No other politician embodied the dullness of German politics in the 1980s and most of the 1990s as fully as Helmut Kohl.
As chancellor from 1982 to 1998, Kohl presided over German reunification and the Maastricht Treaty. He personified the postwar German love affair with uncharismatic politicians and established an impenetrable social consensus that prioritized the interests of German capital over all else.
Obituaries in German media have praised Kohl for his pivotal role in European integration. They’ve hailed his willingness to sacrifice the much-beloved Deutschmark on the altar of the euro as a selfless act of Europeanism, one that proved once and for all that Germany had given up on its imperial ambitions.
Far from being an idealist or a visionary, however, Kohl ultimately served as an enforcer for German capital.
Possessing neither Willy Brandt’s charisma nor Helmut Schmidt’s rhetorical skills, Kohl relied on the personal relationships he cultivated within Germany’s powerful chemical industry to launch his career. This network arguably made Kohl chancellor, but it also lay at the heart of numerous corruption scandals, notably several cases of illegal party financing.
Due to the particularities of the West German economy, the country was spared the outright capitalist assault that characterized the 1980s in the United States and Britain. Nevertheless, Kohl took advantage of recurring unemployment beginning in the mid-1970s — and the subsequent creation of a reserve army of labor — to introduce neoliberal measures.
Not unlike Reagan and Thatcher, Kohl made reversing the social legacy of 1968 his top priority. Under the term geistig-moralische Wende (“spiritual-moral turn”), he sought to instill a neoliberal ethos in his country, while also freeing German politics from the moral constraints stemming from its recent past. This effort culminated in 1985, when he and Ronald Reagan visited an SS cemetery in the German town of Bitburg.
Kohl understood that Germany’s status as global player depended on deepening European integration. Dreams of resurgent national power, not European brotherhood, lay at the heart of his commitment to the single currency.
He allowed the United States to station medium-range nuclear missiles on German soil, and, under his watch, German firms sold armaments to Saudi Arabia and chemical-weapon components to Saddam Hussein.
When details of the latter emerged, it sparked uncertainty in Israel, so Kohl established the now time-honored tradition of sending nuclear-capable submarines to Tel Aviv. In that same spirit of checkbook diplomacy, Germany helped bankroll the first American war on Iraq in 1991.
Kohl tested the limits of full German sovereignty by unilaterally recognizing Croatian and Slovenian independence, accelerating the outbreak of the bloody Yugoslav wars, and dragging the entire Western alliance into the Balkan quagmire.
While his chancellorship marked a major change in German foreign policy, his role in German reunification constitutes the most important aspect of his legacy.
Kohl didn’t reunite the two Germanies; he arranged for the wholesale annexation of East Germany. Promising “blooming landscapes,” he pushed for rapid reunification and sabotaged any effort to create an autonomous and democratic transition in East Germany.
Reunification did not produce an economic miracle but instead sent unemployment skyrocketing. Kohl proved his loyalty to the capitalist class by offering East German industrial assets to ravenous West German corporations through the Treuhand, the institution tasked with overseeing mass privatizations. These sales cost tens of thousands of East German workers their jobs, and, a year later, crowds in the eastern city of Halle pelted the so-called “chancellor of reunification” with eggs.
As East German disillusionment grew, Kohl and his Christian Democratic Union (CDU) began scapegoating migrants and orchestrating a campaign to curtail the right to asylum. Their discourse enabled a series of violent neo-Nazi pogroms in eastern Germany, most notably in Rostock in the summer of 1992. Only when these events began to tarnish the country’s international image did Kohl pull the plug.
By the time he lost the 1998 election, Kohl’s approval rating had hit an all-time low. After reunification, unemployment rose, the economy stagnated, and Germany became the “sick man of Europe.”
Kohl’s government proved indecisive when pushing through neoliberal reforms. Some of his coalition members feared a backlash like the 1995 French public-sector strikes, since German unions remained relatively strong.
After sixteen years of rule, Kohl came to symbolize everything citizens hated about German capitalism: its propensity for corruption, its backroom deals, its disregard for the environment, its open racism, and its cynical relationships with dictators. Kohl had exhausted his usefulness to his class, and capital placed its bets on the SPD-Green coalition under Gerhard Schröder.
After securing the unions’ acquiescence, this coalition carried out the largest program of neoliberal restructuring in modern German history. Presenting himself as a vibrant, “Third Way” alternative to Kohl, Schröder built on his predecessor’s legacy, going further than the Christian Democrat could have hoped.
Schröder launched Germany’s first military intervention since World War II against Serbia, a decision that owed much to Kohl’s post-reunification assertiveness. Also, Schröder’s liberalization of the labor market and the ensuing repression of real wages combined with Kohl’s brainchild, the single currency, to create the conditions for today’s eurozone crisis.
In a typical act of political recycling, Schröder gave way to a new CDU chancellor in 2005: Kohl’s former protégé, the one he affectionately called das Mädchen (“the girl”). Angela Merkel solidified both her predecessors’ legacies, inheriting Kohl’s vision of a German-dominated Europe and the social-liberal façade that Schröder built on top of it.
Today, Helmut Kohl is generally remembered as a scandal-ridden politician, whose handling of the reunification process created a chronically underdeveloped and deindustrialized periphery in the country’s east. Merkel, on the other hand, appears as the leader of an enlightened liberal order under attack in the age of Trump. Yet it was Kohl’s aggressive pursuit of German interests and his ruthless annexation of East Germany that laid the foundations for German hegemony.