Helmut Kohl, honorary Professor of Tongji University and German Chancellor for four consecutive terms (between 1982 and 1998), died at his home in Orgersheim, Ludwigshafen on June 16, 2017, at the age of 87.
Kohl has been called “a stroke of luck for German history” and “an exceptional German politician” by Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the current President of the Federal Republic of Germany. During his lifetime, he caused extreme political polarization, particularly when his brilliant political career was forced to end due to a cash donation scandal.
After his death, however, German and Europe political leaders, including his former political opponents, all spoke out unanimously in praise. In co-operation with France, he implemented European integration, ended the Cold War-era (as represented by the Berlin Wall), and peacefully reunified the German nation. The day after his death, EU President Juncker announced that the EU would hold a “state funeral” for perhaps the most influential European politician of the 20th century.
The Senior Editor of Guancha News sent me a message on Wechat, asking me to write about my experiences and understandings of the former Chancellor. She encouraged me by saying the last article about Merkel had already received millions of views. As I had already been considering writing about my experiences and opinions of him, I agreed.
Kohl was awarded an honorary professorship by Tongji University in 1993. After being hired as an adjunct professor at Tongji University in 1999. As a doctoral student and postdoctoral tutor at the School of Economics and Management of Tongji University in 2005, I was able to benefit from this association, especially in elite German circles.
I came to Germany in 1986 for University. After completing a Master’s and a PhD there in 1991, I joined Kearney and started my professional career, returning to China in 2000. Kohl was the Federal Chancellor for twelve of my fourteen years in Germany. During that time, I was personally able to benefit from the rigorous and regulatory political economy and social governance in Germany. In particular, I was fortunate enough to witness first-hand Western Germany’s economic growth as a result of Kohl’s role in the reunification of Germany and the establishment of the Eurozone.
Germany has cultivated key talents for China’s industrialization in an effective and mutually beneficial way. As one of a group of elite students from Mainland China that were part of this process, I appreciate the efforts made in this respect from political leaders, represented by Kohl.
Kohl’s achievements were no accident
Unlike in populist France, whose members of Parliament can have no prior experience in politics, or the United States, where money decides everything (including presidential elections), Kohl’s entry into politics and his eventual emergence as the first democratically elected Federal Chancellor of unified Germany are the results of gradual, hard-earned growth. This is why Germany’s government and social governance far surpasses that of France and the United States.
As the son of an ordinary tax officer, Kohl was once a member of the “Hitler Youth,” a paramilitary organization. Fortunately, he lived through the final years of WWII. In 1947, at the age of 17, he established the CDU Young Union of Germany in his hometown of Ludwigshafen. In 1959, one year after completing his doctorate (Dr.Phil.), Kohl became the leader of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) in Ludwigshafen. At the age of 30, he was elected to the municipal council of Ludwigshafen, where he served as leader of the CDU. In 1966, when Kohl was 36 years old, he became a member of the CDU’s Federal Executive Committee. In 1969 at 39 years old, Kohl became Minister-President of the Rhineland Palatinate region and vice-chancellor of the Federal Executive Committee of the CDU (deputy leader). In 1973, Kohl became the chairman of the CDU Federal Executive Committee, the head of the CDU, and was re-elected for 25 years until 1998. He was the CDU’s candidate for Chancellor in 1976, winning 48.6% of the votes. For this reason, Kohl resigned as Minister-President of Rhineland Palatine before the election and devoted himself to Federal Affairs.
When Kohl was a local politician, his financial backer was Fritz Ries, a rubber and luxury hotel tycoon. Ries was also a financial backer of the leader of the Christian Social Union (CSU), ‘King’ of Bavaria, Franz Josef Strauss. Strauss’s wife invested in Ries’s company, and Ries’s only daughter married another heavyweight of the CDU Kurt Biedenkopf. During Kohl’s career in the federal government, he had two very famous financial backers. One was Leo Kirch, the founder of Kirch Group, Germany’s largest private media group. The other was Friedrich Karl Flick, one of the main shareholders of Mercedes-Benz and the richest man in the Federal Republic of Germany. The financial backing from the Flick affair ultimately led to Kohl’s withdrawal from politics.
