The German Oak. Helmut Kohl 1930-2017
Along with Kohl, the political culture of Catholic Germany is on its way out.
In 1990, Helmut Newton was given approval to take the chancellor’s portrait. Helmut Kohl's colleagues had doubts – the photographer Newton was known for his daring images, but the desire to show that the well-built Christian Democrat could be “trendy” won over.
Newton entered the chancellor's garden and quickly came up with the idea that made his photo famous. He instructed the chancellor to stand against the broad trunk of a spreading oak. Kohl immediately grasped the symbolism of the idea and obediently stood under the tree. The term Deutsche Eiche (‘German Oak’) was applied to Martin Luther and Otto von Bismarck. To this day, the photo remains one of the best images of the father of German unification.
At just the right time
Every politician has their five minutes during which their ability to respond to the challenge of the moment gives them the chance to attain greatness.
For Kohl, that moment was the first crisis of the GDR regime, and then the fall of the Berlin Wall. That was when he decided to unify Germany quickly at any cost. Critics reminded him that his was a rather sudden transformation where he unexpectedly demonstrated faith in unification. Two years earlier, in 1987, he greeted Erich Honecker, the first secretary of the Communist Party, in Bonn with honours (with the GDR’s national anthem and a welcome by the Bundeswehr honorary company at the airport). Officially, the unification of Germany was the stated policy of the Federal Republic, but in practice the western part had already learned to live with the “second” German state.
It was enough, though, for the wind of change to blow gently and the powerful chancellor began to act quickly. Kohl knew that the Federal Republic only had one effective weapon – a chequebook. He quickly offered Mikhail Gorbachev and his head of diplomacy Eduard Shevardnadze a gigantic injection of German marks for the shaky Soviet economy, and as a gesture for the Kremlin it was agreed that Honecker would be able to go to his sister in Chile. The whole world watched as Kohl, the head of German diplomacy Hans-Dietrich Genscher and “Gorby” celebrated the reunification of Germany in the resort of Archyz in the Caucasus.
Kohl had to act swiftly because there were enemies to German unification among the German left-wing. Günther Grass has already called for the GDR to democratise, but to remain as a separate state. Similar views were expressed by some East German dissidents, who rejected Honecker, but still considered the country of Western "brothers" as an inhuman capitalist dictatorship. The mood was the complete opposite among ordinary Germans, who took up the slogan Wir sind ein Volk (‘We are one Nation’).
Kohl won over the East Germans by exchanging GDR marks one-for-one with West German marks. It was financially absurd, but it silenced anti-unification sentiment. What if Kohl had not demonstrated enough determination? A democratic GDR could have very much resembled Poland in the 1990s. Embattled groupings of oppositionists and a reformed party of post-communists held together by a “solidarity of fear”. A Kwaśniewski figure of GDR would have been found, the head of the Stasi's intelligence, Markus Wolf, would have evoked fear in the opposition by waving secret police files, and the elite would mock proposals for lustration.
This did not happen and it was the result of the determination of one man – Helmut Kohl. On 3 October 1990, unification became reality.
I had the opportunity to see the “chancellor of unification” with my own eyes. It was in the Reichstag on that memorable night, the biggest moment in his life. He glowed with pride and emotion, hugging his wife, Hannelore. And the fireworks over Berlin exploded until late at night. Contrary to the intervening reassuring spells, the Germans returned that night to the role they lost in 1945.
Of course, a year later the shortcomings of rapid unification came to light. Arrogant businessmen bought companies in the east for pennies. In 1990, at a rally in Halle, the crowd threw eggs at Kohl. However, Germany was already on a clear course; a course towards European power.
The last Rhinelander
By unifying Germany, Kohl also ended the Bonn Republic, in which he had made his career. Born in the Rhineland in Ludwigshafen in 1930, he had rubbed shoulders with the Hitlerjugend, but he was young enough to make a career in the era of Konrad Adenauer without the burden of the Third Reich.
In the 1960s, his generation come to power after the generation of the old chancellor. Like Adenauer, he represented the Germans which, after the war, rejected the Prussian tradition. His Rhineland was closer to France than to Russia. He loved wine, not beer. He ate Saumagen – pork stomach stuffed with chunks of knuckle. And most importantly, he was associated with Gemutlichkeit – a kind of friendly geniality. His main rival after the death of Adenauer – Franz Josef Strauss of the Bavarian CSU – was a much better politician, but for most Germans from the Federal Republic he was too aggressive and expressive. And Kohl, like Angela Merkel today, was seen as a safe mediocrity – more suited to the presidency of the Rhineland-Palatinate president, which he held in 1969.
