Kohl, Helmut (b. 1930)

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KOHL, HELMUT (b. 1930)


The longest-serving chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany (1982–1998).

Born and raised in Ludwigshafen, Helmut Kohl joined the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) in his native Rhineland-Palatinate as a teenager. He received a doctorate in history from the University of Heidelberg, all the while continuing his rise through the party ranks during the chancellorships of the Christian Democrats Konrad Adenauer (1949–1963) and Ludwig Erhard (1963– 1966). Kohl was elected governor of Rhineland-Palatinate in 1969, the same year that the Social Democrat Willy Brandt became chancellor. In 1973 Kohl became chairman of the national CDU organization. In 1976 he narrowly lost a national election to Helmut Schmidt, Brandt's successor. Kohl became chancellor in October 1982 when the Free Democratic Party (FDP) abandoned its coalition with Schmidt and formed a government under CDU leadership.

The central event of Kohl's chancellorship was German reunification in 1989–1990. The democratic revolution in the German Democratic Republic took place suddenly and unexpectedly during the second half of 1989. Less than three weeks after the collapse of the Berlin Wall on 9 November 1989, Kohl put forward an ambitious ten-point plan for German unity. It was quickly overtaken by events. The East German revolution continued apace and, after its first democratic elections produced a CDU majority in March 1990, Kohl and his foreign minister, Hans-Dietrich Genscher, pressed for all-German elections and rapid reunification. After several rounds of careful diplomacy with the four powers responsible for the question of German unity since the end of World War II—the United States, the Soviet Union, France, and the United Kingdom—the five states of the former GDR acceded to the Federal Republic on 3 October 1990. Kohl emerged victorious from the first all-German elections that December.

Before and after the pivotal events of 1989–1990, Kohl's chancellorship was marked by a series of difficult domestic and foreign policy challenges. The recession of the early 1980s that had precipitated the collapse of the Schmidt government left a legacy of high unemployment and stagnant growth. Kohl and the FDP sought, with mixed success, to trim the generous German welfare state over the objections of the labor movement and the Social Democratic Party (SPD), which retained control of several key state governments. On the foreign policy front, the 1980s saw a slow transition from East–West confrontation to renewed détente. In contrast to Schmidt, Kohl aligned himself unequivocally with the confrontational policies of U.S. president Ronald Reagan and carried through the controversial deployment of new U.S. intermediate-range nuclear forces on German soil in 1984. Initially skeptical of Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika and diplomatic political opening to the West, Kohl emerged as one of his most vocal supporters by the late 1980s. The positive Kohl–Gorbachev relationship contributed to the successful transition from the GDR revolution to reunification in 1989–1990.

In the wake of reunification, domestic economic and political problems overshadowed foreign policy ones. Kohl, a longtime supporter of European integration, was one of the architects of the European Monetary Union and an influential backer of European Union membership for former members of the Warsaw Pact. But most of his political energies were spent trying to master the economic, social, and political integration of the new federal states of the former GDR. The weakness of the East German economy, exacerbated by the generous terms of monetary union, proved a steady drain on the overall German economy through the 1990s. Unemployment remained high, foreign investment stagnated, and powerful forces both within the CDU and the SPD blocked efforts at far-reaching reforms of the tax, pension, and health care systems. The CDU's popularity in the new states plummeted and the former Communist Party, the PDS, remained a fixture in its political landscape.

These accumulated problems contributed to Kohl's loss to Gerhard Schröder in the 1998 elections. An unprecedented career in postwar German politics came to an end. Kohl's domination of the CDU had been unrelenting. He served as its chairman for a quarter century and beat back several challenges to his leadership, most notably from Franz-Josef Strauss of the CDU's Bavarian sister party, the Christian Socialist Union. He won no fewer than four national elections—in 1983, 1987, 1990, and 1994. Dismissed early in his career by many as a provincial politician with little foreign policy experience, Kohl emerged as a major international figure with proven political staying power. After he left office in 1998, Kohl's image was tarnished by evidence of involvement with a party financing scandal. But his legacy as the chancellor of German unity was assured.

See alsoGermany; Perestroika; Schmidt, Helmut; Schröder, Gerhard .


Bering, Henrik. Helmut Kohl: The Man Who Reunited Germany, Rebuilt Europe, and Thwarted the Soviet Empire. Washington, D.C., 1999.

Clemens, Clay. Reluctant Realists: The Christian Democrats and West German Ostpolitik. Durham, N.C., 1989.

Clemens, Clay, and William E. Paterson, eds. The Kohl Chancellorship. London, 1998.

"The Kohl Chancellorship." German Politics 8, no. 1 (1998).

Livingston, Robert Gerald. "Life after Kohl? We'll Always Have Germany." Foreign Affairs 76, no. 6 (1997): 2–7.

Thomas Banchoff