The Dark Winter of Helmut Kohl : His Star Tarnished, Germany’s Hero of Reunification Faces A Wall of Problems

<i> Tyler Marshall is The Times' Berlin Bureau chief. </i>

THE LITTLE EAST GERMAN FARMING VILLAGE OF TRANTOW HAS BEEN SCRUBBED FROM ONE END to the other for its big day. Mayor Uta Kruger, who was shifting hay in the nearby fields when the advance team descended on her a week ago, now stands nervously in her Sunday best outside the village inn, listening for the sounds of the helicopter. Up the hill at the agricultural station, tough-speaking farmhands, high-heeled television reporters and blue-suited bureaucrats tiptoe through the cattle droppings, positioning themselves.

Suddenly, he’s here, the chancellor, Helmut Kohl, his 6-foot-4, 287-pound frame towering over Mayor Kruger, his formidable presence keeping the crowd around him at bay as a farm director machine-guns him with statistics and other details about the station. Kohl is pleased. The good citizens of Trantow are his kind of people--rural, hard-working, doggedly determined. Buoyed by the success of their station’s transition from communist collective to free-enterprise producer, they still believe that a united Germany will bring the good life. Of the 550 souls who live in and around the village, about 50 are without work, but Kohl has come to accentuate the positive. He lunches with farmers, listening more than talking, then walks through the village toward the open wheat field where his helicopter waits.

This is CDU country, territory where Kohl’s conservative Christian Democratic Union holds sway despite the region’s crippling unemployment, its shattered industry and its bleak outlook. Here in the remote rolling hills of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, the poorest of Germany’s 16 states, the euphoria of German unity may have faded, but hostility has not yet set in. He meets brave smiles and polite applause. We all knew it would take longer to reach the rainbow, they say. It’s not his fault.


“Sure it’s tough for some, but not everything can happen overnight,” says Kruger with a shrug after the visit. “People have to keep their nerve and somehow make their way through it.”

Trantow is one of three stops on the day’s journey to the east, a region that received Kohl as a demigod in 1990, the year of reunification--the man who delivered them from communism, gave them the mighty deutsche mark, negotiated nearly half a million Russian soldiers out of their land, rejoined them with the West and, above all, promised them the Western-style prosperity they had for years seen only on television screens.

“No one will be worse off; for many, life will be better,” he had promised. But with one of three working-age east Germans out of a job, Kohl’s words now haunt him, and a sullen sense of betrayal festers in many parts of the east.

The chancellor, celebrated at home and abroad three years ago as “King Kohl,” the father of German reunification and Europe’s new great statesman, the man Harvard Magazine introducedin the summer of 1990 as “A New Hercules,” has tumbled from grace at a speed hardly thought possible.

Opinion polls today put Kohl and his party at near-record lows. With elections looming in October for the federal Parliament, and hence for the chancellorship, the burly leader finds himself back where he was before the wall fell: in a fight for political survival. Even within the ranks of his own Christian Democrats, whispers of frustration grow more intense.

His insistence in nominating an obscure eastern politician, Steffen Heitmann, as his party’s candidate for next May’s presidential election, followed by Heitmann’s political self-destruction and eventual withdrawal in November, amounted to a serious personal setback for Kohl and raised questions about his judgment. And local elections last month in the eastern state of Brandenburg that left his Christian Democrats struggling to keep even with the political resurgence of former Communists was a further embarrassment for the chancellor.

Kohl, as he begins his 12th year in power, may be doing poorly in the polls, but the main-opposition Social Democrats aren’t doing much better. Racked by their own internal divisions and led by Rudolf Scharping, an inexperienced national chairman, the Socialists face an uphill struggle if they are to be considered a credible alternative to the Christian Democratic Union.

So at the start of the biggest election year in the country’s post-World War II era, all four German mainstream parties face the ominous threat of the growing strength of the far left and extreme right. Collectively, these parties add up to about 30% of the voters, a figure that could conceivably leave Kohl and his Social Democrat opponents with two unpleasant options after the parliamentary elections: joining together in a so-called “grand coalition,” or seeking an alliance with a party from the political fringe.

As Kohl begins his campaign, he struggles with a series of ever-deepening problems. Germany’s economy sputters as do those of its key trading partners, while reunification has brought a series of unexpected nightmares, including the resurrected ghost of the country’s Nazi past. The dream of deeper European integration--an idea Kohl considers essential for Germany’s long-term stability--is losing its luster, and his attempts to nudge Germany toward accepting a greater global role are meeting stiff domestic resistance, a fact that has tarred his country with the image of being an uncertain partner. As the world watches Boris N. Yeltsin’s hair-raising ride with Russian democracy, the leader of Europe’s other great power struggles in the shadows to control problems that are more subtle and complex, but whose outcome is equally important to the continent’s future.

