Argument

The Pear Who Ate Germany

Helmut Kohl was an unlikely political heavyweight, but his relentless drive helped put East and West back together.

German Chancellor Helmut Kohl (L) shakes hands with an unidentified woman as he takes a short walk in the streets of Dabo in company of French President Fran?ois Mitterrand (2nd L) 19 July 1983.         (Photo credit should read MARCEL MOCHET/AFP/GettyImages)
German Chancellor Helmut Kohl (L) shakes hands with an unidentified woman as he takes a short walk in the streets of Dabo in company of French President Fran?ois Mitterrand (2nd L) 19 July 1983. (Photo credit should read MARCEL MOCHET/AFP/GettyImages)

When Helmut Kohl toppled Chancellor Helmut Schmidt in 1982, a prominent Washingtonian, who knew both well, quipped: “There leaves a great man and enters a large man.” Kohl, who died at the age of 87 at his home on Friday, was certainly large, weighing in at 300 pounds and measuring six foot four. Would he also rise to greatness during his 16 years at Germany’s helm?

Size is not destiny, one way or the other. General de Gaulle topped Helmut Kohl by one inch and achieved greatness as le grand Charles. Churchill and Napoleon, giants both, were dwarfs by comparison, measuring just 5 feet 6 inches each. So height or bulk is a fickle predictor. It’s history that matters. Would Napoleon and Churchill have grown into legends in their own time without the extraordinary opportunities of the French Revolution and World War II?

For Kohl, the test came at the end of the Cold War, when Europe’s cast-in-concrete order suddenly collapsed. He did not seem cut out for greatness. Born in 1930, he embarked on a typically German career in politics — plodding, grinding, and climbing. He joined the Christian Democratic Party (CDU) at 18. Next stops: city council, member of the state legislature, caucus leader, prime minister of the state of Rhineland-Palatinate, vice chairman of the national party, then finally, chairman.

When he first went for the chancellorship at the age of 46, he lost to his nemesis, Helmut Schmidt. Six years later, in 1982, he grabbed the prize — but not in a general election, rather by dint of a parliamentary maneuver. Schmidt’s junior coalition partners, the Liberals, defected to the CDU and thus helped to anoint Kohl far from the voting booths.

Who would have thought that this machination would launch 16 years of rule, from 1982 to 1998? Only Bismarck has done better, serving the Kaiser for 19 years. They called Otto von Bismarck the “Iron Chancellor.” Kohl would be ridiculed as die Birne, “the Pear” — a snide comment on his body shape. His detractors did not see the core of steel lurking inside the roly-poly mass of flesh that would expand year after year, in spite of Kohl’s regular pilgrimages to the fat farm.

A Bavarian colleague loves to tell the story of Kohl’s visit to a Munich restaurant where the chancellor jovially asked the waiter for the fare of the day. The man went on and on: several kinds of soup, an array of different sausages with sauerkraut, pig’s knuckles, dumplings, schnitzel, suckling pig…. Kohl responded cheerfully: “Yes!” The flustered waiter whispered: “You mean alles, all of the above?” Kohl nodded. After he had plowed through heaps of victuals, he started picking off meat chunks from neighboring plates.

The Pear’s sense of humor was equal to his appetite. In a conversation with Henry Kissinger, he mused: “Henry, what would have become of you if your parents had not been driven from Germany?”

“Well, like my father,” responded Kissinger, “I would have become a Bavarian high school teacher, but I would probably have advanced from small-town Fürth to Nuremberg.”

“Oh, no,” grinned Kohl, “you would have made it at least to Munich, the capital.”

After his first re-election in 1983, this voracious omnivore began to make history. Veterans of the Cold War remember the pacifist-neutralist revolt sweeping through Europe at the time, with West Germany at the center. NATO had decided to field U.S. cruise and Pershing II missiles in response to the Soviet deployment of Backfire bombers and SS-20 missiles — intermediate-range nuclear weapons that could hit Europe, but not the United States.

Millions were thronging German cities in protest, accusing the United States of conspiring to fight a nuclear war, far from its own shores. The fate of the counter-deployment and the course of the Cold War would be decided in West Germany, the linchpin. A German nein would have delivered a historic victory to Moscow. But Kohl stood fast in support of the U.S. deployment and won his 1983 re-election campaign. Twenty-four hours later, the Pershings began to arrive in Germany.

