A political leader in the Federal Republic of Germany, Helmut Kohl (born 1930) became chancellor in 1982 at the head of a coalition of three political parties. He stressed symbolic reconciliation with Germany's enemies from World War II.
Helmut Kohl was born in 1930 to a Catholic family in Ludwigshafen, in today's West German province of Rhineland-Pfalz. His parents remained patriotic under the World War II National Socialist government, but were not Nazis. Kohl's origins were particularly important for his political career. Only 15 year old when the war ended, he presented himself as the first chancellor of the post-war generation, not only innocent of Nazi crimes, but grown to political maturity in a democratic German nation.
Interest in Post-War Politics
In 1947 Kohl helped found the "Young Union," the youth organization of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) in Ludwigshafen. He studied law, political science, and history; and in 1958, he completed his doctoral dissertation on post-war political parties in the Pfalz province. First elected to the parliament of Rhineland-Pfalz in 1959, he served as minister president, or governor, of that province between 1969 and 1976. Under Kohl's leadership, the CDU in Rhineland-Pfalz consistently increased its share of votes, reaching 50 percent in 1971 and 53.9 percent in 1975. During these years Kohl rose to national prominence.
Losses in the national parliamentary elections of 1969 forced the CDU out of the national government for the first time in 20 years. Kohl became one of a group of younger leaders seeking to return the party to power. Chosen as head of the national party in 1973, one of his highest priorities was the structural reorganization of the CDU, especially giving it a broader membership. In 1976 Kohl first ran for the office of chancellor as the candidate of the CDU and its more conservative Bavarian ally, the Christian Social Party (CSU). Kohl was a moderate, with appeal to liberal voters, and the CSU was at first unenthusiastic about his candidacy. When Kohl lost to the Social Democratic Party's (SPD) Helmut Schmidt, relations between Kohl and the CSU's flamboyant chief, Franz-Josef Strauss, worsened. In the elections of 1980 Kohl had to step aside while Strauss ran as the CDU/CSU candidate. Strauss' own more severe defeat, however, strengthened Kohl's position in the party.
In 1982 the ruling coalition of the SPD and the small liberal party, the FDP (Free Democratic Party), collapsed when the FDP decided to ally its crucial swing votes with the CDU. On October 1, 1982, Helmut Kohl became chancellor. The new government was a coalition containing representatives of the CDU, CSU, and FDP and was confirmed in office in elections held in March of 1983. The CDU received 38.2 percent of the vote, its best result since 1957. Kohl proclaimed his government a "turning point" (Wende) in German politics.
In his first major address as chancellor, Kohl linked three crises plaguing the Federal Republic: a crisis of economic growth and employment, a financial crisis of the state, and an intellectual-political crisis. He pledged a historical new beginning through a "coalition of the middle." He planned the creation of new jobs through economic recovery, tax relief for the middle classes, and tax incentives for housing; the financial crisis would require a no-interest "loan" from wealthier tax-payers and a lowering of the state's credit needs. Kohl also announced the further development of cable television and atomic energy. In general, he planned to attack all three crises through an expansion of private economic growth. His support of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) decision to place Pershing missiles in the Federal Republic signaled his emphasis on Western alliances. These conservative policies resembled those of Ronald Reagan in the United States and Margaret Thatcher in England.
Kohl's "turning point" was only partly achieved. His major success was a strong economic recovery through early 1985. Corrected for inflation, the gross national product grew 1.3 percent in 1983, the first real growth since 1980. Unemployment rates remained high, however. The Federal Republic's highest court declared the no-interest loan from wealthier tax-payers unconstitutional. Kohl faced recurrent criticism from the CSU and Strauss; the CDU's coalition partners were frequently in public disagreement over social measures—for example, abortion and punishments for public demonstrators who wore masks. Furthermore, the "intellectual-political" crisis was worsened by three political scandals. The first concerned the controversial early retirement of a high general accused of frequenting a homosexual bar. The "Flick affair" revealed that some politicians in all parties had taken money from the giant Flick concern at the time when that company was successfully applying for enormous tax exemptions. The affair hurt the CDU in particular when revelations about Rainer Barzel, the parliamentary president, forced him to resign. The "party-contributions affair" also implicated all parties, although especially the CDU and FDP, in hiding illegal financial contributions.
In foreign policy Kohl's policies were controversial, but generally popular. Relations with Eastern European countries worsened slightly. Kohl's government repeatedly reaf-firmed its adherence to treaties made under the SPD recognizing the national boundaries of Eastern European countries, but the CDU's simultaneous insistence that Germany eventually be reunited chilled relations with Poland and the former Soviet Union. Erich Honecker, head of the German Democratic Republic (East Germany), canceled a planned visit to the Federal Republic in the fall of 1984, and Poland strongly condemned Kohl's tolerance for those in his party who sought to reunite with Germany territory lost to Poland after World War II.
Kohl's most important foreign policy initiative toward the West was his attempt at symbolic reconciliation with Germany's enemies from World War II. He clasped the hand of French President François Mitterand during a visit to graveyards of both German and French soldiers at Verdun in September of 1984. He persuaded Ronald Reagan to carry out a gesture of reconciliation at a German military graveyard in Bitburg in May of 1985, near the 40th anniversary of Germany's surrender in World War II, despite the outcry this caused in the United States. Kohl insisted upon this gesture, not only because it was widely popular in the Federal Republic, but because he was determined to draw a line between Nazi Germany and today's Federal Republic. As he said to a somewhat shocked Israeli audience in January of 1984, "A young generation of Germans does not understand the history of Germany as a burden, but as a mandate for the future. It is ready to take responsibility. But it refuses to acknowledge collective guilt for the deeds of the fathers." Whether Kohl, as a member of this young generation, could so easily change the world's perceptions of Germany was doubtful, but part of his significance as a leader was his articulation of this popular longing.
The Reunification of Germany
Importantly, Kohl is credited with the reunification of Germany. The fall of the Berlin Wall, which took place on November 9, 1989, was more to the credit of former Soviet Union President Mikhail Gorbachev. However, before the year's end, Kohl seized the opportunity to publicly announce that he would reunite his country. Indeed, Germany was peacefully reunited by the following year, and Kohl was re-elected in 1990 and 1994. The divide between east and west remained in the nation's psyche, however, as unemployment in the east seemed to cause resentment of immigrants, which, in turn, led to neo-Nazi violence. While Kohl has taken an anti-nationalistic approach, the rest of the Europe remains wary of a unified, nationalistic Germany. Kohl, who is firmly committed to Germany's part in the European Community, has announced plans to run for a fifth term in 1998.
Further Reading on Helmut Kohl
The economy that Kohl found upon taking office is discussed in Andrei S. Markovits, editor, The Political Economy of West Germany: Modell Deutschland (1982). There is much information on the chancellor in Michael Balfour, West Germany (1982, 2nd ed.). For more recent information, see also: Newsweek, December 11, 1989, January 29, 1990, March 19, 1990; Time, July 30, 1990 and December 10, 1990; Christian Science Monitor, March 9, 1993 and March 11, 1993; and Economist, April 12, 1997.