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Tuesday, 3 October, 2000, 07:37 GMT 08:37 UK
Kohl's mark on history

Kohl was a masterful political operator
By BBC News Online's Tim Weber

Helmut Kohl was forced to resign as honorary chairman of Germany's Christian Democrats in January 2000 over a party funding scandal which shook Germany's political establishment to its core.

But until his party's decisive defeat in the 1998 general election he was arguably the country's most successful chancellor.

During his 16 years in power - a post-war record - he presided over Germany's unification and he became the driving force of European integration.

When he came to power in 1982, hardly anybody expected him to survive for long. His thick Rhineland accent and the bumbling delivery of his speeches led most of his political enemies and even many of his friends to believe that he was a provincial light-weight - despite his imposing stature.

They were wrong. The apparent lack of intellect betrayed the fact that Mr Kohl was a masterful political operator, who knew how to pull the levers in Bonn and across West Germany.

Moreover after the intellectual coolness, some called it arrogance, of his predecessor Helmut Schmidt, the new chancellor's image of an ordinary person won him the hearts of many Germans.

The operator

Chancellor Kohl's early years were marked by mass unemployment, and a deep, national divide over the deployment of nuclear weapons on German territory.

Kohl feted over the fall of the Berlin Wall
He managed to steer his coalition government past these and other problems, deftly handling the three forces in his coalition government: the liberal Free Democrats, his own Christian Democrats and their Bavarian sister party, the more conservative Christian Social Union.

For most of the time Mr Kohl did not make his mark with decisive politics or bold initiatives.

Many observers described his policy as "Aussitzen" - sitting and waiting until the problem went away or his opponents gave in.


All this changed in 1989, when the East German regime began to crumble and the Berlin Wall came down. Helmut Kohl, in his own words, "grabbed the mantle of history."

He was the driving force behind German unification. While many politicians in Germany, Western Europe and the Soviet Union dithered, he set the agenda.

It was Mr Kohl's finest hour. Through a mixture of pressure and persuasion he convinced leaders in East and West to accept a large and unified Germany, ending half a century of Cold War division.

Committed European

But for Helmut Kohl, German unity and European unity were two sides of the same coin. In a bid to allay fears about the emergence of the new giant in central Europe he pushed for closer European integration.

He was 15 years old when World War II ended, his elder brother Walter had died in the war. This determined his outlook. To him European integration was as a question of war and peace, a point that he stressed in many speeches.

Binding the country into the double framework of Nato and European Union was his policy to avoid a replay of great power rivalries.

Disappointment in the East

When Mr Kohl became chancellor, domestic policy was his strong suit; his appearances abroad were ridiculed.

Three elections later he was a giant on the world stage, the West's longest serving head of government, the driving force in Europe.

But at home he came increasingly under pressure.

Kohl: Germany's most successful leader?
In 1990, during the first election campaign in the unified Germany, Mr Kohl had promised that within four years East Germany's devastated economy would turn into a "flourishing landscape."

However, the "Aufschwung Ost" - the East's recovery - was far slower and more painful that Mr Kohl and his Christian Democrats had imagined.

While the government poured billions of deutschmarks into the East, the region's rate of unemployment remained stubbornly at around 18%.

The disappointment and disillusionment in the East was great, and spread to the West as the economic boom of the post-unification years ran out of steam.

Furthermore, not all Germans were happy with his role as the driving force behind European Monetary Union.

The end

Many had expected Mr Kohl to step down well before the 1998 elections, and hand over to Wolfgang Schäuble, his designated crown prince.

But despite bad opinion poll ratings the old "war elephant", as Mr Kohl liked to call himself, decided to try once more.

Had he succeeded, he would have surpassed Otto von Bismarck, Germany's longest-serving chancellor.

Now his foes - and some of his friends - will say that he repeated the mistake of Konrad Adenauer, West Germany's first chancellor, who tried to cling to power for too long.

Helmut Kohl gave Germany stability, and Europe a dependable ally. But he will always be remembered as the chancellor who brought Germany unification.

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