Kohl, Helmut

views updated Jun 27 2018

Helmut Kohl

Born April 3, 1930
Ludwigshafen, Germany

German chancellor

H elmut Kohl became the chancellor of West Germany in the early 1980s. After West Germany and East Germany reunited on October 3, 1990, he became chancellor of the entire country, winning Germany's first nationwide elections since World War II (1939–45). At the end of the war, Germany had been divided along zones of Allied occupation. The Soviet zone was called East Germany; like the Soviet Union, East Germany had a communist government. The three other occupied zones, controlled jointly by the British, the French, and the Americans, were called West Germany. Like the occupying Western countries, West Germany had a democratic government and a capitalist economy.

Kohl engineered the reunification of his country and then oversaw its rise to economic dominance in Europe. He was the longest-serving German leader since 1945, acting as chancellor for a total of sixteen years. Kohl saw three U.S. presidents, five Soviet leaders, and nine Japanese prime ministers come and go during his time in office.

Faithful beginnings

Helmut Michael Kohl was born April 3, 1930, the third child of Hans and Cacilie Kohl. The Kohls were conservative and felt great pride in their country. Both parents were Roman Catholic; they took their faith seriously, and family was very important to them. They voted, as long as it was possible to cast a free vote, for the Catholic Centre Party of Germany.

Helmut Kohl's personality was shaped by the Palatinate, the German region where he grew up. His heartfelt enjoyment of life and his admitted fondness for good food and drink reflect attitudes prevalent in the area. Surveys taken there indicate that the Palatines are convinced life is merrier in the Palatinate than in any other part of the world.

Helmut's father, Hans, had been an officer in World War I (1914–18). When Hans returned home, he began a civil service career and rose to the grade of senior secretary. He resigned from the Stahlhelm (the German federation of war veterans) to protest the seizure of power by Adolf Hitler (1889–1945) and the crimes being committed by Hitler's Nazi Party, which was known primarily for its brutal policies of racism. Hans was a calm, deliberate man who made a lasting impression on his son.

Kohl spent his childhood in the Ludwigshafen district of Friesenheim. Even though 1930 was a difficult economic year for Germany, the Kohls lived modestly. Massive unemployment affected many of their neighbors, but Kohl's father's job was secure. When Kohl was nine years old, World War II broke out and everything changed. Frequent bombing raids reduced extensive sections of Ludwigshafen to ash and rubble. Eighty percent of the city was destroyed. Working as a member of the fire brigade when he was twelve years old, Helmut experienced the horror of seeing burned corpses.

At the end of 1944, Kohl was sent to a pre-military training camp, where he was trained to be an antiaircraft gunner's helper. He also served as a messenger in Bavaria, an area in southern Germany. About this time, his brother Walter was killed in the war. When the war ended, Kohl walked home across a devastated Germany. He arrived back home in June 1945.

Growing up in the Palatinate also shaped Kohl's world-view. The region lies along the western border of Germany and had historically been subject to occupation by various ruling powers. In 1948, at the age of eighteen, Kohl was present when young people pulled up boundary posts near an Alsatian village and demonstrated for a free, boundless Europe. (Alsace is a region in northeast France that borders southwestern Germany. Long under dispute by France and Germany, the area was taken and held by the Germans during World War II, from 1940 to 1944.) For Kohl, the quest for European integration, an economic and political alliance much like the later European Union of the twenty-first century, had a strong emotional element. Early in his life, he had been drawn to the idea of eliminating barriers to stronger alliances between nations, which seemed to him unnecessary and divisive.

Return to normal

Helmut Kohl returned to school when his city returned to some normalcy in the summer of 1946. He was student body president, participated in many extracurricular activities, and became a member of a political party called the Christian Democratic Union (CDU). Graduating from high school in 1950, Kohl went on to the University of Frankfurt and then changed to the University of Heidelberg. Having started out in law, Kohl switched his major to history with an emphasis in both constitutional law and political science. He was awarded a doctorate with honors from the University of Heidelberg in 1958. Kohl's dissertation, or graduation essay, focused on the reemergence of political parties in West Germany after the fall of Nazism in 1945.

The following year, Kohl was hired as an executive assistant in an iron foundry in Ludwigshafen. Later in 1959, he was with the Rhineland-Palatinate-Saar Chemical Industry Association as head of the department responsible for economic and fiscal policy, where he stayed until 1969. This promotion provided Kohl with the financial security he needed to marry his longtime sweetheart, Hannelore Renner. They had met at a dance class ball in Friesenheim in 1948, when she was fifteen and he was eighteen. She went on to study foreign languages and worked as a foreign correspondence clerk, using her skills in English and French. The two kept in contact by writing, and she offered to type his doctoral dissertation for him. They finally married in 1960 and had two sons: Walter was born in 1963 and Peter in 1965.


