Kohl: German chancellor, European statesman | Germany | News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 01.10.2012

Visit the new DW website

Take a look at the beta version of dw.com. We're not done yet! Your opinion can help us make it better.

  1. Inhalt
  2. Navigation
  3. Weitere Inhalte
  4. Metanavigation
  5. Suche
  6. Choose from 30 Languages


Kohl: German chancellor, European statesman

Thirty years ago Helmut Kohl became Germany's sixth post-war chancellor, a position he held for a record 16 years. He is remembered for reuniting Germany as well as for the political and economic integration of Europe.

He gave his name to an entire generation - the "Kohl Generation." It was common knowledge among young people who grew up while he was chancellor that Helmut Kohl would sometimes invited special state visitors back to his home in Oggersheim, a suburb of the western German town of Ludwigshafen, and serve them his favourite dish: stuffed pig's stomach. In his leisure hours he liked to wear cardigans stretched across his enormous frame.

He and his wife, Hannelore, always spent his four-week summer holiday beside the Wolfgangsee, a lake in Austria. From time to time he would go on a diet, following the precepts of F.X. Mayr, to try and lose a few pounds, which he would always put back on again soon afterwards. There were plenty of "Kohl jokes" doing the rounds, and his critics made fun of his manner. A native of Rhineland-Palatine, Kohl was 1.93 meters tall, yet his ponderous manner of moving and talking meant he was often underestimated. During his time as chancellor, he knew exactly what he wanted.

Determined, calculating, and power hungry

Helmut Kohl was just 17 when he joined the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU). While studying for his degree, and subsequently a Ph.D., in History, Law, and Governance and Public Policy, he was already politically active. Kohl was elected premier of Rhineland-Palatinate in 1969. At just 39, the youngest person ever to hold the position. In 1976 the CDU and its Bavarian sister party the Christian Social Union (CSU) nominated him as their candidate for chancellor in the parliamentary elections. He won 48.6 percent of the vote, the Union's second-best result, but this was not enough to keep Helmut Schmidt's Social Democrats (SDP) from staying in power with the free-market liberal FDP.

However, six years later, in October 1982, Kohl finally achieved his ambition. The leader of the opposition, which also had the largest number of seats in the German parliament, was voted in as chancellor, becoming the most powerful politician in the country. It was a vote of no confidence against the Social Democrat Chancellor Helmut Schmidt that brought Kohl to power, after he succeeded in convincing the FDP leader Hans-Dietrich Genscher to break with his major coalition partner. Kohl formed an alliance with the FDP, and became the head of the government. In a controversial move a few months later he proposed another confidence vote. This made it possible to hold fresh elections, which he won.

Kohl's strategy for dealing with problems: sit it out

During his first years in office, however, there was considerable discontent with his government. Kohl acquired the reputation of not solving domestic problems but just "sitting them out". He responded to criticism by repeatedly reshuffling his cabinet. His visit to the cemetery of Bitburg with US President Ronald Reagan in 1985 sparked fierce debate, as members of the Waffen SS were buried there alongside German and American soldiers. Kohl was accused of misrepresenting history. Another gaffe was when he compared the head of the Soviet Communist Party, Mikhail Gorbachev, with the Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels.

Helmut Kohl and Michail Gorbachev with other German and Soviet politicians

Helmut Kohl und Michail Gorbatschow Kaukasus 1990

But it was Gorbachev's policies of glasnost and perestroika that were to benefit Kohl the most. In June 1989 Kohl received the Soviet leader in Bonn. At that point no one was reckoning with the imminent fall of the Berlin Wall, which was to happen just a few months later. Kohl, however, greeted Gorbachev with words of expectation: "Many people are pinning their hopes to your visit here - people back home in your country, and here in ours."

Unprepared for the fall of the Wall

Things moved much faster than anticipated, and when the Wall did fall it caught Kohl off guard. He was on a trip to Poland when the citizens of East Germany stormed the German-German border, and the East German guards let them through. Although Kohl immediately headed home, he didn't get back in time to be the first West German politician to address the entire German people at that symbol of their division, the Brandenburg Gate. Instead, it was the words of the West German president, Richard von Weizsäcker, that people heard that night.

Kohl waves during a campaign rally Photo: +++(c) dpa - Bildfunk+++

But Kohl quickly seized the initiative and launched a ten-point plan with the aim of reuniting the two German states as quickly as possible. He tried to defuse fears in other countries about a reunited Germany becoming too powerful, too nationalistic. "We Germans have learned from history," he said at the time. "We are a peace-loving, freedom-loving people. For us, love of our native country, love of freedom, and the spirit of being a good neighbor always belong together."

The cost of German unity

In 1989-1990, Helmut Kohl had reached the zenith of his political career. He was celebrated as a star in East Germany. His promise to its citizens included the oft-quoted "green pastures".

Then Women's Minister Angela Merkel speaking to Kohl during a party conference +++(c) dpa - Bildfunk+++

But despite the introduction of the solidarity tax to contribute to the development of the former East, it wasn't possible to rush German unification, and he didn't succeed in raising the living standard in the eastern states to that in the former West. Many East Germans who had lost their jobs failed to find new prospects and moved to the West after unification. Development in the five new federal states was slow. People became frustrated, and Kohl's popularity plummeted.

Yet, he remains known as the "chancellor of unity" and a "great European." At the end of his time in office, Kohl worked hard at the European level and with former French President Francois Mitterand he pushed forward Europe's political and economic integration. Despite all his attempts, Kohl had a difficult time convincing Germans to do away with the deutschmark and accept the euro.

Donation scandal tarnishes Kohl's reputation

Dissatisfaction with the Kohl system grew among Germans, with many of them regarding the chancellor to be interested only in holding onto power. In October 1998, a coalition of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and the Greens won parliamentary elections and after 16 years - a record for Germany - Helmut Kohl was once more a member of the German parliament's opposition.

News in 1999 that "his" CDU was involved in accepting illegal donations through a number of secret bank accounts would tarnish his reputation. At first, Kohl denied any involvement in the scandal and said his conduct was beyond reproach. But he later admitted to having received millions of deutschmarks worth of illegal contributions. Kohl did not run for re-election in 2002 and largely left the German political scene.

Maike Richter and Helmut Kohl Photo: AP Photo/Frank Augstein)

After Hannelore's suicide Kohl would later marry Maike Richter in 2008

In July 2001, Kohl's wife, Hannelore, committed suicide after suffering from photodermatitis, a form sun allergy.

As the CDU's finance scandal fades into history, Kohl has once again received recognition from his party, including current chancellor and former Kohl protégé Angela Merkel, as well as the international community.

A celebration honoring Kohl 30 years after he was first chosen chancellor was a salutation to his efforts to unite Germany and Europe.

DW recommends

Audios and videos on the topic