Helmut Kohl’s legacy will long be remembered

By George N. Tzogopoulos Source:Global Times Published: 2017/6/18 20:53:39

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

Germany's course after the end of WWII has been remarkable. A defeated, destroyed, humiliated, isolated and stigmatized country managed in approximately seven decades to regain its glory and become the most powerful country in Europe, at least economically. All its chancellors serving after the fall of Adolf Hitler deserve credit, especially those serving in difficult times and for many years. One of those was Helmut Kohl, who died on Friday at the age of 87.

Kohl led his country for 16 years, from 1982 until 1998. Politicians who governed in both the Cold War and the post-Cold War era - like the former German chancellor - had a unique experience of dealing with international politics. They lived through the era of competition between the US and the Soviet Union as well as through the transition period following the decline of the latter.

Kohl's task was particularly hard because his country had been divided in two following the 1945 Potsdam Conference. Initially the chancellor of West Germany, he had then to reunify the country.

In 2011, former US president Bill Clinton said that "Kohl was the most important European statesman since World War II." This assessment can be attributed to his entire political career.

During the Cold War, the former German chancellor believed in the importance of peace, the vision of reunification of Germany and the end of hostility between the two superpowers as well as the idea of European integration with emphasis on economic and monetary union. He worked toward this domestically and internationally.

He was particularly close to then president of France François Mitterrand. The picture of the two leaders holding hands in Verdun in 1984, on the battlefield where German and French soldiers died during the Great War, remains today a symbol of friendship and an inspiration for the German-French partnership.

Of course, Kohl will be principally remembered for his catalytic role in managing the unprecedented developments of the post-1989 era. The collapse of the Berlin Wall was an opportunity for Germany, bringing its two parts together. It was also a challenge because living conditions and standards were completely different and an appropriate balance needed to be found.

Kohl attempted to approach East Germans and appeal to their patriotism. In the historic speech he made in Dresden six weeks after the fall of the Berlin Wall, he inspired confidence and certainty that he would not leave his compatriots of the Eastern bloc behind.

Even today, 26 years after the end of the Cold War, the eastern part of Germany differs from the western part, showing the difficulty of Kohl's mission. His economic policy was risky as he decided to allow the exchange of East Germany's currency for West Germany's valuable marks. He focused more on stability than on numbers and theories.

That is why he also introduced the so-called solidarity tax to support the reconstruction of the Eastern bloc. His approach was proven to be correct, although problems such as unemployment could not be eliminated in the short term.

In terms of foreign policy, Kohl invested in personal diplomacy and was successful in convincing his partners to trust a united Germany and foster close cooperation with it. In particular, he struck up warm relations with several counterparts. As well as Mitterrand, these included George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin.

Above all, he was careful to position his country's expansion and reunification in the postwar structures of the EU and NATO. In so doing, he devoted much of his energy to reassuring France, Britain, the US and the Soviet Union that Germany knew its place and had no ambition to become a world power.

So far, Kohl has been the longest-serving chancellor in modern German history. If Angela Merkel wins the federal election of September and stays in power until 2021 she will only equal his record.

The current chancellor respects the work of her predecessor, praising it during past public appearances. But the main difference in the work of the two leaders is that Germany has now become the world power Kohl had not anticipated. His prediction might have been wrong but his contribution has been huge.

The author is a lecturer at the European Institute in Nice, France. opinion@globaltimes.com.cn

Posted in: VIEWPOINT

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