By Sigurd Neubauer
He was 6.4 feet tall and weighed over 300 lbs. Germany’s legendary Chancellor Helmut Kohl (1930-2017) literally towered over European politics during the immediate aftermath of the Cold War era.
As the leader of the Christian Democratic Union of Germany (CDU) from 1973 to 1998, Kohl’s overall legacies as chancellor (1982-1998) rest on his ability to forge German unification in 1989 and subsequently in strengthening the European Union (EU).
Kohl was a committed transatlanticist, who enjoyed strong personal bonds with then U.S. President Ronald Reagan (1911-2004), British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (1925-2013), French President François Mitterrand (1916-1996), and General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev (1931 –2022), among others.
He’s also the second longest serving chancellor in the history of Germany after the legendary Otto von Bismarck (1815-1898) who governed for 22 years; from 1871-1890.
Kohl, the visionary leader, was also a shrewd politician who never abandoned his Christian conservative roots and political base in Germany’s Rhineland-Palatinate, explains Professor Stefan Fröhlich of the Friedrich-Alexander University Erlangen-Nuremberg in a wide-ranging interview.
In it, we discuss Kohl’s political legacy and his stature as a historical figure who would not only shape Germany’s post-Cold War environment but whose vision for a strong and unified EU has influenced each of his successors, including the CDU’s very own Angela Merkel who governed from 2005-2021.
Merkel is the third-longest serving chancellor in German history.
Kohl was a visionary leader and a screwed politician who never abandoned his Christian conservative roots
“But unlike Kohl, Merkel won’t necessarily be remembered as a great visionary but rather as an effective crisis manager,” the professor points out.
As one of Germany’s preeminent scholars and public intellectuals, Fröhlich not only authored a book on Kohl’s foreign policy but even met the former chancellor on several occasions, including when he came to attend his launch party in Bonn in 2000. “While I was writing my book, he declined to grant me an interview even though I spoke to most of his colleagues and close associates for my research; but he came to the launch party and stayed on for dinner,” Fröhlich recalls.
Responding to what the chancellor was like as a person, the professor doesn’t mince words: “He was very impressive,” explaining that the combination of his height and weight “made him endlessly confident.” Fröhlich adds that “the smaller the circle was, the better Kohl was in person.”
Fröhlich’s experience, he points out in our interview, was consistent with what he had learned from his own research on the former chancellor. “When Kohl was off the record in small groups he was at his best, which many of his close colleagues also told me.”
The power of personality
Kohl’s main legacy is German unification followed by European integration, Fröhlich says.
“During his tenure, Kohl would consistently emphasize the need to support all European countries who wanted to become part of the EU. For Kohl, the EU was both personal and emotional,” the professor explains as he firmly believed that no country should be denied entry because Germany had after all been given the opportunity to be reintegrated into Europe after its defeat in World War II.
“This was his most important message, which he kept returning to, including during private conversations. We were given this chance and now it is theirs,” Kohl would often say, Fröhlich recalls.
Kohl, the professor points out, also was lucky with his timing in office. “He was just as surprised by the speed of events in 1989 when unification happened as everyone else. But what the chancellor had done since taking office in 1982 was to prepare for unification as he was clearly ‘smart enough’ to realize that it would eventually take place.”
At the same time, Kohl was keenly aware of historical fears of a strong and unified Germany at the heart of Europe. To mitigate these fears, the chancellor’s strategic vision for a unified German centered on European integration and multilateralism.
Responding to what the key was to Kohl’s success, the professor ties it to his unique ability to build trust with other powers.
“He famously got along with almost everyone – whether it was leaders of big countries such as the U.S., France and Britain or the smaller ones,” the professor explains, then quips: “After Kohl’s tenure, Germany has often been accused of not paying adequate attention to the smaller European states.”
The success of European integration, Kohl knew, would be directly linked to the art of persuasion. “He knew that the moment one started to dominate others, it would not only not work but one would lose at the end.”
The chancellor was, after all, keenly aware of Germany’s World War II legacies and how they were perceived in Paris and London in particular.
Thus, Kohl knew that Germany needed the external support for any degree of national integration in the event the opportunity should present itself as it did in 1989. For Kohl, creating trust was thus paramount, the professor explains.
“It didn’t matter that Mitterrand was a socialist as they were good friends.” So too was then EU Commission President Jacques Delors (1925-) who during his own tenure (1985-1995) created a single market that made the free movement of persons, capital, goods, and services within the European Economic Community (EEC) possible.
With all of these leaders, Kohl had built trust and gained respect which became paramount for his success as it was closely linked to what Fröhlich describes as “the personality factor.” Europe and unification were “personal and emotional issues for him,” he adds.
Kohl, Fröhlich asserts, believed that foreign policy was more important than domestic politics.
The former chancellor once told Fröhlich that if a mistake was made in foreign policy, it was difficult to recover from it, but if it was made domestically, it would be easier to repair it.
Another aspect of his legacy was that European politics from that point on was to be conducted directly from the Chancery as opposed to the Foreign Ministry, the professor points out. “This way, he had full control.”
Because Kohl was the all-consuming politician – who would become a historic figure in his own right – he wasn’t a perfect father as he was constantly distant from his family. He was also abusive towards his wife, Hannelore (1933-2001), as scholars and commentators have pointed out.
Kohl, the private person, “had little to no interest in his family,” Fröhlich adds, then points out that there’s plenty of literature on this topic but that his own research on the legendary chancellor focused exclusively on his foreign policy record.
After leaving office in 1998, Kohl left the public arena altogether at the request of his second wife, Maike Kohl-Richter. Unlike his immediate successor, Gerhard Schröder, he gave no media interviews after his retirement from public life.
In recent years, Kohl’s overall legacy has been marred in scandal uncovered after he left office involving illegal political contributions to the CDU.
“Kohl was a freewheeling politician throughout his lengthy tenure at the CDU,” Fröhlich points out, but emphasizes that while the public debate over the CDU payment controversies was raging, he chose not to participate in it.
Kohl the private person had little interest in his family
“I was never really interested in exploring the darker sides of his legacy,” the professor recalls.
Another contributing factor to Kohl’s absence from public life post retirement could be tied to the possibility that “he might have been fed up with party politics as Merkel stripped him of the honorary chairmanship of his beloved CDU,” Fröhlich argues.
Merkel may have done so to distance the party from his scandals.
Kohl was, after all, “power conscious and many of his party colleagues attempted numerous times to unseat him, if not outright revolt against him. He was not extremely beloved by all. He was a perfect networker; knew everyone and was close to the grassroots.”
“Over his 16 year-tenure as chancellor, there were repeated revolts against. Once he left office, there was a campaign by the Social Democrats (SPD) to modernize the country while the CDU also wanted to move forward,” the professor explains.
These factors may also have contributed to why Kohl declined public engagements during retirement.
But as a statesman, his lasting legacy rests on the fact that he’s considered across Germany’s political spectrum to be a great visionary for Europe, Fröhlich concludes.
Kohl was power conscious and many of his party colleagues attempted numerous times to unseat him, if not outright revolt against him