Germany’s Bild-Zeitung has just reported the death of former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl (1930-2017), the longest-serving head of government since Otto von Bismarck.
With his death, the last of the heroic generation of leaders that defeated Communism has passed. When he took office in 1982, few believed that then President Ronald Reagan’s challenge to the “evil empire” to the East could succeed; in 1989, when the Berlin Wall came down and the Communist empire began to dissolve, no-one could doubt it.
Historians will remember the 1980s as the Reagan era, and the American president as the leader of the West in its Cold War victory. The might of American arms and the superiority of American technology were the means by which the Cold War was won.
But Helmut Kohl, who rose from local politics in the Rhineland-Palatinate town of Ludwigshafen to chairman of the Christian Democratic Union, made it possible.
In some respects Kohl showed more courage than any of his Western colleagues. More than Reagan’s America or Margaret Thatcher’s Britain, Germany under Helmut Kol took a terrible risk in aligning with the Western phalanx against Moscow. The United States proposed the emplacement of the Pershing series of medium-range missiles in Europe to counter Soviet nuclear blackmail.
Between Russia’s division of Berlin in 1961 and Kohl’s accession to the Chancellery in 1982, West Germany was at the mercy of Russian military threats. If Russia had chosen to invade West Germany — an invasion that would have been preceded by an atomic and chemical weapons sweep — the West would have had no response, because no American president would risk the American homeland to avenge Europe.
The resolution of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis required America to remove medium-range missiles from Turkey, eliminating the only option America had to retaliate against Russia short of a full launch of ICBM’s from the American heartland, and an inevitable counterstrike by Russia. In the late 1970s America proposed to deploy medium-range missiles in Europe.
Kohl’s predecessor Helmut Schmidt dragged his feet on the deployment; as Schmidt said, “A tactical nuclear weapon is a nuclear weapon that explodes in Germany.” He knew that the threat of missile deployment was sufficient to cause the Russians to consider a pre-emptive strike. Schmidt initially refused to emplace the Pershings until another European country agreed to do so; then Italian Prime Minister Bettino Craxi agreed.
In October 1982, Schmidt’s coalition partner, the Free Democratic Party, pulled the plug on his government, and Helmut Kohl became Chancellor. He engineered early elections and gained a strong mandate in combination with the FDP. This allowed him to push through the Pershing deployment over the opposition of most Social Democrats, and a peace movement riddled with Russian agents.
At the time I was in Germany working as a journalist. It was a time of fear. On a wall in Frankfurt, someone had written “No more nuclear missiles!” Below it another hand added, “Until the old ones have been used up.” The Germans didn’t know what danger they faced. Neither did the Reagan Administration.
In Moscow, the hardline Russian Premier Yuri Andropov weighed the possibility of a pre-emptive strike before the Pershing deployment, which put the Russians on their back foot. If they attacked Europe, they would face a nuclear bombardment from European soil. Would they then launch missiles at the US and invite massive retaliation?
Few understood how great was the risk that the West took, and that the Germans were the bearers of this risk. If war broke out none of them would live to find out who won. But Helmut Kohl knew and went ahead regardless.
Kohl was no man’s hero. He never lost the appearance of a small-town politician. He never impressed the German elite, who held his provincial mannerisms in contempt. Jokes circulated about his supposed stupidity. But Kohl made a career out of duping his opponents into underestimating him.
He was not only shrewd, but visionary: He foresaw America’s Cold War victory when most German opinion leaders thought that Reagan would fail. And he made a deal with Reagan: We will stick our necks out and deploy the Pershing missiles, and you will eventually support German reunification. Reagan overrode the objections of Prime Minister Thatcher and most of the rest of Europe in backing Kohl’s vision of Wiedervereinigung.
Kohl’s personal life was sad. His wife of more than forty years, Hannelore Renner, committed suicide in 2001 after many years of a painful and debilitating chronic illness. His protégé Angela Merkel helped force him out of politics after a 1999 scandal over illegal contributions to CDU campaigns.
He disagreed sharply with Merkel on a number of issues, including the absorption of Middle Eastern refugees. He also sought a less confrontational policy with Russia over Ukraine, and a less accommodative policy towards Germany’s impecunious neighbors after 2012. Kohl would have gotten along with President Donald Trump far better than his successor.
Unlike Reagan or Thatcher, Kohl did not fit the public perception of a great statesman. But his contribution was as great, and he had a willingness to take even greater risks. It is hard to imagine today’s Germany finding a politician with Kohl’s courage and sense of purpose. He leaves us with the gratitude of free people everywhere.