Although he was working full-time, Kohl was already very active in the CDU. After the war, the CDU was a political party with no paid positions. One could not make a living from politics, so having a professional career was important. However, political affairs fascinated Kohl, and he gave most of his energy to politics. He was elected to the state legislature in 1959. He entered national politics in 1964, when he was elected executive of the federal CDU organization. The CDU had a large Roman Catholic base of voters and included a number of Protestant leaders. Though known to be conservative, the party served to unite diverse interest groups, including women, businessmen, and farmers. The party also promoted social programs such as federal health insurance.

Kohl was minister-president of his home state of Rhineland-Palatinate from 1969 until 1976. He became a member of the lower house of Parliament and leader of the CDU in 1976. Kohl was made chancellor of West Germany in 1982, when the ruling chancellor, Helmut Schmidt (1918–), was removed from office by a no-confidence vote. Kohl was then elected as chancellor in 1983 and won every subsequent election until the reunification of Germany.

Chancellor Kohl

In his first government address as chancellor, Kohl stressed that his foreign policy would rest on Germany's alliance with the United States and cooperation with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). NATO began as a military alliance of Western European nations and the United States and Canada; the alliance was formed in 1949 to contain communist expansion. In response, the communist-led countries of Eastern Europe formed the Warsaw Pact a few years later. The Warsaw Pact was a mutual military alliance between the Soviet Union and the Eastern European nations under Soviet influence, including East Germany. Kohl chose to ally West Germany with the United States not because it was the strongest nation, but because it was a fellow democracy. (A democracy is a government that includes several political parties whose members are elected to office by vote of the people.) Kohl would maintain cordial relations with the Soviet Union and East Germany (also known as the German Democratic Republic, or GDR), but he openly preferred closer ties with the United States and the European community.

Immediately after taking office, Kohl began the process of improving West Germany's relations with its Western allies. He met with French prime minister François Mitterrand (1916–1996) in Paris, British prime minister Margaret Thatcher (1925–; see entry) in London, and U.S. president Ronald Reagan (1911–; served 1981–89; see entry) in Washington, D.C. Kohl pushed hard for a united Europe that would bind a united Germany in an alliance with its former enemies. However, Germany continued to labor under the cloud of its recent Nazi past. Kohl campaigned tirelessly to reassure the NATO powers and the Soviet Union that a unified Germany posed no threat. Nonetheless, neighboring countries were not yet ready to trust Germany, the nation that had started World War II. Germany would therefore take a slow road to recover its economic strength and international standing. A divided Germany meant restricted economic growth.

Under Kohl's leadership, West Germany concentrated on its economic place in the world. Kohl worked to establish a good reputation for West Germany; he wanted the new nation to be seen as independent but trustworthy. In 1947, the U.S. government had offered a massive financial aid program called the Marshall Plan to help rebuild European countries that had suffered wartime damage. The Soviet Union refused to allow its Eastern European regimes, including East Germany, to participate in this aid program. The Soviets had suffered greatly at the hands of the invading Germans, so they strongly opposed rebuilding Germany's economic base. As time passed, the United States would become increasingly concerned that the Soviets were keeping East Germany economically repressed, in preparation for long-term control of the territory. Europe therefore became a divided region, with the capitalist Western countries benefiting from U.S. aid and the Eastern bloc struggling to establish communist economic principles. Thus the Cold War competition between the United States and the Soviet Union continued, and the front line of the battle shifted to the boundary between West Germany and East Germany, the line where capitalism and communism stood toe-to-toe.

Kohl was initially a strong advocate for basing intermediate-range American missiles on West German soil. He initially argued that the threat of Soviet expansion into Western Europe could only be stopped with the American missile systems in place. However, after his first five years as chancellor, Kohl came to oppose Reagan's proposed high-tech antimissile system, known popularly as the "Star Wars" initiative. NATO's efforts to modernize its short-range nuclear weapons based in West Germany further alarmed Kohl. He believed that the presence of weapons in his country would increase the probability of a nuclear war while decreasing the likelihood that the Western allies would come to West Germany's aid. From then on, Kohl opposed NATO's plans for modernization and demanded that the West start talks with the Soviet Union on the reduction of short-range nuclear systems. He believed nuclear weapons were counterproductive to unifying Germany and Europe.

