Chancellor of Germany from 1982 to 1998, winner of four general elections, Helmut Kohl had political weight and enjoyed throwing it about — it helped that he had the physique of a steamroller. The re-unification of West and East Germany happened during his watch, and it was probably the biggest political surprise of post-war Europe. At the beginning of 1989, the year the Berlin Wall came down, Kohl himself was still not anticipating the historic change at hand. Kohl shared the common assumption that Mikhail Gorbachev, general secretary of the Soviet Communist Party, would declare a state of emergency and introduce martial law rather than let East Germany go.
Valentin Falin, Gorbachev’s advisor on German affairs and an experienced hard-liner, told me in an interview that he had been advising Gorbachev to stand firm. In July 1990, Kohl flew to the Soviet Union for a period of 52 hours, in the course of which he and Gorbachev went for a walk without advisors. Telephoning afterward, Falin repeated his view that the Soviet Union could never allow Germany to be re-united within NATO, only to hear Gorbachev say that it was too late, the train had already left the station. Kohl had earned his place in the history books, but Falin wanted to know how exactly he had done it.
Re-unification in Kohl’s view obliged Germany to drop its national character and adopt a new one as a member of the European Union. Otherwise, he said with an unmistakable undertone of threat, Germany might revert to its bad old Nazi ways. Actually, integration between the two Germanys was as difficult and economically unsound as the country’s integration into the EU has been. The victory of the euro over the deutschmark was something of a trauma. Mrs. Thatcher was the most consistent alarmist on the subject of German re-unification, and people around her recall snappy remarks she liked to make about how ponderous and German she found Kohl. French President Francois Mitterand swiftly came to terms with him. The pair were photographed holding hands at a solemn occasion, to which Mrs. Thatcher commented, “How disgusting.” (The satirical magazine Private Eye improved the photograph by adding a brown envelope slipping between the two.)
Born in 1930, Kohl had been enrolled into the Hitler Youth, and he no doubt sincerely hoped that his country’s future would not be an extension of its past. The first German chancellor to address the Knesset in Jerusalem, he took Israeli interests to heart, and invited emigrating Soviet Jews to rebuild the community in Germany. He handpicked Angela Merkel to succeed him as chancellor. When prosecutors discovered that he had been illegally taking large sums of money from anonymous donors for his Christian Democrat party, this cozy relationship became Kaputt, as Kohl expressed it. He was obliged to repay $100,000, and the scandal of it darkened the end of his life.
If the European Union proves a success, then Kohl will be seen as a major statesman. If the EU proves a failure, he will be one among other minor fantasists. The jury is out, and meanwhile RIP.