Germany's not-so-great reunifier

Axel Fair-Schulz and Laura Fair-Schulz, both faculty members at the State University of New York Potsdam, look at the legacy of former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl.

Then German Chancellor Helmut Kohl addresses a party conference of the Christian Democratic Union (Lothar Schaack | Wikimedia Commons)Then German Chancellor Helmut Kohl addresses a party conference of the Christian Democratic Union (Lothar Schaack | Wikimedia Commons)

WHEN ERICH Honecker, the former Stalinist leader of East Germany before the fall of the Berlin Wall, visited West Germany in September 1987, hardly anyone would have considered the possibility that the German Democratic Republic (GDR), as East Germany was officially named, and indeed the entire Soviet Bloc, would soon cease to exist.

Honecker, the first East German leader ever to visit West Germany, spoke with confidence at the official reception with West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, insisting on the GDR as a fully sovereign and equal partner in their exchanges of diplomatic pleasantries.

But Honecker's words rung hollow and contrived given the growing economic and political power of West Germany. To underline this reality, there was the contrast in physical appearance: At 6-foot-4-inches tall, Kohl towered over Honecker's relatively modest physical frame.

By the late 1980s, the Federal Republic of Germany in the West had a population of well over 60 million, while the GDR's had declined to just above 16 million. This disparity was matched by East Germany's smaller geographic size and significantly lower economic productivity, which was by the end of its existence was only about 30 percent of West Germany's rate.

Less than three years after this meeting between Kohl and Honecker, West Germany would swallow its eastern neighbor, with Kohl becoming the first chancellor of a reunified German state on October 3, 1990.

Another contrast capturing Kohl's increasing power came in a cartoon published around the time of German reunification. It showed a seated Kohl towering over a standing Margaret Thatcher, the prime minister of Britain, who scolded Kohl: "Sit down, you big German"--to which a confused and annoyed Kohl responded, "But I'm sitting already."

This caricature spoke to the fears of the British ruling class, which was increasingly ill at ease not only with German unification, but also with Germany's growing dominance in Europe. Thatcher recognized early on how Kohl's rhetoric in favor of further European integration masked designs to cement and expand German hegemony within the European Union (EU) that would be founded with the Maastricht Treaty in 1993.

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FOLLOWING HIS death last month, Kohl's life and legacy were celebrated at a memorial ceremony in Strasbourg, France, attended by EU leaders and international guests. Chief among the speakers who made the customary flattering pronouncements were Germany's current Chancellor Angela Merkel, ex-U.S. President Bill Clinton and current French President Emmanuel Macron.

Kohl was called "a true European" (NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg), a "visionary leader" who "prepared Germany and all of Europe for the 21st century" (Bill Clinton), and "one of [Germany's] greatest leaders," "one of [America's] best friends" and "a ringing voice for freedom" around the world" (former U.S. Secretary of State James Baker).

But in rejecting these overblown tributes, one shouldn't dismiss Kohl's importance as a political figure during his long career, which included four terms as chancellor. Only Otto von Bismarck, the first chancellor of a unified Germany, surpassed Kohl's tenure of 16 years at the helm of Europe's wealthiest capitalist state.

It is easy to see the hypocrisy in how Kohl is depicted now. He cultivated a folksy public persona and loved to be photographed vacationing in Austria, surrounded by his children and wife, as well as similarly subdued mountain goats and other picturesque animals.

Yet from the accounts of his estranged children, who had neither contact with their father for many years, nor attended his funeral, we know today that those saccharine photo ops hid a different reality. Like many other politicians, Kohl used his family largely as a public relations vehicle to further his career.

Friends and foes describe him as having pursued his path to power single-mindedly. A rather uninspiring public speaker, Kohl mastered the art of backroom deal-making by building a network of contacts and learning how to grease the wheels of politics and business.

