“You didn't just pay lip service to the goal of overcoming the division of Europe and Germany... Rather, you put yourself at the forefront of those who encouraged us on the way to unity”.
The Unlikely Couple
Alphen, Netherlands. 19 June. They made an unlikely couple. The September 1984 picture of French President Francois Mitterand and West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, who died last week, holding hands on the charnel ground of Verdun is an iconic European moment. One, a former French resistance fighter, and the other forced into the Hitler Youth in April 1945 at the very end of World War Two. For West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl that was exactly the point. In that moment of reconciliation Kohl effectively completed the work of the Federal Republic’s first chancellor, the great Konrad Adenauer. Alongside his French colleagues Robert Schuman and Jean Monnet Adenauer had set out to ‘normalise’ Germany’s relationship with the rest of Europe by ensuring a European Germany, not a German Europe. Kohl completed that mission.
For all the symbolism of Verdun Kohl was more a manager of history than a creator of it. What are often touted as his two towering achievements, German reunification and the creation of the Euro, happened on his watch but were not envisioned by him. He also oversaw the history-loaded return of German political power from sleepy Bonn (Le Carré’s “A Small Town in Germany”) to the old Imperial capital Berlin. And yet none of these momentous events were part of any grand Kohl dessin. In 1989, when he heard that the Berlin Wall was being torn down he first wanted confirmation. He simply could not believe it was happening.
And yet Kohl seized his strategic moment with both of his huge hands. After a shaky start to reunification, when he initially refused to confirm the post-war German-Polish border, Kohl showed he had an increasingly certain political hand. With the crucial support of US President George H.W. Bush, he first reassured France, and then Britain and the other European partners that a reunited Germany would not seek to dominate Europe. He also moved quickly to cement reunification at home by offering East Germans parity between the Deutschmark and the Ostmark. It was a move that made little economic or financial sense, but very good political sense. He even sweetened Russia’s withdrawal from Central and Eastern Europe by providing huge amounts of aid to Moscow, although it failed to prevent the August 1991 fall of Gorbachev, and the final collapse of the Soviet Union.
It is perhaps Kohl’s pragmatism over the Euro which best demonstrates Kohl’s strategic and political art. He was prepared to do whatever he saw as necessary to secure what he saw as the German, and by extension the European interest. The two were often confused in the Kohl mind. He did not initially like the French idea of a common currency because it meant Germany giving up the Deutschmark, regarded by many Christian Democrats and wider society as the ultimate safeguard against the hyper-inflation of the inter-bellum that had helped pave the way to power for Hitler and the Nazis. However, he accepted the euro as the price Germany had to pay to ensure a reunified Germany was a European Germany.
Was Kohl anti-British? Kohl’s relationship with Britain was far less amicable than with either France or the US, and he accorded the British far less respect than he accorded the Russians. He also refused to accord the British the same respect he accorded the Americans for the liberation of Europe, as evinced by the closeness of his relationship to President Reagan. His relationship with that other great political titan of the period, Margaret Thatcher, was also infamously prickly. In a controversial February 1996 speech in Louvain, Belgium, Kohl revealed the extent to which World War Two defined his political creed. However, in so doing he upset the British by suggesting that European integration was “…in reality a question of war and peace in the twenty-first century”. At the same time he also understood the importance of keeping Britain in the ‘European Project’, and was prepared to make concessions in European treaties to that end. He would have deeply regretted Brexit.
In fact, my own modest brush with Kohl demonstrated to me that he was not at all anti-British. It also showed that his attitude towards the French was more nuanced than suggested by the public image. In 1996 I was taken to lunch in Paris on the Boulevard New York by a senior official during which a possible EU security and defence demarche to be led by Britain and France was discussed. The next day I travelled to London to discuss European defence with a senior member of prime minister-in-waiting Tony Blair’s team. As promised, I reported the conversation I had had in Paris verbatim, but added the codicil that Paris wished to keep Anglo-French discussions discreet.
Later that week I was due to travel to Bonn where I was to visit the Bundeskanzleramt (Chancellery) and meet Kohl’s senior foreign and security policy advisors. During my meeting in London I asked if I should mention the conversations I had had in Paris and London. My interlocutor said “of course”. Blair, like Kohl, was at the time keen to ‘reset’ British-German relations. When I got to Bonn I duly reported the Paris conversation to Chancellor Kohl’s senior foreign policy advisor. He laughed, “Don’t the French realise that we and the British do occasionally talk to each other?” The eventual result (in which I claim no role) was the 1998 St Malo Declaration and the 1999 Helsinki Declaration which paved the way for an enhanced EU role in security and defence.
German and European
There was much over which I disagreed with Kohl, not least his conflation at times of the German and European interest, a habit which afflicts German leaders to this day. He was also prone to missteps on the international stage that bordered on hubris. For example, he badly misinterpreted the 1991 break-up of Yugoslavia, and ignored British and French warnings with disastrous consequences. And yet is ledger is more positive than negative. A decade or so ago, when I was writing a book on post-war European security and defence for Oxford, which is of course brilliant and very reasonably-priced, I was struck by the importance of this man to Europe’s enduring stability.
Adenauer had once said that he was a German who would always be German, but that he was also a European who would always be European. For Adenauer read Kohl. In an April 1997 speech to commemorate the 1967 death of Konrad Adenauer Helmut Kohl quoted his predecessor. “The most important thing”, he said, “is courage”. Kohl might well have been speaking about himself.
He ended his life in his beloved Ludwigshafen in sadness and some might say anger, following the suicide of his wife and his forced removal from office at the hands of his protege, one Angela Merkel. Still, for me Helmut Kohl will always be remembered as a towering figure of post-war German and European politics, both literally and figuratively. As such he deserves to be respected because for a time he was the very Kohl-face of European history, and let’s face it, there are few such leaders around these days.