Moscow connection

Helmut Kohl's hard-line views on nuclear systems and his basic anti-Soviet position, in which he endorsed a unified and integrated Europe free of communist influence, had made him an unpopular figure in Moscow. In a Newsweek magazine interview, Kohl actually compared the public relations efforts of new Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev (1931–; see entry) to those of former Nazi propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels (1897–1945). Goebbels was notorious for fabricating information (propaganda) about Hitler and the Nazis as Germany steadily took over one European nation after another. He was able to gain support for Hitler within Germany during the early years. Obviously, such remarks did not improve German-Soviet relations. However, Kohl continued his efforts to normalize relations with East Germany and the Soviet Union. His country was delicately balanced between economic involvement with Eastern Europe and a military alliance with Western forces that could face down the Eastern bloc if necessary.

After the fall

In 1989, rebellion against communist rule spread from one Eastern European nation to another as the populations took advantage of new reforms introduced by Gorbachev and the Soviets that allowed for greater freedoms of expression. In October 1989, public demonstrations against the East Germany communist leaders grew, which led to their resignation and the opening of the Berlin Wall on November9. East and West Germany soon moved toward reunification. As West German chancellor, Kohl had to deal with unprecedented political and economic problems presented by this unexpected historic event.

Kohl commanded the political discussion on a new East-West relationship. He visited Moscow in January 1990 to gain Soviet consent for German unification talks. In June, he assured President George Bush (1924–; served 1989–93; see entry) that the reunified Germany would remain in NATO. The last external obstacle to reunification was removed in July, when Kohl received Gorbachev's agreement that a united, sovereign Germany could remain in NATO. In September, a treaty signed in Moscow made reunification official: The German Democratic Republic (GDR, or East Germany) would be formally absorbed into the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG, or West Germany) on October 3, 1990. That fall, Kohl participated in the official end of World War II when Germany signed the Treaty on the Final Settlement with Respect to Germany. (The emerging Cold War rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union in the late 1940s had blocked final negotiations at that time.) Then on September 12, Kohl was involved in the signing of the Conventional Forces Treaty for Europe (CFE), which effectively ended the Cold War. This treaty was a nonaggression agreement between members of NATO and the Warsaw Pact. The Warsaw Pact was subsequently dissolved in 1991.

Helmut Kohl soon took a step that had been unimaginable before 1990—campaigning in East Germany against communist candidates. It was the first nationwide elections since Hitler came to power in 1933. Kohl and the Christian Democrats swept state and federal elections in January 1991, and Kohl became the first chancellor of a reunited Germany. He was reelected in 1994 and remained chancellor until his electoral defeat in 1998. A campaign finances scandal in 1999 forced Kohl to resign his honorary chairman position of the CDU in 2000.

Early political advisors urged Kohl to rid his speech of its traces of dialect, or speech pattern, so he would appear more worldly. In his political life, Kohl often used the word Heimat to speak of home in a dual sense: where one was born and where one feels at home. Political opponents often used Kohl's lack of sophistication as a point of ridicule. They criticized him, calling him folksy and average, yet these qualities were part of what made Kohl an appealing character to regular Germans. At 6 feet 4 inches, Kohl was an imposing figure. But his easygoing manner, combined with sharp political skills, made him the people's choice for sixteen years. Voters instinctively felt that Kohl was in control, and they had grown used to his style. Many Germans could hardly remember that there was ever a chancellor other than Kohl.

Kohl never severed his ties to his native city. The Kohl family continued to live in Oggersheim, a district of Ludwigshafen, after his retirement from public life.

For More Information


Bering, Henrik. Helmut Kohl. Washington, DC: Regnery Publishing, 1999.

Clemens, Clay, and William Paterson. The Kohl Chancellorship. Portland, OR: Frank Cass, 1998.

Muchler, Gunter, and Klaus Hofmann. Helmut Kohl, Chancellor of German Unity: A Biography. Bonn, Germany: Press Information Office of the Federal Government, 1992.

Smyser, W. R. From Yalta to Berlin: The Cold War Struggle over Germany. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1999.

Sodaro, Michael J. Moscow, Germany, and the West from Khrushchev to Gorbachev. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1990.

Szabo, Stephen F. The Diplomacy of German Unification. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1992.

Web Sites

"Newsmakers: Helmut Kohl." ABC News.http://abcnews.go.com/reference/bios/kohl.html (accessed on April 2, 2003).

"Newsmaker Profiles: Helmut Kohl, German Chancellor." CNN Interactive.http://www.cnn.com/resources/newsmakers/world/europe/kohl.html (accessed on April 2, 2003).

