Cold war’s unheralded hero
Historians often cite the trio of Ronald Reagan, Pope John Paul II and Margaret Thatcher as having played critical roles in bringing down the evil empire of the Soviet Union. A fourth name should be added: Helmut Kohl, who died recently at age 87. When Kohl became chancellor in 1982 of what was
then West Germany, the Soviet Union was engaged in an ultra-high-stakes political offensive to shatter the Western alliance and win the Cold War. Moscow had developed and then positioned intermediate-range nuclear missiles that were aimed primarily at Germany. The goal: to blackmail West Germany into fatally weakening its ties to NATO, which would enable the Soviet Union to dominate Europe. The threat looked all too real. If Moscow fired its missiles at Germany, would the U.S. retaliate with a nuclear attack on the Soviet Union, risking its own nuclear annihilation? After all, even if we made such a response, the Soviets would still be capable of firing off enough of their missiles to obliterate us. Moscow was betting that its targeting of Germany with shorter-range rockets would, for all intents and purposes, emasculate our nuclear deterrent and force the West German government to cut a deal with Moscow, effectively becoming a neutral nation à la Finland.
The obvious response was for the U.S. to station its own intermediaterange nuclear missiles in Germany that could then reach Russia. (We once had shorter-range missiles stationed in Turkey, but we had quietly pulled them out as part of the deal that settled the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.) But would Bonn (then the capital of West Germany) allow those weapons on German soil? Opposition—stoked with plentiful amounts of Soviet cash and fueled by an elaborate Soviet-orchestrated propaganda campaign—was fierce: “Don’t let our country become a nuclear wasteland! Keep American missiles out!”
Chancellor Kohl was having none of it; there was no more equivocation like that of his predecessor. He was firm: Those U.S. missiles would be placed on German soil. Period. Despite intense pressure, domestically and from Moscow, Kohl wouldn’t back down.
Moscow lost its great gamble, a setback that was even more damaging than its blinking during the Cuban missile showdown, because this was a crucial factor in setting the stage for the fall of the Berlin Wall several years later.
Kohl had two other major achievements during his time in office. One was the peaceful reunification of his country after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The U.S.S.R. wasn’t keen on Germany’s coming together again, nor was France or Britain. But Kohl’s determination and skillful diplomacy won the backing of the U.S. and substantially softened French resistance (Kohl had worked hard for years to establish a close relationship with France’s president, François Mitterrand). In the end Kohl not only merged East Germany with West Germany, but he also got Moscow to acquiesce in the new country’s remaining in NATO.
The chancellor also pushed hard for the creation of the euro, even though Germans wanted to maintain their beloved deutsche mark. Kohl believed a unified currency would help further integrate Germany with the rest of Europe. He wanted to do everything possible to avoid a repeat of what had happened in the first half of the 20th century. He can’t be blamed for the fact that most Europeans today (and almost all economists elsewhere) are embarrassingly clueless about what constitutes an effective monetary policy.
Kohl was Germany’s longest-serving chancellor (1982–98) since Otto von Bismarck. Kohl reunited Germany by peaceful means in 1990. Bismarck achieved the original German unification through “blood and iron,” that is, by cynically engineering a series of wars with his neighbors.
May Helmut Kohl’s legacy be the one that triumphs in the future.
SF with Helmut Kohl, 1984. It was clear the German leader wouldn’t buckle under to pressure from Moscow or domestic demonstrators.