Thus, it is no surprise that various financial scandals followed him even into his chancellorship and beyond. After the end of his fourth term and in semi-retirement, one final scandal ended his career in disgrace: Wealthy donors had given illicit money to the conservative Christian Democratic Union party he led, and Kohl refused to reveal their names, insisting that he gave them his word of honor to protect their identities.

This broke German laws--eventually, even his own party had to disavow him. Angela Merkel, once his protégé, was among the first in the CDU to publically distance herself from her former mentor--and opportunistically position herself as his successor.

Kohl led the CDU between 1973 and 1998. He became chancellor of West Germany in 1982 and, after orchestrating German reunification in 1990, chancellor of a united Germany until 1998.

Though later celebrated for his diplomatic genius, Kohl's pre-1989 career was characterized by several rather unstatesmanlike "missteps," such as joining U.S. President Ronald Reagan in honoring a gravesite of Second World War Army and Waffen-SS members.

While bringing several junior politicians into his inner circle, he eventually broke with most of them, sensing their growing independence. In 1989, some of his protégés, like CDU Secretary General Heiner Geisler, Lothar Späth, Kurt Biedenkopf and other ambitious CDU politicians, openly rebelled against Kohl and were almost able to displace him.

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IRONICALLY, WHAT saved Kohl was the implosion of East Germany. Of course, neither he nor his conservative party had any role in the initial protests against the Stalinist regime there, which were originally led by leftist civil rights and peace activists--the sort of people distained by conservatives when they encounter them in the West.

But Kohl, endowed with an instinct for power and political opportunism, sensed the opening of a brief window for German reunification. While other major political leaders were still stunned by the unforeseen developments, Kohl developed a 10-point program and pushed it through like a steamroller, to use a phrase from his chief foreign policy strategist Horst Teltschik.

Skillfully channeling money and political operatives into the GDR, he sidelined East Germany's original opposition and succeeded in transforming and co-opting the political slogans of demonstrating East Germans from "We are the people" into "We are one people."

The former slogan illustrated the desire of East Germans to emancipate themselves from their Stalinist leadership, while the latter was a call for German reunification under capitalist conditions.

Of course, what Kohl advertised as "reunification" was not really a coming together of two previously independent states as equal partners, but rather the complete absorption of the former East German state by West Germany, amounting to a de facto annexation.

Kohl famously promised to transform East Germany, ravished by four decades of Stalinist bureaucracy and mismanagement, into "blossoming landscapes." But in the decades following reunification, what used to be East Germany was turned into a semi-colony of the West, with unemployment ranging up to 30 percent or more.

Most East Germans in higher leadership positions of any kind were supplanted by West German imports. This applied to academia as well, where East German scholars, especially in the social sciences and the humanities, were either demoted, dismissed or forced into early retirement, without regard to their actual scholarly performance.

Promising careers were ended, and many personal tragedies ensued, including suicides. West Germany's model of higher education was uncritically forced on East Germany's institutions, and a unique opportunity to take stock and create something new in both East and West was wasted.

Thus, it was little surprise that the earlier enthusiastic shouts of "Helmut, Helmut" from many East Germans were soon replaced by bitter disappointment. In more than one memorable news report from the early 1990s, Kohl's public appearances were greeted by angry protesters, who pelted him with eggs.

Kohl will not go down in history as the same kind of neoliberal crusader as fellow rulers Thatcher and Reagan. In fact, the dismantling of post-Second World War welfare capitalism in Germany, as well as the official consensus on military restraint, was implemented not by Kohl's center-right government, but the center-left regime that succeeded him in 1998. The Social Democrats, in coalition with the Greens, even changed the German constitution to allow for the deployment of German troops outside of NATO territory.

Nevertheless, Kohl left a legacy that is hard to ignore. As one of the chief strategists behind the Maastricht Treaty and the introduction of the euro currency, his accomplishments for the good of German and European capital extends well into the 21st century.

Those committed to building a better world will be battling it for some time to come.