In a leisurely conversation in his spacious wood-paneled office at the Federal Chancellory in Bonn, the 63-year-old chancellor appeared unruffled by events around him. He dismissed international concern about the wave of right-wing extremism in Germany as “absolutely unjustified,” sketched out his dream of Germany taking its place in a united Europe and gave no hint of quitting.

As Kohl prepares to embark on what many believe will be his last reelection campaign, one overriding question hangs in the air: Can he recapture the fire that propelled him to short-term greatness? Or is he in truth a mundane figure who rose briefly above himself and whose only real strength is endurance?

HELMUT KOHL HAS MADE A CAREER OUT OF BEing underestimated, ever since The Times of London introduced the new German chancellor to its readers in October, 1982, as a “colourless man from the sticks.” His big, ungainly form, legendary appetite, flat, uninspiring speech delivery, distaste for formality, inability to master languages and suspicion of intellectuals have combined to present an impression of uncultured mediocrity. His thickly accented Pfalzer German (which sounds like someone trying to speak with a mouth full) completes the image. Some carp that he’s not only the first postwar German chancellor unable to converse in a foreign language, he’s also the first unable to speak his own.

In her memoirs, former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher dismisses Kohl as a man with “the sure touch of a German provincial politician.” The collective result of these characterizations is a sitting-duck target for political cabaret artists and jokesters.

The picture is deceptive. In fact, few political figures labor under a public image so radically at odds with reality. Certainly Kohl is a man of simple pleasures and basic values--a man raised in a lower-middle-class neighborhood of a company town who remains committed to the lessons learned there. His office ornaments include a fish tank, a rock collection and a plastic statue of Mother Teresa. For him, what matters most is loyalty, not excellence; character, not intelligence; people, not ideas.

But there is more to Kohl, much more. He holds a Ph.D in history; he is a student of art and music, a connoisseur of good wines and arguably the best-read man ever to hold the office of German chancellor. His former spokesman, Hans Klein, recalls Kohl being ambushed by a French television reporter at the Frankfurt Book Fair, demanding to know what French literature he had read during the previous year. After reeling off a series of titles, the chancellor ended up debating the reporter on the pros and cons of a recently published biography of Jean-Paul Sartre. Kohl’s personal friendship with Francois Mitterrand--the French president’s portrait hangs in Kohl’s office--is said to stem in part from their common interest in literature.

But while the chancellor counts many conservative philosophers and intellectuals among his friends, his respect for deep thinkers stops at politics. “I belong to the generation that hasn’t forgotten that it was tough-fisted men like Harry Truman and George Marshall, not the professors from Princeton or wherever, who said we can’t repeat the mistakes of 1918 or 1919,” Kohl declared in our conversation. That comment says much about Kohl’s origins and the extent to which they remain embedded in his thinking.

The last of three children born into a staunchly Roman Catholic family in Ludwigshafen, he remains very much a product of his home and of his time. The secluded bungalow in suburban Oggersheim with the name “H. Kohl” painted in black on the mailbox outside is only a few miles from the smokestacks of the giant BASF chemical works and from his own parents’ home downtown. It was here, as a young teen-ager in a city substantially flattened by Allied bombing, that he endured most of World War II.

It was here that he helped rescue people and their belongings from burning buildings and pulled bodies from the rubble. It is also where Kohl met his wife, Hannelore, and where he learned the value of hard work, loyalty and a kind of street-style leadership that so often falls to big, crafty men.

From the beginning, Kohl was a macher --a doer--and an organizer. He joined the new Christian Democrats at 16, and in a party that today counts three quarters of a million members, Kohl holds membership No. 246.

Although Kohl left for the state legislature at age 28 and has been in Bonn for nearly 20 years, his ties remain in Ludwigshafen, deep in the Palatinate. For many years, he’d gather a few friends in his spare time and go to the local sauna--a habit that relaxed him and provided him with an effective way to get honest opinions. Today, his friends are world leaders and he treats them little differently, holding informal talks with Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin in a sauna and taking state visitors back to his home for weekends, the way college students bring home a roommate. He takes them through the surrounding wine country, and subjects them to the dubious pleasure of his favorite dish, saumagen , a mix of meat, potatoes and vegetables stuffed into a pig’s belly and then boiled.

During his summer vacations in Austria, he spends a day with famed Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal, a man he has known for 20 years. “We walk in the woods or in the hills, and talk and talk,” Wiesenthal told me. “For me, it’s good to know how he really feels. For him, it’s important to hear the views of someone who isn’t one of his advisers.”

FOR A PEOPLE WHOSE HEARTS DANCED ATOP THE BERLIN WALL IN THE incredible autumn of 1989 and whose eyes watched the fireworks over the Brandenburg Gate on Unification Day a year later, disappointment has followed disappointment on an unexpected downhill ride that today heads toward a German future filled with troubling question marks.

