The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Helmut Kohl helped save the West

A European Union flag, left, and a German flag frame a portrait of former German chancellor Helmut Kohl on display at the Chancellery in Berlin on Sunday. (John MacDougall/Agence France-Presse via Getty Images)
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Jeffrey Gedmin, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, is a former director of the Aspen Institute Berlin and former president and chief executive of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in Prague.

Known as “Der Dicke” (the “fat one”), he was indeed massive at 6 feet 4 inches tall and comfortably over 300 pounds. His favorite dish was “Saumagen” (stuffed pig’s belly); his appetite, legendary. Helmut Kohl, Germany’s former chancellor who died on Friday at age 87, was often mocked for his old-fashioned tastes, staid predictability and provincialism. He and his wife, Hannelore, favored Wolfgangsee in Austria for vacation — 27 times in a row. A campaign contribution scandal made Kohl persona non grata for political elites and much of German media for most of the final two decades of his life.

All this might help to explain why Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and Pope John Paul II became established as giants of the late 20th century, while Helmut Kohl’s crucial role in shaping that period has been often overlooked or at least vastly underestimated. The plodding Kohl hardly sparkled as an orator. Biographers described him as a purveyor of platitudes. Yet had it not been for Helmut Kohl at Germany’s helm for 16 years — a tenure exceeded only by Bismarck — history might have turned out differently.

It matters, having a vision.

It was three weeks after the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 that the German chancellor stunned the world with his 10-point plan for German unification. His own foreign minister had been left in the dark; the text of his speech, with a detailed explanatory note, was sent to President George H.W. Bush only as Kohl was delivering his address to the West German Parliament in Bonn.

Oskar Lafontaine, leader of the opposition Social Democrats, railed against the notion; in Britain, Thatcher was staunchly opposed to a united Germany for reasons of history — she never trusted the Germans — and for fear of undermining the geo-strategic balance on the continent. Ditto the Poles, the Dutch and the French. François Mitterrand — inspired by the adage that Germany is so wonderful, it was lovely to have two of them — raced to East Berlin to protect an endangered communist regime.

Kohl pushed forward. Critically, he got the initially reluctant Americans on board. Together, Washington and Bonn were able to court Mikhail Gorbachev. The Soviet Union had more than a half million troops in East Germany. And the German chancellor kept creating new facts on the ground. To the dismay of leading economists, Kohl allowed 17 million East Germans in summer 1990 to adopt the mighty west German mark at a rate of 1 to 1. It was either bring the D-mark to the East Germans, the chancellor calculated, or risk destabilizing flows of refugees coming westward to it.

The bet paid off.

So, too, did another calculation that made unification feasible in the first place. In his memoirs, Kohl remembers the “Euromissile” debate of the 1980s as “one of the most dramatic in German postwar history.” East German spymaster Markus Wolf, writing later in his autobiography, agreed. “We knew how sorely tested West Germany’s loyalty to NATO was at that time,” said Wolf.

In Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union was preparing to deploy a new generation of intermediate-range weapons, the SS-20 missile, capable of striking American allies. NATO sought to counter by stationing U.S. Pershing and cruise missiles on West German soil. As a result, neutralism, pacifism and anti-Americanism swelled in Germany. Millions took to the streets in 1981-1982, their ranks including trade unionists, church leaders, doctors, lawyers, teachers — even military and members of Kohl’s CDU. Social Democrats pushed appeasement. Rudolf Augstein, publisher of the weekly Der Spiegel, told readers there was no fundamental difference between Moscow and Washington. Kohl begged to differ.

According to Kohl, Gorbachev himself would later tell the German leader that the steadfastness of West Germany in the decision to allow the deployment of U.S. missiles substantially contributed to “new thinking” in the Kremlin. To be sure, without Kohl, West Germany might have bolted from the alliance; the West would have come unglued.

I first met Kohl in 1995 in Bonn where I interviewed him for a PBS documentary on Germany I was producing. We spoke about many of these details. Kohl lit up, though, 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.

The emotional bonds between the United States and Germany have faded. But Kohl’s vision and “values thing” would be dearly needed today.