Kohl—the Life of a Political Giant

Hans-Peter Schwarz: Helmut Kohl.
Eine politische Biographie. DVA-
Sachbuch, 2012.

Last autumn, the 1st of October to be more precise, marked 30 years to the day since Helmut Kohl became Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany. Few people at the time would have guessed that Kohl would go down in history not only as Germany’s longest-serving chancellor but also as a politician who has made a significant contribution to the country’s unification as well as to the deepening of European integration.

A month before the anniversary, the most recent political biography of Helmut Kohl appeared in Germany. The voluminous work—936 pages of text accompanied by a further 100 pages of notes and index of names—was written by Hans-Peter Schwarz, emeritus professor of political science and modern history at Bonn University, author of the acclaimed comprehensive biography of Germany’s first post-war Chancellor Konrad Adenauer.

Kohl’s life has recently been covered by several other authors. In the past decade the former Chancellor himself also published several volumes of his memoirs in an attempt to influence the verdict on his career as well as on key historical events linked to Germany’s unification, the introduction of the euro and the scandal around illegal donations to his party. The fact that the “Honorary Citizen of Europe“ turned out to have been rather heavily involved in a financial scandal, has cost him a significant portion of his reputation. Most of these books, however, have a clear agenda, either seeking to completely condemn Kohl and his role in Germany‘s political history or to uncritically glorify his methods and achievements.

Hans-Peter Schwarz, on the other hand, aspires to the degree of objectivity we have come to expect from a scholar. Yet he himself admits that it is impossible to be a totally unbiased observer, particularly if—as a university professor in Germany’s former capital—one had plenty of opportunities to observe this “giant,” as he tends to refer to his subject, at close quarters. Nevertheless, Schwarz does not seem to lose critical distance except in the last few chapters, where he muses on the role played by the media in Kohl’s party’s financial scandal and in the reporting on the tragic events in the Chancellor’s family: his first wife’s suicide, the complete breakdown of his relations with his two sons and his second marriage to a woman 34 years his junior.

However, in order to deliver on his promise of impartiality without depriving himself of the chance of commenting on events or showing them in a broader context, Schwarz appends several pages of reflection to each longer section, which has the further benefit of helping to break up the descriptive monotony of the preceding biographical chapters.

Helmut Kohl was not just one of Germany‘s longest-serving statesmen but also a political figure that has never ceased to arouse a wide spectrum of emotions. Almost from the start there have been two clearly defined camps: On the one hand, Kohl’s avowed opponents, particularly from the Hamburg-based circles of the left-liberal press (Der Spiegel, Die Zeit, Stern), which have always presented him as an incompetent provincial politician with a chip on his shoulder and delighted in publishing cartoons in which his head was drawn as a pear (Der Spiegel). On the other side of the barricade, Kohl’s admirers have always been willing to overlook even his most obvious failings, regarding him as the most important figure in Germany’s recent history, one who in the tricky post-1990 period suceeded in gaining the trust of the country’s partners and neighbours in a unified Germany.

Schwarz has chosen a chronological approach to presenting Kohl’s life. He begins with an account of Kohl‘s family, pointing out the key role that wartime suffering played in his life and describing his first steps in politics in the youth wing of the newly-founded Christian Democration Union (CDU). It has often been stressed that it was there that Kohl honed his political instincts and acquired his knack of surrounding himself with people who shared his views, entwining them in a web of relationships, acquaintances as well as dependencies. However, already in those early days nobody was allowed to question the premise that there could be only one leader of the pack, i.e. Helmut Kohl. Also in later years, when he became Chancellor, his loyal supporters accepted that Kohl was the one to hold the floor. At his dinner parties he would order the food for everyone, choose the drinks and be the last to leave the table, often in the small hours.

Chapter by chapter, we follow Kohl’s rise to the pinnacle of political power: From his appointment as regional prime minister in Rheinland-Pfalz in 1969, through winning the national CDU leadership in 1973 to finally—after nine years of often impatient waiting and after thwarting the efforts of another major conservative figure, leader of the Bavarian Christian Socialists Franz-Josef Strauss— ascending to the head of German government.

Yet initially things did not augur well for Kohl’s entrance into highest echelons of politics. Schwarz regards his governing style as uneven, indeed chaotic. Kohl also paid a price for his early habit of filling key posts with people who were loyal to him and who did not threaten to get beyond his control. However, when that happened, he tried to get rid of them as soon as he could, as in the case of Kurt Biedenkopf or Heiner Geissler.

By contrast, although initially lacking experience in the international arena, Kohl gradually gained confidence, thanks not least to his longtime adviser, Horst Teltschik. His relations with President Ronald Reagan, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and especially with French President François Mitterand proved particularly fruitful. His relations with the two latter politicians developed in the opposite direction. Although Thatcher and Kohl had a very different temperament, in the 1980s the British Tories were still quite popular with members of Kohl’s CDU. However, relations between the two politicians gradually soured, culminating in the well-documented row over the unification of Germany.

Kohl’s relationship with Mitterrrand took a very different course. Kohl, who had harboured considerable sympathies towards the French and their way of life since his youth, partly under the influence of his first wife, found a key political ally in the socialist Mitterrand. Schwarz cites sources claiming that Kohl and Mitterrand had laid the foundations for the current EU structures, based on a unified internal market and culminating with the common currency, as early as 1983.

However, Schwarz believes that in this respect Kohl had succumbed to concerted pressure from Mitterrand and the then President of the European Commission Jacques Delors, accepting that Germany should give up its trusted currency in the interests of integration. Schwarz quotes former French President Mitterrand: “Germany’s power is based on its economy, with the Deutschmark being Germany’s nuclear bomb.” This disproves the widely accepted view that the replacing of the Deutschmark by the euro was a kind of penalty for agreeing to Germany’s unification, since these plans had been forged at a much earlier date.

Unsurprisingly, this gives Schwarz further food for thought and inspires the rhetorical question as to whether, in terms of the common currency, the German Chancellor had not allowed himself be carried away by a bold vision, neglecting the fine detail. In Hans-Peter Schwarz’s view it will be the future of the euro that will ultimately determine Kohl’s role in the political history not just of Germany but of Europe as a whole.

Robert Schuster

Robert Schuster is the managing editor of Aspen Review Central Europe. He was the editor-in-chief of Mezinárodní politika monthly from 2005 to 2015, and a correspondent of Austrian daily Der Standard in Czech Republic from 2000 till 2012. He is a foreign correspondent of Lidové noviny daily since 2015, where he covers news reports from German-speaking countries. He is a regular guest in commentaries broadcast by Český rozhlas Plus.

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