Helmut Kohl
and German Reunification

by Hanna C. Sanchez


            After 45 years of separation, East and West Germanies reunified under Chancellor Helmut Michael Kohl.  He became chancellor of West Germany in 1982 and in 1991 the chancellor of a united Germany.  Born on April 3, 1930, he studied politics, law, and political science at Frankfurt and Heidelberg universities.  He wrote his PhD thesis in 1958 on the formation of new political parties within the Palatinate, so it only suited his interests to enter the world of politics. As a result of the experiences of his generation, the only alternative he knew to fascism and communism was democracy.  Consequently, he was determined to achieve this goal for his country and was full of ideas that reflected his Christianity as well as German pride.  While one critic described Kohl's political philosophy as difficult to define as nailing pudding to a wall, he was clear in his ideas and goals and resolute in his stand.

 Kohl's rise through the political world was steady.  He joined the Christian Democratic Union one year after the second world war and worked with the youth wing of the political group, Junge Union.  Elected to the Rhineland-Palatinate Landtag in 1959, Kohl became the parliamentary CDU chairman by 1963.  He was the youngest Land MP at the age of 29, the youngest party floor leader at 33, and the youngest Kurfurst or Land prime minister at the age of 39.  By 1967, he was already recognized as a likely future candidate for the position of chancellor.  Kohl was elected to the executive committee of the national CDU in 1964, marking his entrance into national party politics.  He rose to deputy chairman of the CDU in 1969 and then to CDU chairman in 1973, a position he held until 1979.  In 1976, he was a candidate for the chancellorship, but was defeated by Helmut Schmidt.  However, in 1982, Kohl was elected Chancellor of West Germany after a motion of no confidence was passed against Schmidt.


             Helmut Kohl was the first democratic leader of all the Germans since 1933 and is occasionally referred to as the second chancellor of unity after Otto von Bismarck.  His generation is one that has lived long enough to know and remember life under the Third Reich, yet young enough to influence the Federal Republic with a mission to develop a country and system of which to be proud.  Viewed as a common man as he still lived in his hometown province, he was often underrated by critics and foreign leaders.  His reputation as talkative and never forgetting a person's name contributed to making him well liked among Germans.  His faux pas and gaffes were entertaining and good material for opponents and comedians, but they were also reassuring symbols of just how grounded and ordinary he was.  Nevertheless, he regularly apologized for mistakes and comments taken out of context.

             He helped build a new national identity for his country out of the paranoia and uncertainty that had been characteristic of Germany, which had been uncomfortable with its own history for so long.  Through Kohl's leadership of West Germany and transformation of a united Germany, the past ghosts of embarrassment and terror were steadily destroyed as a new generation came about with no reason to allow the country's past to burden and dispirit its present.  Kohl acknowledged that the past was terrible, but did not accept that as an excuse for poor performance of his country in the present.  One writer noted that the Germans feel a need to look for permission from above for the way they feel, and Kohl told them that they could be optimistic. 


             His natural persistence was evident in the way he doggedly pursued German unity.  While some foreign opposition and reluctance towards reunification existed, Kohl refused to accept their excuses and worked towards his own goals.  Wariness from Germany's neighbors was founded, as imperial Germany had been the dominant continental power in the last century until its fall at the end of World War I.  After that fall, a more powerful system emerged in the Third Reich and it precipitated the Second World War.  Yet even after Germany's division and defeat after World War II, West Germany managed to recover economically.  With this pattern of history, it appeared that Germany caused trouble when unified and at the very least incited envy even when divided.  Kohl was very receptive to the anxieties and fears of his neighbors, and assured the world that his views of reunification had Germany fitting in well with the structures and goals of other countries, namely in Europe. 

             Some optimistically felt that the reunification of Germany was inevitable, since East Germany never formed its own separate national identity.  Kohl's dream of unity was finally met on October 3, 1990, the new national holiday of the Day of Unity.  Proud of a reunification without war or force, Kohl called the event unparalleled in European history.  Despite the joys of bringing the country together, there were unforeseen obstacles.  The economic cost of raising East Germany to par with West Germany was unanticipated, as well as the psychological strain to East Germans whom the united government intended to integrate smoothly with the West Germans.  While the work to transform the east with new industry and enterprises was continuous and well intended, it strained public finances and still left many problems unsolved.  Kohl felt obligated to stay in power beyond just reunifying the country.  He noted that the search for normalcy, the inability to define normalcy in the context of German history, and the insecurities of the people could breed the very problems the country has been working so hard to move past.  As in Yugoslavia and Central Europe, the Germans are "not invulnerable to nationalism, chauvinism, and xenophobia, to all the evils that have found their way [to Germany] often enough (Fisher)." 


             Eight years after unifying the country, German voters chose to oust Kohl in favor of Gerhard Schroeder.  He was the man who created the foundation of much of what Germany stood for over decades, from the re-birth of a German national identity to his own visions of a unified Europe.  Kohl was the longest standing post-war chancellor of Germany, surpassing his predecessor Konrad Adenauer.  Although he worked hard and commendably for his country, voters wanted a new face to lead in the wake of the turbulence of unification.  The difficulties accompanying the consolidation of Germany were unanticipated in their significance and effects, and the Germans needed someone new to take over the position of chancellor.




Cohen, Roger.  "Kohl and His Story: New Chapter, or History?"  The New York Times  27 September, 1998, final ed.

 Fisher, Marc.  "The New Germany: In Search of Identity."  The Washington Post  28 June, 1993, final ed.

 Millar, Peter.  "Voters Oust Man Who 'Did Nothing Wrong'."  The Evening Standard (London)  28 September, 1998.

 Ortega, Eduardo Gomez.  "Unified Germany: Halfway Between History and Trauma."  Inter Press Service  25 September, 1990.

 Padgett, Stephen, ed.  Adenauer to Kohl- The Development of German Chancellorship.  Washington, DC: Georgetown Unviersity Press, 1994.

 Steen, Edward.  "Helmut Laughs Last; Kohl is Poised to Become the First Democratic Leader of all Germany since 1933."  The Independent (London)  2 September, 1990.

 "Helmut Michael Kohl."  The Encyclopedia Americana International Edition.  1994 ed.

 "Mr. Kohl's New Architecture."  Editorial.  The Washington Times  5 December, 1989, final ed.








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