Helmut Kohl’s lessons for the West


Former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl will be remembered by many as a giant of epochal times that remade Europe’s political architecture, dismantled the minefields and watchtowers of the Iron Curtain and replaced the eyeball-to-eyeball armed confrontation between East and West with an enduring, if often challenged, coexistence between former sworn foes, The New York Times notes.

As the man who steered Germany through the most tumultuous years of the Cold War and the uplifting triumph of democracy over dictatorship, the massive politician left his mark on Europe over the past few decades, which saw some of the continent’s greatest achievements, the LA Times adds.

At a moment when the West is in exceptional disarray, there are some important lessons to be learned from Mr. Kohl, Clemens Wergin, the Washington bureau chief for Die Welt, writes for the Times:

For one, the West is doomed when it starts giving in to Russian intimidation. A second: To keep and nourish an alliance, you sometimes have to do things that are good for all partners but don’t play well domestically. And finally, trust among allies is perhaps the most precious commodity of all, which you play with to everyone’s peril.

Kohl’s courageous all-in gambit was the beginning of the end of the Cold War, says Die Zeit’s Josef Joffe. In 1986, Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev agreed on “double-zero”: no Pershings for the United States, no SS-20s for the Kremlin. Thanks to Kohl, the alliance had passed its most deadly test, and the “evil empire,” as Reagan called it, never recuperated, he writes for Foreign Policy:

Three years later, in 1989, the Berlin Wall fell, and on Christmas Day in 1991, the USSR committed suicide, leaving behind 15 orphan republics. The moral of this tale is a Germany triumphant, yet tamed by self-containment. Would that the Kaiser and Der Fuhrer had been so wise. By voluntarily putting the ropes back on the German Gulliver, Kohl defused Europe’s fear of the Fourth Reich. This is why he deserves a place in history.

Right man for democracy

Kohl’s political education was strongly influenced by Der Monat, a German-language political and cultural journal, which first appeared in October, 1948. The publication, edited by Melvin J. Lasky, aimed “to serve as a weapon against communism and fascism and to be a voice for western ideals.”

Kohl was the right man for democracy at the right time for Europe, said the Club of Madrid.

Willing to stand up for liberal democracy

He strove to supplant — yet mourn and learn from — the evils of the century’s two world wars. His determination did much to embed a friendship with France and a Europe of closer ties, at the same time smoothing relations between Russia and the world’s main western democracies, the FT adds.

I first met Kohl in 1995 in Bonn where I interviewed him for a PBS documentary on Germany I was producing, the Atlantic Council’s Jeffrey Gedmin writes for The Washington Post:

Kohl lit up…. when he spoke about the United States. Care packages, the Marshall Plan and the Berlin airlift may have been part of the past, but for Kohl, these things were vivid examples of the United States’ willingness to stand up for liberal democracy and against authoritarianism. NATO meant the very same thing.

He had “no driving ideology and no grand visions,” according to one account, “other than that Germany must be unified and anchored peacefully inside Europe. He really is the German Everyman, striving for the Utopia of ordinariness.”

Kohl was on an official visit in Poland when the Berlin Wall came down on the night of 9 November 1989. While the Chancellor encouraged movement towards democracy in the East, the Independent’s David Childs notes, and quietly supported the concept of German reunification, he had to tread carefully for fear of provoking a Soviet-backed crackdown in the GDR.

Elected as West Germany’s sixth chancellor, at first Kohl faced considerable headwinds from the media he liked to call the “Hamburg opinion mafia” — German public broadcaster ARD, Der SpiegelStern and Die Zeit — but also from those intellectuals who were still clinging to their vision of a leftist, socially liberal society. Der Spiegel’s Wolfram Bickerich writes:

For its part, the FDP had long since abandoned that vision. In 1983, Chancellor Kohl and his coalition government were re-elected for the first time, completing the transition to a socially conservative government. During his election campaign, he had brashly called for a “spiritual and moral renewal,” which many progressives took to mean the end of all reforms and a relapse to the gray, staunch-conservatism of the Adenauer era.

Much of what we would now called the metropolitan liberal elite was horrified at the speed and manner of the whole affair [of German re-unification] analyst Frederick Studemann writes for The FT:

The sudden eruption of patriotic feeling in a country that until then had felt uneasy about its identity was deeply unsettling. But as they wrung their hands, Kohl ploughed on. It all culminated in a slightly chaotic ceremony of unification in front of the Reichstag in October 1990.

Russia’s Mikhail Gorbachev was suspicious that the French might be setting up the Soviet Union and he preferred to follow a course to work with Chancellor Kohl and President Bush, according to Robert Zoellick, the US Chief Negotiator for the 2+4 negotiations that led to German unification. But later the real challenge was how to try to achieve a united Germany within NATO and within European structures that would create reassurance for others in Europe, but also create an architecture for future security stability in the transatlantic area and with the then Soviet Union, said, Zoellick, a former board member of the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.

Kohl and Bush the Elder should have received the Nobel Peace Prize for reuniting Europe and Germany in total peace, Stanford’s Joffe argues in The American Interest:

Yet history will deliver the far bigger prize. There is no “Fourth Reich,” as so many worried back then. Helmut Kohl, who rose from provincial pol to all-but-eternal chancellor achieved the impossible: a strong, indeed preponderant Germany, yet a power house safely “socialized” in a myriad European and Atlantic institutions.

At times like these, when petty nationalisms threaten the global liberal order and the coherence of the West, it is important to remember that the comparatively peaceful Western order didn’t come about by accident, Die Welt’s Wergin adds:

It took the effort of many brilliant and decisive statesmen and stateswomen. By that same token, the Western order can be squandered by the ineptitude of today’s leaders, and by a politics that looks only to the next election to decide even the most momentous policies. It is something Mr. Kohl understood, and something we cannot forget.

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