Helmut Kohl

Helmut Kohl in Europe

Life and Work of Helmut Kohl (1930-2017)

The Concise Encyclopedia of the European Union describes helmut kohl (1930-2017) in the following terms: [1] A man of vast physical bulk and uncomplicated political beliefs, Helmut Kohlwas for many years a dominating figure in Europe, though perhaps underrated in Germany, where the demise of his career was frequently predicted and as frequently falsified by events.

As a boy Kohl saw at first hand the final throes of a war in which his brother was killed and which he attributed to nationalism. During his formative years the idea of a natural connection between the nation state and political confrontation – even armed conflict – became fixed in the German consciousness, informing Kohl’s lifelong approach to the development of the EU and leading to repeated clashes with the British prime ministers Margaret Thatcher and John Major, both of whom saw national sovereignty, expressed through elected parliaments, as the bastion of democratic legitimacy.

Kohl joined the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) at 17, serving his political apprenticeship as a centrist conservative in the Rhineland-Palatinate Land and becoming the party leader in 1973. In 1982 he became chancellor of the Federal Republic when the Free Democrats switched coalition allegiance from the Socialists to the CDU. Thereafter he remained chancellor for 16 years, winning four elections and becoming the longest-serving German head of government since Bismarck. He owed his political longevity partly to the weakness of his opposition and partly to his skill and indefatigability in behind-the-scenes bargaining, an essential feature of his coalition administration.

In foreign affairs, Kohl was a strong supporter both of NATO and of the Franco-German alliance. He never wavered in pushing forward European integration, a cause in which he found his staunchest ally in the socialist Jacques Delors. He was one of the architects, and the most vehement proponent, of EMU, which he saw as a milepost on the road to European political union. He did not allow the occasional disagreement with France (for example, over French protectionism or nuclear testing) to overshadow a relationship which he conceived, like former chancellors Konrad Adenauer and Helmut Schmidt, as the power-house of Europe.

The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 was a defining moment for Kohl. His single-minded determination to seize the opportunity to achieve German reunification was rewarded in 1990 when, despite the misgivings of Mitterrand, Thatcherand Italy’s Giulio Andreotti, he incorporated the former communist German Democratic Republic first into the Federal Republic and then into the EC. This triumph, however, carried with it the seeds of future problems. The poverty of the new eastern Länder of Germany became a severe financial burden, exacerbated by Kohl’s decision to overrule the Bundesbank and exchange the Ostmark at parity with the D-Mark. The run-up to EMU also created economic difficulties, and Kohl’s obsessive concentration on European affairs, combined with the virtual paralysis of decision-making within his coalition, led to postponement of much needed domestic reforms in tax and labour markets.

Kohl did not share with France’s new president Jacques Chirac the same sense of common purpose he had enjoyed with his predecessor François Mitterrand. The return to power of the socialists in the French National Assembly elections of 1997, combined with the realisation that Italy and Spainwould participate in the single currency, raised concern in Germany that the euro would be less strong than Kohl had promised to voters reared on the solid D-Mark. Moreover, with unemployment rising to some 4.5 million, a level not seen since Hitler’s years, the country’s once unquestioned European economic supremacy looked less assured.

In the federal election of 1998, Kohl was comprehensively defeated by the Social Democrat Gerhard Schroder. Just three months later the euro was launched. But far from basking in retrospective triumph Kohl was soon engulfed in scandal, with the revelation that under his chairmanship the CDU had long been the secret beneficiary of corrupt slush funds – a reminder that in the last analysis he was less an idealist than an old-fashioned political operator.

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Notas y References

  1. Based on the book “A Concise Encyclopedia of the European Union from Aachen to Zollverein”, by Rodney Leach (Profile Books; London)

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