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Germany After Kohl

by Michael D. Richards on Sep 30, 1998

Michael D. Richards

It’s always a bit sad watching a powerful political figure overstay his welcome.

Helmut Kohl, German chancellor for sixteen years, has done just that. On Sept. 27, German voters opted for Gerhard Schrôder and the Social Democrats over Kohl and his coalition of Christian Democrats and Free Democrats.

While the end of Kohl’s term in office is of interest, what Germany under Schrôder might do is of greater importance. A comparison of the chancellorships of Konrad Adenauer and Kohl may provide some clues. Two questions come to mind. Has Kohl left Germany able to manage its own affairs, political and economic? And will a politician with a genuine capacity for leadership emerge as chancellor either now or in the next few years?

Let’s review Adenauer’s record first. Adenauer, one of the few German politicians with experience in German politics before the Nazi takeover, was untainted by Nazi connections. Chancellor from 1949, when the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) was born, until 1963, he was a strong-willed individual who created a Germany very much in line with his ideas about the European and world situation.

Adenauer seemed the indispensable man, a German the western Allies could trust. He practiced what was called “Chancellor democracy,” a kind of authoritarian government that tended to bypass the Bundestag (lower house of parliament). However, by embedding Germany in the western alliance, NATO, and by working in partnership with Germany’s European neighbors, in particular its old enemy France, Adenauer also created a new and democratic Germany. After he left office, Germany demonstrated it could work reasonably well without him.

The first two chancellors to follow Adenauer were only moderately successful, but in Willy Brandt he had a great successor. Brandt, from the rival Social Democrats, kept Germany’s western orientation but supplemented it with the “Ostpolitik” or eastern policy. This recognized the Soviet Bloc as a political reality while simultaneously undermining it by opening channels of communications with it. Both the revolution of 1989 in the German Democratic Republic and the unification of Germany the following year owe much to Brandt’s efforts.

A decade ago, many observers thought Helmut Kohl would soon be history. The German Revolution of 1989 and the opportunity to bring the two Germanies back together presented him with a chance to be a statesman. There are those who would question how well he handled this opportunity; nonetheless, he moved rapidly and with some skill to bring the old German Democratic Republic into the Federal Republic of Germany.

After unification, Kohl did not always respond adequately to the problems Germany experienced in the 1990s. Persistent high employment especially in the east, was his undoing. Still, he has earned a place in history as the longest serving chancellor since World War II and as the architect of German unity.

He leaves a functioning political democracy in Germany, as the election demonstrates. On the eve of the 50th anniversary of the Federal Republic of Germany, there can be no doubt of that, even if the eastern part, the former German Democratic Republic, is not yet fully integrated into the nation and its economy. Germany also possesses a solid economic base, even if it will have to work hard in the coming years to regain a competitive edge.

If Germany is fortunate enough to have someone like Brandt emerge now or in the next few years, someone to do what Kohl could not do or perhaps could not even see the necessity of doing, Germany will be well served. Will that person be “Mr. Clintonblair,” that is, Gerhard Schrôder? Perhaps.

The true test of greatness lies not in leaving an imposing and enduring system but rather in providing a solid foundation for new departures that meet the demands of new situations. Kohl already has his place in history. With luck, he may have shaped something that others can make even greater in the future.


Michael Richards teaches modern European and world history at Sweet Briar College in Virginia and is a writer for the History News Service.