Kohl was a visionary
Kohl, who was nicknamed ‘The Pear’ by some intellectual elites and liberal scholars because of his appearance, on first impression seemed to be more honest and reliable than a shrewd thinker. This misconception is something all his political opponents must have come to regret. It is precisely these humanistic characteristics that his allies and followers were fond of and is reminiscent of the Chinese idiom “a man of great wisdom often appears slow-witted.”
The first challenge he faced after winning the 1976 election as the Federal Chancellor’s candidate was that although he had a relative majority in the Parliament, the joint government of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and the Free Democratic Party (FDP) still had an absolute majority.
As a fledgling young leader, he had a strong competitor in the alliance, the CSU leader, Bavarian ‘King,’ Franz Josef Strauss. Strauss was a conservative ally with outstanding abilities, extreme self-confidence, and absolute control over the CSU. What smooth-sailing Kohl was running up against was how to win the support of Strauss himself and his nearly completely ‘autocratic’ CSU party.
A conservative political leader’s biggest challenge and difficulty at the federal level is how to sustain success. Strauss, on several occasions, publicly criticized Kohl for not possessing the inner qualities and abilities of a Federal Chancellor. This ‘consensus’ on Kohl was once acknowledged by the Financial Times, who stated: “No one (including his most malicious opponents) will criticize Kohl as a visionary or first-rate speaker. The CDU members are very wary of these qualities, and Kohl does his best to cover them up.”
It seemed that the ‘slow-witted’ Kohl was able to dispel the objections and dissatisfactions of his followers inside the CDU party. Ignoring his own impressive results in the 1976 elections, he pushed Strauss to represent the conservative alliance of the larger CDU and smaller CSU, which only dominated Bavaria during the 1980 election for Federal Chancellor. He preferred to let the Conservative Union lose the election in exchange for Strauss’ unwavering loyalty and life-long support.
After their defeat in the federal election, Strauss turned his attentions to running Bavarian governmental affairs. The affairs of the conservative alliance were completely handed over to the CDU, which Kohl led, and Strauss became a reliable ally. In 1982, the leader of the FDP, also bribed by Flick, announced that he would withdraw from its coalition agreement with the SPD. As was his wish, Kohl became Federal Chancellor. In 1983, the general election was restarted, and Kohl obtained a relative majority of 48.8%, a perfect start to his 16-year career as Federal Chancellor.
After being elected, Kohl first changed the SPD’s pacifist foreign policy. In 1982, Kohl secretly promised Margaret Thatcher he would reduce the immigration of Turks to Germany by as much as 50%. To this day, immigration and the Islamization of the European continent are central issues at the heart of Brexit. Kohl’s son Peter married a woman of Turkish descent, which is thought to have triggered disagreements between father and son.
In 1983, ignoring the public opinion of major Western Europe countries, and major opposition from the peace movement, Kohl decided the Federal Republic of Germany would sign a dual resolution on NATO’s upgrading of nuclear weapons. The ruling conservative party in the United States praised this action. In Bitburg in 1985, President Reagan and Kohl, under the watchful eyes of the world media, controversially laid a wreath in a cemetery for fallen soldiers, including fallen SS soldiers. So one hand washes the other.
In 1984, Kohl met Mitterrand at Verdun, a World War I battlefield, to commemorate the dead together, which started the journey towards European integration (the Treaty of Maastricht and the establishment of the Eurozone).
In 1987, with strong support from British and American conservative leaders, as well as the president of the French socialist party, Kohl took the first step towards the reunification of Germany, the most brilliant achievement of his political career. Erich Honecker, the head of the German Democratic Republic, was invited to visit the Federal Republic of Germany for the first time. The East German state was introduced to both the rich material life of ordinary people in Western Germany, and the economic and social governance achievements of the democratic and free Federal German government.
