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German elections Monday, 28 September, 1998, 13:58 GMT 14:58 UK
Kohl steps into history books
Helmut Kohl
Kohl's last bid for power failed
By News Online's Tim Weber

It is the end of an era. Helmut Kohl was 16 years in power - a post-war record - during which time he brought about German unification and was the driving force of European integration.

Arguably, Helmut Kohl was Germany's most successful chancellor.

When he came to power in 1982, hardly anybody expected him to survive for long. His thick Rhineland accent and the bumbling delivery of his speeches led most of his political enemies and even many of his friends to believe that he was a provincial light-weight - despite his imposing stature.

They were wrong. The apparent lack of intellect betrayed the fact that Mr Kohl was a masterful political operator, who knew how to pull the levers in Bonn and across West Germany.

Moreover after the intellectual coolness, some called it arrogance, of his predecessor Helmut Schmidt, the new chancellor's image of an ordinary person won him the hearts of many Germans.

The operator

When Mr Kohl came to power, he inherited a difficult political situation. The country was suffering from mass unemployment, and was deeply split over the deployment of nuclear weapons on German territory.

He managed to steer his coalition government past these and other problems, deftly handling the three forces in his coalition government: the liberal Free Democrats, his own Christian Democrats and their Bavarian sister party, the more conservative Christian Social Union.

For most of the time Mr Kohl did not make his mark with decisive politics or bold initiatives.

Many observers described his policy as "Aussitzen" - sitting and waiting until the problem went away or his opponents gave in.


Berlin wall comes down
When the Berlin Wall came down, Kohl acted faster than anybody else
All this changed in 1989, when the East German regime began to crumble and the Berlin Wall came down. Helmut Kohl, in his own words, "grabbed the mantle of history."

He was the driving force behind German unification. While many politicians in Germany, Western Europe and the Soviet Union dithered, he set the agenda.

It was Mr Kohl's finest hour. Through a mixture of pressure and persuasion he convinced leaders in East and West to accept a large and unified Germany, ending half a century of Cold War division.

Committed European

Helmut Kohl
Helmut Kohl and his wife Hannelore on the eve of German unification
But for Helmut Kohl, German unity and European unity were two sides of the same coin. In a bid to allay fears about the emergence of the new giant in central Europe he pushed for closer European integration.

He was 15 years old when World War II ended, his elder brother Walter had died in the war. This determined his outlook. To him European integration was a question of war and peace, a point that he stressed in many speeches.

Binding the country into the double framework of Nato and European Union was his policy to avoid a replay of great power rivalries.

Disappointment in the East

When Mr Kohl became chancellor, domestic policy was his strong suit; his appearances abroad were ridiculed.

Three elections later he was a giant on the world stage, the West's longest-serving head of government, the driving force in Europe.

But at home he came increasingly under pressure.

Helmut Kohl
Critics said that Helmut Kohl ignored the problems in the east
In 1990, during the first election campaign in the unified Germany, Mr Kohl had promised that within four years East Germany's devastated economy would turn into a "flourishing landscape."

However, the "Aufschwung Ost" - the East's recovery - was far slower and more painful that Mr Kohl and his Christian Democrats had imagined.

While the government poured billions of deutschmarks into the East, the region's rate of unemployment remained stubbornly at around 18%.

The disappointment and disillusionment in the East was great, and spread to the West as the economic boom of the post-unification years ran out of steam.

Furthermore, not all Germans were happy with his role as the driving force behind European Monetary Union.

The end

Many had expected Mr Kohl to step down well before the '98 elections, and hand over to Wolfgang Schäuble, his designated crown prince.

But despite bad opinion poll ratings the old "war elephant", as Mr Kohl liked to call himself, decided to try once more.

Had he succeeded, he would have surpassed Otto von Bismarck, Germany's longest-serving chancellor.

Now his foes - and some of his friends - will say that he repeated the mistake of Konrad Adenauer, West Germany's first chancellor, who tried to cling to power for too long.

Helmut Kohl gave Germany stability, and Europe a dependable ally. But he will always be remembered as the chancellor who brought Germany unification.

BBC News
Chancellor Kohl's rule in pictures
BBC News
BBC's William Horsley: Love of power undid Kohl in the end
See also:

27 Sep 98 | German elections
28 Sep 98 | Europe
27 Sep 98 | Europe
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