The father of German unification
HELMUT Kohl, the West German political leader who became an unlikely international statesman when he helped unite Communist East Germany with the West after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and served as chancellor of a unified Germany for much of the 1990s, died at his home in Ludwigshafen. He was 87.
After succeeding the worldly Helmut Schmidt as chancellor in 1982, Kohl was sometimes perceived as a clumsy politician with an uninspiring speaking style and a penchant for public relations gaffes, such as his insistence that US President Ronald Reagan visit the German military cemetery in Bitburg, where members of the Waffen-SS were buried.
Kohl’s legacy seemed to change overnight with the collapse of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989. For 28 years, the wall had stood as one of the most visible symbols of separation between Western Europe and the Communist bloc of eastern European countries.
Kohl seized the opportunity to transform himself into a leader of international stature. Many Germans on both sides of the wall that divided the nation during the Cold War found Kohl’s shambling, diffident manner a comforting relief from the charismatic style of politicians that had become nearly taboo in the post-Hitler period.
When Kohl made a dramatic appearance before 50 000 East Germans in Dresden just six weeks after the fall of the Berlin Wall, he was greeted with tears and chants of “our chancellor”. He drew roaring approval from East German residents by saying, “When the historic moment allows it, let us have the unity of our country.”
He added, “We won’t leave our countrymen in the lurch.”
Kohl made good on that promise by welcoming East Germans into the West with an expensive but powerful gift – agreeing to let East Germans exchange their virtually worthless Communist marks for West Germany’s valuable Deutsche marks on a one-to-one basis. Economists argued he was risking his country’s most cherished asset but the bet paid off in political calm and stability.
Kohl was elected chancellor four times and held Germany’s top political office until 1998.
He was careful to position his country’s expansion and reunification in the post-war structures of the EU and Nato, devoting much of his energy to reassuring France, Britain, the US and the Soviet Union Germany still knew its place.
“We are not a world power and I consider it foolish to dream worldpower dreams,” he said immediately after Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev gave his surprise endorsement of German unity in 1990.
During the Cold War, a divided Germany had played host to the most destructive weapons and most concentrated collection of forces on the planet. The new Germany, Kohl told his partners, would be a successful merchant with a modest diplomatic front, a limited military and a deep fear of getting involved in international conflicts.
Kohl repeatedly promised that the new nation would be a European Germany, without any ambition of creating a German Europe.
Unification was completed by October 1990 in part because Kohl initiated payments of billions of Deutsche marks to the Soviet Union to withdraw troops.
Kohl hoped to be remembered for unifying the two Germanys and ushering the united country into the international community.
“We Germans have learnt from history,” he said. “We are a peaceloving, freedom-loving people. There is only one place for us in the world: at the side of the free nations.” – Washington Post
Former German chancellor Helmut Kohl with his memoir in 2014.