Amid Troubles in Germany, A Chance to See the Real Helmut Kohl

May 10, 1992|By IAN JOHNSON | IAN JOHNSON,Ian Johnson writes frequently for The Sun from Germany.

BERLIN — Berlin. -- As Germany suffers a series of crises and its leadership wallows in inaction, many people are wondering what happened to the country's chancellor, Helmut Kohl.

Wasn't he the man who led East and West Germany to unification, who stood in front of the flood-lit German parliament building on Oct. 3 1990 and proudly watched as the German flag was hoisted? Wasn't he touted as the personification of united Germany -- big, strong and successful? What has gone wrong?

The simple answer is that nothing is the matter with Mr. Kohl, only that our perception of him is correcting itself now that the period of unification is over. Mr. Kohl has not mysteriously lost popularity or the ability to lead; except for his role during unification, he has never led in any sense of the word and has never been very popular.

In fact, as he approaches 10 years at the top, Mr. Kohl has been spectacularly unsuccessful. He has tackled no substantial domestic challenge and has practically ruined his party, the Christian Democratic Union, by banning its creative thinkers and leading it to a series of defeats. Only the opposition's disunity and his own unassailable position in the CDU's wasteland of yes-men has kept him at the top for so long.

The current crises -- strikes, internal disunity, unaffordable housing, homelessness, unclear rules on abortion, exploding health care costs, unprecedented post-war poverty, uncontrolled immigration and unwieldy federal-state relations -- cannot all be laid at Mr. Kohl's door, but he has fiddled and fudged for so long that they have now become overwhelming. Such challenges would be a lot for an energetic reformer, but for someone with so modest a list of domestic accomplishments as Mr. Kohl, they are positively unsolvable.

Many people would say that this is unfair for two reasons: Mr. Kohl unified Germany, and he has been written off before. But these two defenses hide Mr. Kohl's real problems.

Mr. Kohl's accomplishment during unification, for example, shouldn't be ignored, but to call him the "chancellor of unification" (as he likes to be called) is a little much. Of course, he will "go down in the history books," but then so do most leaders when something big happens in their country. Like other people, Mr. Kohl did not see unification coming and his policies did not set its stage.

By and large he was fortunate to have been in office when it occurred and to have had the skillful diplomacy of his outgoing foreign minister, Hans-Dietrich Genscher, and U.S. Secretary of State James Baker to win over foreign skeptics.

Mr. Kohl's role, and it was not insignificant, was to understand that unification was feasible and then to ignore the faint-hearted who called for a loose confederation between East and West Germany. Equally important to quick unity was his role as a glad-hander who won voter support by, deliberately or not, misleading voters into thinking it would be quick, easy and cheap.

But he did not do more. He did not really lead the country to unification; preferring to bulldoze over legitimate worries and turn the event into a partisan issue that laid the foundation for today's anger at unification's costs. The result was re-election, but only with a meager 43.8 percent of the vote, the second-worst showing for the CDU in the party's history.

Millions of voters, especially in the west, couldn't forget how little he had accomplished before the fall of communism had permitted German unification. In the eight preceding years he had few solutions to West Germany's problems, gaining the image of a leader who practiced politics without policies, a charge that rings true in today's unified Germany.

Even when he came to power 10 years ago, Mr. Kohl had no convincing program of government. He replaced the unpopular Social Democrats in 1982 during the world-wide recession, and then rode the subsequent boom to re-election in 1987. Despite the most favorable of conditions -- a strong economy and weak opposition -- he only won 44.3 percent of the vote.

This poor result combined with his personal unpopularity and directionless leadership caused an attempted putsch in 1989 by five top CDU leaders. But Mr. Kohl exercised his one real skill, cultivating favors, to call in the chits he had earned after 15 years as party boss and put down the uprising.

Many CDU members are sure that another attempt to replace Mr. Kohl would have followed in 1990 before that year's election but for the collapse of East Germany and the race to unification. Once this process was under way and Mr. Kohl awoke from his lethargy to actively push for unification, his position in the CDU and re-election were guaranteed. Thanks also had to go once again to the opposition, which was geared up to fight Mr. Kohl on his poor domestic track record rather than on the merits of unification.

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