The Berlin Wall

The world was stunned when the Berlin Wall went up on August 13, 1961. In the previous seven months, approximately two hundred thousand East Germans had abandoned most of their belongings and headed to the western sectors of Berlin. The East German economy could not afford the continued loss in population. In order to stop the flow, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev (1894–1971; see entry) decided to institute a plan he had devised years earlier: constructing a wall between East and West Berlin, to seal off the western sectors of the city from the eastern sector.

An initial barrier of barbed wire was hastily put up overnight after a secret meeting of Eastern European Warsaw Pact leaders in Moscow a week earlier. The barbed wire was connected to concrete posts. The barrier ran through the heart of Berlin. Constructed street by street, it followed the boundary between the Soviet East Berlin sector and the western sectors of the city. Soviet tanks sat poised a few blocks back. Materials for the permanent construction of the wall were then brought into Berlin and one of the ugliest symbols of the Cold War was constructed.

Construction of the wall caught the West completely off guard. East Berliners who left for their jobs in West Berlin discovered that their trains stopped at the new boundary. And families, many of whom had relatives living in all sectors of the city, suddenly found themselves split apart. U.S. president John F. Kennedy (1917–1963; served 1961–63; see entry) chose to do nothing, fearing any interference could ultimately lead to war. Khrushchev guessed correctly that as long as West Berlin was left unharmed and its access routes were open to West Germany, the United States would not risk war.

The Wall remained intact for twenty-eight years. On November 10, 1989, East Germany dismantled the Berlin Wall and opened access to West Germany. The United States was on the verge of achieving one of its central Cold War objectives—Germany whole and free in a Europe whole and free.

Helmut Kohl

views updated May 29 2018

Helmut Kohl

A political leader in the Federal Republic of Germany, Helmut Kohl (born 1930) became chancellor in 1982 at the head of a coalition of three political parties. He stressed symbolic reconciliation with Germany's enemies from World War II.

Helmut Kohl was born in 1930 to a Catholic family in Ludwigshafen, in today's West German province of Rhineland-Pfalz. His parents remained patriotic under the World War II National Socialist government, but were not Nazis. Kohl's origins were particularly important for his political career. Only 15 year old when the war ended, he presented himself as the first chancellor of the post-war generation, not only innocent of Nazi crimes, but grown to political maturity in a democratic German nation.

Interest in Post-War Politics

In 1947 Kohl helped found the "Young Union," the youth organization of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) in Ludwigshafen. He studied law, political science, and history; and in 1958, he completed his doctoral dissertation on post-war political parties in the Pfalz province. First elected to the parliament of Rhineland-Pfalz in 1959, he served as minister president, or governor, of that province between 1969 and 1976. Under Kohl's leadership, the CDU in Rhineland-Pfalz consistently increased its share of votes, reaching 50 percent in 1971 and 53.9 percent in 1975. During these years Kohl rose to national prominence.

Losses in the national parliamentary elections of 1969 forced the CDU out of the national government for the first time in 20 years. Kohl became one of a group of younger leaders seeking to return the party to power. Chosen as head of the national party in 1973, one of his highest priorities was the structural reorganization of the CDU, especially giving it a broader membership. In 1976 Kohl first ran for the office of chancellor as the candidate of the CDU and its more conservative Bavarian ally, the Christian Social Party (CSU). Kohl was a moderate, with appeal to liberal voters, and the CSU was at first unenthusiastic about his candidacy. When Kohl lost to the Social Democratic Party's (SPD) Helmut Schmidt, relations between Kohl and the CSU's flamboyant chief, Franz-Josef Strauss, worsened. In the elections of 1980 Kohl had to step aside while Strauss ran as the CDU/CSU candidate. Strauss' own more severe defeat, however, strengthened Kohl's position in the party.

Chancellor Kohl

In 1982 the ruling coalition of the SPD and the small liberal party, the FDP (Free Democratic Party), collapsed when the FDP decided to ally its crucial swing votes with the CDU. On October 1, 1982, Helmut Kohl became chancellor. The new government was a coalition containing representatives of the CDU, CSU, and FDP and was confirmed in office in elections held in March of 1983. The CDU received 38.2 percent of the vote, its best result since 1957. Kohl proclaimed his government a "turning point" (Wende) in German politics.

In his first major address as chancellor, Kohl linked three crises plaguing the Federal Republic: a crisis of economic growth and employment, a financial crisis of the state, and an intellectual-political crisis. He pledged a historical new beginning through a "coalition of the middle." He planned the creation of new jobs through economic recovery, tax relief for the middle classes, and tax incentives for housing; the financial crisis would require a no-interest "loan" from wealthier tax-payers and a lowering of the state's credit needs. Kohl also announced the further development of cable television and atomic energy. In general, he planned to attack all three crises through an expansion of private economic growth. His support of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) decision to place Pershing missiles in the Federal Republic signaled his emphasis on Western alliances. These conservative policies resembled those of Ronald Reagan in the United States and Margaret Thatcher in England.

