BERLIN – Former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, who died at the age of 87 on Friday, was the man who put German history to bed. It was also he who, with his idealism, helped lay the groundwork for the current confrontation between Russia and the West.
A local dialect speaker from Rheinland Pfalz, Kohl was once summed up by Margaret Thatcher with a sigh and three words, “He’s so German.” He was a local politician, an activist for the Christian Democratic Union since his teens, who was ultimately brought low by a very local scandal that involved illegal slush funds. But in the 1980s, he was reluctantly thrust into the international limelight by the historic opportunity to reunite Germany. He did the best he could for his country, though, like other major players at the time, he was overtaken by events. The world he helped to shape baffled him and didn’t quite turn out as he dreamed.
On Nov. 10, 1989, U.S. President George H.W. Bush asked for Kohl’s impressions of what was going on in Berlin, where the wall was no longer stopping people from crossing the border. Kohl reported:
“At Checkpoint Charlie, thousands of people are crossing both ways. There are many young people who are coming over for a visit and enjoying our open way of life. I expect they will go home tonight.”
Even at that point, when communism was all but dead, Kohl was thinking in terms of two Germanys, in terms of the East reforming itself or losing its best people to westward migration. Soon, however, it was clear that the imploding Soviet Union was in no position to prop up the German Democratic Republic any longer.
Less than a year later, Kohl flew to Moscow to negotiate with Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Soviet leader, on whether a united Germany could be a NATO member. Kohl thought Gorbachev would demand that the country remain neutral — or ask for money to consent to NATO membership. Kohl’s advisers later named all kinds of numbers Germany would have accepted as a fair price — 50, 80 billion Deutsche marks. Kohl himself later said even 100 billion wouldn’t have been too much. Kohl got off with a promise to spend some 300 million marks to send Soviet troops back home from Germany and help build housing for them.
The Russian troops’ retreat was personally important to Kohl. His wife Hannelore had been raped by Soviet soldiers at the age of 12. She couldn’t stand to meet with Gorbachev or hear the sound of Russian.
There was all this history to take care of. Kohl the local politician did his best to make sure it was buried. He arranged emergency funding for the foundering Soviet Union and then, after its collapse, for the bankrupt Russia. He negotiated the 1992 Maastricht treaty, which relieved tensions sufficiently enough for a freshly-united Germany to join a united Europe. Even the Deutsche mark would cease to exist as part of the deal. Germany would just wipe the slate clean and lead a quiet life as a European province in America’s shadow. It would be a peaceful country once and for all, after paying all its dues.
But Kohl didn’t factor in what his efforts to resolve Cold War rifts with the West would do to the giant to the East.
He always distrusted Gorbachev — he considered him an unreconstructed communist who was simply forced to bow to adverse circumstances. But he became friends with Russia’s first president, Boris Yeltsin — even going to the bathhouse together. Yeltsin dreamed of a Europe that would include Russia as it included Germany. At an informal meeting with French President Jacques Chirac and Kohl in 1998, Yeltsin tried to discuss his concept of “greater Europe,” including an overland transport corridor to link London with Moscow and even steps toward a common labor market such as mutual degree recognition. In a memoir, Yeltsin quoted Kohl as saying at the meeting: “France and Germany bear a special responsibility for European Union policy and they want to do everything so that no one — globally or in Moscow — would get the impression that the processes under way in Europe lead to the isolation of Russia.”
Yeltsin soon realized, though, that the Europeans weren’t interested in integrating Russia. They just wanted him to acquiesce to their project. That missed opportunity is at the heart of the tension between Russia and Europe today.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly mentioned a Western promise not to expand NATO beyond the borders of united Germany. That promise — a vague one, to be sure — is attributed to Kohl and his foreign minister, Hans-Dietrich Genscher. But Germany couldn’t really stop the NATO expansion, any more than he could expand the EU to encompass Russia. The quiet, post-historic Germany he was building didn’t do that kind of thing. He wasn’t responsible for the Western rejection of Yeltsin’s impoverished, corrupt, brash and naive Russia — but it has held firmly to the German leader’s assurances.
In 1998, the year he met with Yeltsin and Chirac “without ties,” he lost an election to Social Democrat Gerhard Schroeder. A year later, the party funding scandal broke and Kohl retired from politics. Angela Merkel, his protege and disciple, took over the party and defeated Schroeder in 2005; in his last years, Kohl, in a wheelchair and speaking with difficulty, wasn’t happy with what he saw as her adversarial style, including with Russia. He grumbled that she was “destroying his Europe.” In 2014, Kohl’s former biographer published a book of interviews that included a quote of his reminiscing disdainfully about Merkel’s lack of skill with a fork and knife at official receptions. (Two months ago, Kohl won €1 million in compensation from the book’s author; he didn’t deny saying what was in it, just that he allowed the publication of these quotes).
Indeed, under Merkel, German history has resumed, though perhaps she has been as reluctant an agent of this history as Kohl himself. For better or for worse, the chancellor has increasingly come to be seen as united Europe’s leader, a role that will be almost institutionalized after the United Kingdom leaves the EU. A recent Pew Research poll shows that though most Europeans have a positive view of Germany and confidence in Merkel, though majorities in Greece, Italy, Spain and Poland believe Germany wields too much influence in Europe. That’s something Kohl did his best to avoid. Lately, he had been warning Europeans, particularly Germans, not to take a punitive approach to the U.K. as it exits.
Kohl’s legacy of peace and soft power is still strong. But, like Yeltsin before him, he took a lot of unfinished business with him. I can’t help regretting that, even though I understand it’s probably unfair.
Russian writer Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist.