decide for themselves what path they choose to follow’.
Afterwards, things proceeded as Kohl intended. In March, free elections in East Germany saw a satellite of his CDU party win a plurality of seats, and by September both the Volkskammer and the Bundestag had confirmed the unification of the two states. On the stroke of midnight on 9 October 1990, the German tricolour was raised above the Brandenburg Gate, where the Wall had stood less than a year before, and Germany was finally, tearfully, united for the first time since 1945. Kohl’s decisive action, tireless work, and careful negotiation had paid off.
Kohl had successfully balanced managing the concerns of his allies and neighbours with realising the dream of the German people. He had ended fears of renewed German expansionism, too, by finally formally recognising the country’s post-war borders with Poland and Czechia, much to the consternation of those Germans who had been evicted from those countries fifty years before. With his – and Germany’s – position secure, he moved on to grander ambitions, working with Mitterrand to sign the Maastrict Treaty in 1992, which created the European Union and paved the way for the adoption of the euro. When he lost his last bid for reelection in 1994, he left office having made an unparalleled mark on his country and his continent.
It is fitting tribute that, in an unprecedented move, Kohl will be the first person to receive a European act of state. His coffin, draped in the flag of Europe, will lie in state in the European Parliament in Strasbourg, the meeting point of French and German culture. Among the mourners will be Kohl’s one-time protégée, a woman who was once known as ‘Kohl’s girl.’ For it was he who, upon promoting her to his cabinet in 1991, introduced Angela Merkel to the world. Is there a more appropriate eulogy than one delivered by Merkel in the heart of the union he helped to create? I was three years-old when he retired, but few people have done more to define the Europe – and the world – I grew up in than Helmut Kohl.