Kohl's "turning point" was only partly achieved. His major success was a strong economic recovery through early 1985. Corrected for inflation, the gross national product grew 1.3 percent in 1983, the first real growth since 1980. Unemployment rates remained high, however. The Federal Republic's highest court declared the no-interest loan from wealthier tax-payers unconstitutional. Kohl faced recurrent criticism from the CSU and Strauss; the CDU's coalition partners were frequently in public disagreement over social measures—for example, abortion and punishments for public demonstrators who wore masks. Furthermore, the "intellectual-political" crisis was worsened by three political scandals. The first concerned the controversial early retirement of a high general accused of frequenting a homosexual bar. The "Flick affair" revealed that some politicians in all parties had taken money from the giant Flick concern at the time when that company was successfully applying for enormous tax exemptions. The affair hurt the CDU in particular when revelations about Rainer Barzel, the parliamentary president, forced him to resign. The "party-contributions affair" also implicated all parties, although especially the CDU and FDP, in hiding illegal financial contributions.

In foreign policy Kohl's policies were controversial, but generally popular. Relations with Eastern European countries worsened slightly. Kohl's government repeatedly reaf-firmed its adherence to treaties made under the SPD recognizing the national boundaries of Eastern European countries, but the CDU's simultaneous insistence that Germany eventually be reunited chilled relations with Poland and the former Soviet Union. Erich Honecker, head of the German Democratic Republic (East Germany), canceled a planned visit to the Federal Republic in the fall of 1984, and Poland strongly condemned Kohl's tolerance for those in his party who sought to reunite with Germany territory lost to Poland after World War II.

Kohl's most important foreign policy initiative toward the West was his attempt at symbolic reconciliation with Germany's enemies from World War II. He clasped the hand of French President François Mitterand during a visit to graveyards of both German and French soldiers at Verdun in September of 1984. He persuaded Ronald Reagan to carry out a gesture of reconciliation at a German military graveyard in Bitburg in May of 1985, near the 40th anniversary of Germany's surrender in World War II, despite the outcry this caused in the United States. Kohl insisted upon this gesture, not only because it was widely popular in the Federal Republic, but because he was determined to draw a line between Nazi Germany and today's Federal Republic. As he said to a somewhat shocked Israeli audience in January of 1984, "A young generation of Germans does not understand the history of Germany as a burden, but as a mandate for the future. It is ready to take responsibility. But it refuses to acknowledge collective guilt for the deeds of the fathers." Whether Kohl, as a member of this young generation, could so easily change the world's perceptions of Germany was doubtful, but part of his significance as a leader was his articulation of this popular longing.

The Reunification of Germany

Importantly, Kohl is credited with the reunification of Germany. The fall of the Berlin Wall, which took place on November 9, 1989, was more to the credit of former Soviet Union President Mikhail Gorbachev. However, before the year's end, Kohl seized the opportunity to publicly announce that he would reunite his country. Indeed, Germany was peacefully reunited by the following year, and Kohl was re-elected in 1990 and 1994. The divide between east and west remained in the nation's psyche, however, as unemployment in the east seemed to cause resentment of immigrants, which, in turn, led to neo-Nazi violence. While Kohl has taken an anti-nationalistic approach, the rest of the Europe remains wary of a unified, nationalistic Germany. Kohl, who is firmly committed to Germany's part in the European Community, has announced plans to run for a fifth term in 1998.

Further Reading

The economy that Kohl found upon taking office is discussed in Andrei S. Markovits, editor, The Political Economy of West Germany: Modell Deutschland (1982). There is much information on the chancellor in Michael Balfour, West Germany (1982, 2nd ed.). For more recent information, see also: Newsweek, December 11, 1989, January 29, 1990, March 19, 1990; Time, July 30, 1990 and December 10, 1990; Christian Science Monitor, March 9, 1993 and March 11, 1993; and Economist, April 12, 1997. □

Kohl, Helmut

views updated May 18 2018

Kohl, Helmut (1930– ) German statesman, chancellor (1982–98). Between 1976 and 1982, he led the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) opposition to Helmut Schmidt. Kohl succeeded Schmidt as chancellor. His conservative approach advocated strong support for NATO, and a return to the traditional values of the West German state. Kohl strongly supported closer integration in the European Union (EU) and the establishment of the euro. In 1990, he presided over the reunification of East and West Germany and was elected as the first chancellor of unified Germany. Re-elected in 1994 and 1996, he lost the 1998 elections to Gerhard Schröder.