In 1988, Kohl privately returned the visit. He took his two sons on a tour of East Germany, to gain an in-depth understanding of the public sentiments of the East German economy and society at a grass-root level, as well as the shortcomings of its political and economic governance. Afterwards, he called this trip the most emotional experience in his life. In 1989, when the collapse of East Germany’s government was imminent, Kohl, without communicating with the FDP ruling alliance and Western allies, confidently put forward his 10-point plan aimed at overcoming the division between Germany and Europe.
In view of the fact that President Reagan had, in front of the Berlin Wall, publicly called for Gorbachev tear down the wall, Kohl’s main obstacles to the implementation of the reunification of Germany was the vested interest groups of the Soviet Union, and the fears of the United Kingdom and France over a powerful united Germany. Kohl first promised the Soviet Union that he would be responsible for the full cost of withdrawing Soviet troops and to build relevant facilities to ensure they would have no worries about returning home. When Russia’s current President Vladimir Putin, then KGB head in Leipzig, was informed of Kohl’s death, he recalled his personal experience during the unification of Germany. He sincerely felt that Kohl was “a visionary.”
While gaining support from the Soviet Union, in order to appease Britain and especially France, Kohl agreed to the request of French President Mitterrand and promised to start the political process of European integration while reunifying Germany. At the same time, without discussing it with the head of the Bundesbank, he agreed to France’s request to introduce the Euro to help the British financial community. Expecting that increasing profits between the United States and Continental Europe (the French leaders did not understand this point at the time) would end the secret opposition to the unification of Germany by the Thatcher Government as it was dominated by significant financial capital. The French and German leaders (with British goodwill) agreed to realize a European Economic and Monetary Union in three steps:
- On July 1, 1990, the European Union began the free flow of capital, which was legally confirmed in the 1992 Maastricht Treaty.
- On January 1, 1994, the European Monetary Agency, the predecessor of the European Central Bank, was set up and began to review the financial expenditures of EU countries.
- In January 1999, the European Central Bank was established, and the currency exchange value of the Euro and each country was permanently established without change.
How free market superstition led to the end of Kohl’s brilliance
In 1990, the Federal Republic of Germany and the Democratic Republic of Germany agreed to sign a fiscal, economic, and social union treaty. Despite the strong opposition of the Federal Bank Governor, Kohl decided to exchange the East and West Marks 1: 1 to introduce West German Marks to East Germany. The apparent superficial, short-term exchange of East German public opinion, for the more substantial long-term elimination of East Germany’s backward industries. This fantasy relied on the market and free competition to realize the re-industrialization of East Germany, integrating it with West Germany. In 1990, Kohl led the CDU/CSU conservative alliance as the candidate for German Chancellor to win the election and was acknowledged by the Federal Parliament as the first Chancellor of reunified Germany.
When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, I experienced this unforgettable moment in Berlin with my then-girlfriend. After I completed my PhD in 1991, I began my career in an environment of rapid growth of the unified German market and West German markets in Dusseldorf. I was the only mainland Chinese person to participate in the real transformation of an East German enterprise (the largest cement plant) in East Berlin.
The one-to-one exchange rate between East and West Marks ended the global price/cost competitiveness of all East German companies overnight, leading them to face bankruptcy and reorganization almost overnight. All Western companies, especially West German companies, were involved in investing in the bankruptcy and restructuring of East German companies. This was initially led by free market competition for profit-seeking motives, with the goal of eliminating potential low-cost competitors and preventing damage to the vested interests of the existing market, and second, to obtain market increments as much as possible and achieve additional growth.
This is similar to big conglomerates in the EU and North America, especially the Fortune 500 companies that dominate the global market. Their approach and counter measures to the real economy of the former Central and Eastern Europe, and the real economy in the early days of China’s reform and opening up, are entirely consistent. The motives behind investment and purchase of major enterprises is to shut them down or downsize them, resulting in the substantial elimination of local employment and jobs.
As a direct result of unification, Germany’s unemployment rate soared, from 2.6 million in early 1991, it quickly reached 3.6 million, increasing further to 4.4 million in 1997. This statistic does not include the large proportion of employees who were forced to retire early into the social security system in East Germany. The “blooming landscapes” promised by Kohl during the reunification of Germany were negated by the general social scene in East Germany. Companies were shutting down, the depression left behind orphans and widows, the old and the young, forcing young people from East Germany to leave their hometowns and make a living in West Germany.