In 1976, as head of the CDU, he lost the campaign for the chancellorship to Helmut Schmidt of the SPD. Strauss triumphed, and he joked that a cactus would sooner grow in his hand than Kohl would become chancellor. And yet, luck came to the aid of the great Rhinelander. In 1983, the liberal FDP decided to change its coalition partner – previously it had been the SPD, and now the Christian Democrats were being handed power on a plate.
Kohl was chancellor for 14 years, surprising everyone with his astuteness and ability to brush potential competitors aside.
For Poles remembering the 1980s and 1990s, Kohl was a symbol of West Germany, a friendly country. It was a time of parcels from Germany, asylum for solidarity emigrants, sincere words of repentance for war crimes, visits by Polish bishops to their German brothers, and courtesies from Bonn to John Paul II. The Federation of Expellees was discreetly pushed to the margins and Gierek's government was tempted with credits.
In the eyes of the opposition, Kohl and his CDU appeared much friendlier than the SPD, which was in love with the authorities of the People's Republic of Poland and the news weekly “Polityka”. In the 1980s especially, Kohl and his Christian Democrats were associated with anti-Communism, pro-Americanism and a sincere desire to compensate for the damage it had inflicted during the war.
And so, the image of the good Christian Democrats took hold among a whole generation of respected intellectuals from “Tygodnik Powszechny”, “Więź”, “Znak” and Catholic Intelligentsia Clubs. This atmosphere led to the famous reconciliation mass in Krzyzowa in November 1989. Pictures from the ceremony, especially the embrace between Tadeusz Mazowiecki and Kohl, were widely distributed in the Polish media on the day the chancellor died in the, as proof of the friendship between the politicians. Much less was said about what would follow.
The 1990 negotiations on the unification of Germany shocked Poles and Mazowiecki personally. Kohl delayed unequivocally recognising the Oder and Nysa border for so long that the then Polish prime minister slowed down appeals for the withdrawal of Soviet troops in the absence of a clear vision of Kohl's policy. Finally, pressure from the West forced Bonn to be unambiguous, but the unpleasant surprise remained deeply engrained. It was similar with Germany's pressure to recognise the German minority in Poland, but without recognising the Polish minority in Germany.
In 1991, the Polish-German treaty was signed (without the presence of the chancellor) and later Kohl forgot about Poland. Of course, he supported our efforts to join NATO and the EU, but at a distance. He visited our country only once – in 1995. Władysław Bartoszewski later bitterly remembered how during preparations for the visit Kohl reacted reluctantly to the proposal to visit Auschwitz. “I’ve already been there,” said the “chancellor of unification”. “Me, too,” said Bartoszewski bitingly, a former prisoner of the camp. It was only when the meaning of his words hit Kohl, that he agreed to the visit.
One campaign to far
Every politician has difficulty choosing when to leave the stage. In 1994, Kohl won again. The agitation in the “new lands” about the wild privatisation had passed. The following years also seemed to be one success after another for Kohl – the introduction of the euro, the effects of the Schengen Agreement and optimism around the enlargement of the EU to the east. All this prompted the CDU leader to run in the 1998 elections and then finally leave in glory. The plan failed and the election was won by an impudent nouveau riche from the SPD: Gerhardt Schröder, who promised German voters even better social benefits.
And then the great oak was felled. A scandal erupted about dubious party bank accounts, and Angela Merkel, the long-time protector of Kohl, turned out to be the main regicide and successor. The former chancellor never revealed who financed his party and clouds started to form over his life. His wife Hannelore committed suicide due to photodermatosis, an allergy to light, his sons broke off relations with him, avenging his long years of despotism, and full, dictatorial control over the old politician was taken over by his former secretary and his new wife.
The chancellor remained silent on important German matters, but also those in which his opinion was sought concerning Poland. He did not speak when Erika Steinbach began to talk within his party about Polish guilt for the expulsions, and Rudi Pawełka founded the Prussian Trust, demanding compensation for property left in Western Poland.
He spoke only when Merkel drew a wave of immigrants to Germany. He let it be known that he would not have done something similar, demonstrably meeting with Viktor Orban.
With his departure, we bid farewell to the political culture of Catholic Rhineland Germany. A symbol of this somewhat muted Carolingian tradition will be a requiem for the chancellor at the Speyer Cathedral. The media are reporting that Kohl's wife has clearly expressed that she does not want Angela Merkel to speak at his grave, preferring that Viktor Orban speak instead. It is difficult to imagine a better finale to the life of the “chancellor of unification”.
Author: Piotr Semka