Kohl’s courageous all-in gambit was the beginning of the end of the Cold War. In 1986, Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev agreed on “double-zero”: no Pershings for the United States, no SS-20s for the Kremlin. Thanks to Kohl, the alliance had passed its most deadly test, and the “evil empire,” as Reagan called it, never recuperated. Three years later, in 1989, the Berlin Wall fell, and on Christmas Day in 1991, the USSR committed suicide, leaving behind 15 orphan republics.

These two years were the “large man’s” moment of greatness, yet without a shot being fired. Suddenly, an impossible dream came true: Germany was reunified in 1990. Not that the chancellor had a blueprint; indeed, when the wall came down, he was as rattled as everybody else. What to do when a seemingly eternal order was collapsing?

Kohl rushed back from a visit to Warsaw, gingerly proclaiming a long-term, step-by-step program moving from cooperation with the communist half of Germany to confederation and eventually full unification. Yet history did not tarry, not with East Germans clamoring, “If the deutsche mark does not come to us, we will come to the deutsche mark” — that is, march westward by the millions. The German Democratic Republic collapsed into the Federal Republic’s arms.

Britain, France, and Italy were less enthusiastic, trying to brake — if not stop — the hurtling train. Enter President George H. W. Bush, who grasped where history was heading. Kohl and Germany were lucky to have him. The United States cleared the way, running interference against London, Paris, Rome, and Moscow while Kohl paid billions in ransom money to the Soviets. Within a few months, Germany was reunified — and then inside NATO, which Moscow had fought tooth and nail for decades.

Does the man make history, or history the man? Kohl probably would have lost the election of 1990 if not for the windfall of reunification. The electorate had grown tired of him: a leader whose size dwarfed his charisma. Suddenly, he shone forth as Kanzler der Einheit, the chancellor presiding over national unification. But there was more than sheer luck. Kohl, a trained historian, instinctively understood that Germany reborn, then (again) the strongest player in Europe, would have to reassure — nay, compensate — its neighbors to allay their angst.

Relentlessly, he pushed for more European integration in order to take the sting out of Germany’s rise, which in the past had always unhinged the continental balance. The euro, the common currency, was conceived in those chaotic days. If they ever make a movie of the time, it will open in the Elysee Palace, with Kohl entreating French President Francoise Mitterrand to set aside three wars fought in as many generations. With a bit of poetic license, the script might make Kohl coo: “Look, Francois, we have learned our lesson. No more jackboots and panzers. We are now safely integrated in Europe and NATO, which have defanged German power.” Mitterrand sighs: “Bon, mon ami. You get all of Germany, and I get my hands on the deutsche mark.”

The moral of this tale is a Germany triumphant, yet tamed by self-containment. Would that the Kaiser and Der Fuhrer had been so wise. By voluntarily putting the ropes back on the German Gulliver, Kohl defused Europe’s fear of the Fourth Reich. This is why he deserves a place in history.

His compatriots savored this feat only briefly. Reunification turned out to be an expensive proposition, costing the country about 4 percent of its GDP year after year, with no end in sight. Future historians will give Kohl his due, but also note that he turned into a tragic figure. He was ousted from power in 1998. One year later, he became mired in a party financing scandal. Refusing to name the donors (“I have given my word of honor”), he paid a fine of $150,000. As in a Shakespearean tragedy, Kohl’s protégée Angela Merkel thrust the dagger into her mentor when she used the affair to declare his days “irretrievably gone.” The CDU had to learn to fight for power without its “old war horse.”

Parricide worked. Kohl lost the chairmanship of the party to Merkel, who went on to win the chancellorship in 2005. Kohl’s wife committed suicide, his son Walter turned against him. Seriously impaired since 2008, Kohl ended up in a wheelchair, hardly able to speak. Thus do the mighty fall. Yet history will record that this large man did grow into a great man.

Photo credit: MARCEL MOCHET/AFP/GettyImages

Josef Joffe serves on the editorial board of "Die Zeit," the German weekly. A fellow of Stanford’s Hoover Institution, he teaches international politics at the university. His most recent book is "The Myth of America’s Decline." Follow him on Twitter: @joejoffe.

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