Markets and free competition, as well as substantial financial subsidies and infrastructure modernization, could not solve East Germany’s sluggish economy and various social issues. For that reason, Kohl was pelted with eggs by angry protesters during a 1991 visit to Halle in East Germany. In 1994, Kohl relied on financial subsidies to East Germany, and the economic stimulus given to West Germany to scrape a win in the Federal election for the last time. The Schengen Agreement came into effect in 1995; Frankfurt became the address of the European Central Bank in 1998, and Kohl had completed his historic mission. The Federal Republic of Germany now faced the inevitable need for a change of political leaders.
The SPD’s chancellor candidate Schröder won the election in 1998. As governor of Lower Saxony, he had represented 20% of the state’s shares in the supervisory board activities of Volkswagen Group for a long time. He fully understood the operation and decision-making mechanism of large enterprises and the real economy in Germany. In this respect, he was better than Kohl.
Schröder’s 2000 program to boost the German economy, along with the East German regional subcontracted industrial reinvestment plan (agreed with the heads of the largest German enterprise groups) began the re-industrialization and economic and social revival of East Germany. This led the German economy to truly stand out on the European continent.
The political operations of Germany’s real economy are dominated by a culture of small-circle decision making. As a purely professional politician, Kohl, because of his ideas around free competition and the market economy, had failed to grasp the critical starting points of industrial restructuring, giving his successor and competitors a once-in-a-lifetime chance at success. He suffered a major setback due to this blind spot.
Kohl’s legacy and later life
The governing ability of a democratically elected leader comes first and foremost from their ability to garner support from their team and allies, and from effectively serving the interest groups on his platform. German elites generally recognize Kohl’s political achievements as coming from his ability to unite people, his loyalty, intuition, and ability to train them. When meeting heavyweight officials in different regions whose family members are celebrating a birthday or other important events, he would call them or present them with a gift in real-time to show his regard.
Current German Chancellor Angela Merkel was promoted and trained by Kohl, earning her the nickname ‘Kohl’s Girl’ from amongst German media and elites. EU President Junker, who is 24 years younger than Kohl, was spotted by him when he was working as finance minister and prime minister of Luxembourg. Kohl organized the German political sphere to fully nurture and support Juncker so that he could become a gatekeeper of German interests within the EU. Juncker is also a close friend of Kohl’s family. He was the only political leader in the European Union to be personally informed of Kohl’s death by his wife.
In 1998 the CDU lost the election. After Kohl lost his position as Chancellor, he promptly fell into a bribery scandal. He refused to reveal where the donations of 2.5 million marks had come from, though, as Chancellor, he had signed a ‘party law’ agreement requiring this disclosure. His defense was that he had promised the donors he would never reveal their names. This created conflict between Kohl and the successor he had single-handedly fostered, Angela Merkel, and they ultimately parted ways.
By the year 2000, Kohl had given up his position as honorary chairman of the CDU. In order to make up for the DM 6 million financial loss the CDU suffered, his benefactors, like Leo Kirch, made one-time donations of DM 1 million and continued their reciprocal relationship with Kohl. An investigative committee from the CDU’s Federal Parliament spent three years (1999-2002) contesting political factions. However, they were unable to solve the case because Kohl would not cooperate. In 2001, a local prosecutor in Bonn could only fine Kohl DM300 thousand for minor negligence, and the case was left unsettled.
Kohl was adept at handling these situations. In 1975, he experienced a similar scandal, being indirectly involved in the Flick Affair. At the time, Flick was the richest man in Germany, his business conglomerate sold DM 1.9 Billion of Mercedes Benz shares and should have paid 1 billion in federal taxes. However, they applied for a special tax exemption from the Federal Ministry of Economic Affairs, led by the leader of the FDP, and the application was approved.
In 1981, the Federal Tax Inspector found an internal financial document from the Flick Group, which recorded the personal donations to the ruling coalition and opposition leaders. They paid Strauss, the head of the CSU, DM 250,000 three times. To the head of the CDU Kohl, they gave DM 565,000. The FDP’s three economic ministers got DM 40,000, DM 70,000, and DM 10,0000, and the SPD’s finance minister was given DM 40,000. In total, the Flick Group’s bribes to German’s leading parties amounted to: DM 15 million to the CDU / CSU, DM 6.5 million to the FDP, and DM4.3 million to the SPD. These expenses produced an astronomic return of a tax saving of DM 1 billion.
Before Kohl’s death, his closest financial backer was undoubtedly Leo Kirch. Kirch established a large private media group during Kohl’s terms as Chancellor and introduced innovative pay-TV services to Germany. Kohl made every effort to assist him through administrative legislation (such as, at the EU level, with private pay-TV) and connections (such as facilitating his cooperation with Deutsche Telekom and Bertelsmann).
Unfortunately, not long after Kohl’s retirement, public questioning of the head of the Deutsche Bank led to all German and European banks defaulting on the Flick Group. This led to the Leo Kirch Group filing for bankruptcy in 2003. In the company’s bankruptcy documents, investigators found that Kohl was one of the many politicians on the list of paid advisers of the Leo Kirch Group, and received DM 600,000 in consulting fees from the Leo Kirch Group annually for three years after he resigned as federal Chancellor.
These incidents, coupled with the Federal Chancellery’s massive destruction of relevant documents in response to the scandals mentioned above, cast a shadow over Kohl’s legacy after leaving office. Leo Kirch’s death in 2011, after a lengthy lawsuit with the Deutsche Bank in 2011, was undoubtedly a major blow to Kohl as they maintained a friendship after Kohl left office. He was one of the few friends that never gave up on Kohl in times of trouble but also one of the only friends that could also stir up trouble.
Kohl married Hannelore Renner, a foreign-language secretary, in 1960. They had two sons, Walter and Peter. To the outside world, their family and married life seemed perfect until in 2001 when his wife committed suicide after leading a secluded life due to her photodermatitis and other illnesses.
In 2004, Kohl moved in with Maike Richter, a former Federal Chancellery employee and doctor of national economics. In 2008, Kohl fell accidentally. After losing the ability to walk and speak, he, at 78 years old, married Richter, who was 34 years his junior. His two sons were not invited to the wedding; this confirmed the media rumors of long-term discord between him and his sons, who reportedly only heard of their father’s death on the radio. They confirmed Kohl had never played or even communicated with his grandchildren. His private circle confirmed that he loved his second wife. For the last 13 years of his life, he relied heavily on on her to take care of him and be responsible for his communication with the outside world.
Angela Merkel, the current Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany, also reconciled with Kohl before his health. Because of the German federal law for retired officials, Mrs. Kohl-Richter was unable to receive monthly pension of around 7700 euros, as she had married Kohl after his retirement.
The June 22 headline story of the German news website Der Spiegel reported that Mrs. Kohl-Richter would not agree to hold the state funeral in Germany as per Kohl’s last wishes. Instead, with the help of Juncker, the state funeral would be hosted by the European Union in Strasbourg on July 1, with the blue EU flag draping his coffin. The report also revealed that Mrs. Kohl-Richter planned not to allow any German political leaders to make a speech at the funeral, including Merkel.
Kohl-Richter made a statement through a lawyer immediately the same day, making it clear that she had never opposed Merkel’s speech and confirmed she would make a speech at the funeral. The funeral mainly affirmed Kohl’s achievements in European integration, especially his contributions to the establishment of the Eurozone. The left-leaning publication, Der Spiegel, satirically quipped that Strauss had finally won over Kohl, as he had died suddenly in high spirits while hunting, unlike Kohl, who could not speak clearly and died in a wheelchair. Moreover, Strauss’s funeral was held in his Bavarian hometown, with a full turn out, while Kohl’s funeral was to be held in a French-speaking city where it was expected to be forgotten within six months.
The strength of a politician in a Western democracy is their ability to unite others and to compromise, something that Kohl was able to do exceptionally well and should earn every respect. It is unfortunate that German mainstream media was unable to recognise his visionary achievements. May the dead rest in peace.