Europe’s bellwether economy, the core of the continent’s counterweight to the United States and Japan, is in crisis. Instead of the anticipated second Wirtschaftswunder , unity has transformed eastern Germany into an industrial desert that survives mainly on hope and subsidies from the west that total nearly $100 billion annually. Frequently, hope runs out--a fact underscored by the flow of east-to-west migration that last year averaged more than 7,000 people a month.

In western Germany, a people accustomed to steadily increased wealth and affluence over the past four decades now wallow in the worst recession of the postwar era. Unemployment stands at a postwar high of nearly 3.5 million. Pillars of German industry such as Daimler-Benz are actively shedding workers for the first time since West Germany’s famed Economic Miracle began in the 1950s. Volkswagen has scaled production back so much that it recently decided to implement a four-day work week instead of laying off 31,000 workers.

Western Germans see a Europe with no Iron Curtain, watch the influx of easterners and foreigners and begin to realize that their lives have permanently and materially changed for the worse. For them, change means declining living standards, an end to their enviable annual wage hikes, six weeks of vacation and, painfully, a dimming dream of the 35-hour workweek with full pay. “We live in an industrial park, not in an amusement park,” Kohl reminds his people.

It is not a message they like to hear. As resentment builds on both sides of Germany’s old political divide, support erodes for the nation’s traditional custodians of power--the Christian Democratic Union and other mainline parties that have been the keys to stability throughout the postwar era.

As Germany struggles, the world outside has suddenly become a tougher place. The ominous shadow of the Soviet threat may be gone, but so is the allied commitment that sheltered Germans from foreign evils for four decades.

Meanwhile, the very cornerstones of Germany’s foreign policy have begun to wobble. The Atlantic Alliance is in the depths of a major crisis, while the dream of European unity--a dream to which Germans have long hooked much of their patriotism and a good chunk of their identity--is under growing strain. If that dream should end, so too would Germany’s path to the future.

The country’s main allies are demanding a greater global role of Germany, including active participation in United Nations peacekeeping missions and taking part as an equal in any new system of collective security. Half-pushed, half-dragged by their allies--and frequently by the chancellor himself--the Germans move toward this responsibility with a mixture of fear, foreboding and a common realization that they are psychologically unprepared for the task.

THE BIG MAN ENTERS THE ROOM FULL OF REPORTERS, HIS EYES DARTing around nervously like an animal on uncertain turf. Not photogenic, rarely eloquent, and quick to argue when challenged, Kohl frequently gets a rough ride from the national media, and his guard is up when he is around the press. But on this occasion, the reporters are American, more interested in probing his foreign-policy views on the eve of a Washington visit than attacking him on domestic policy. Sensing the lack of threat, Kohl’s mood changes immediately. He smiles, pushes back and begins to reel off a string of anecdotes, most of which involve a larger message gained from encounters with ordinary people. The questions end and the hour draws late, but Kohl, now at full throttle, talks on, embellishing his stories amid the warmth of the occasion.

If there is a comparable figure to Helmut Kohl in recent times, it not another European but the late U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson, whose physical bulk, coarse manner and thick accent masked unseen strengths. Like Johnson, Kohl understands power and how to use it and combines a ruthless streak for political survival and tough power-brokering skills with a rare sense of duty to country that borders on a calling. “The last dinosaur,” commented the weekly magazine Der Spiegel, in an article on Kohl’s 10th anniversary in office.

Like Johnson’s image, Kohl’s also suffers in part because of the enormity of the problems he confronts.

“Actually, I live quite well from being underestimated,” he told me with a hint of a smile. “My predecessor (Helmut Schmidt) believed I was a village idiot, and so-called German intellectuals, they say that on even-numbered days I can read and on odd-numbered days I can write--that doesn’t bother me at all.”

But only a part of Kohl’s political strength stems from his deceptive image. His real strengths lie elsewhere: an uncanny instinct for power and how to use it, an ability to smell the public mood, and a natural curiosity about people that ranges from presidents to potato farmers. “I study people the way others study books,” he once said. There is no grand idea or ism attached to Kohl. Indeed, after watching Kohl in power for 11 years, political observers still find it hard to define his ideology--a task one pundit has likened to nailing pudding to a wall.

Franz-Josef Strauss, Bavaria’s great postwar figure and a fellow conservative, once dismissed Kohl as “a successful state governor who needs to recognize his limits.” But as Kohl consistently got the better of him, the Bavarian’s contempt turned into a quiet rage. “There were Strauss confidants who were certain he hated Kohl,” comments columnist and onetime Kohl spokesman Peter Boenish. “It was worse.”

The axioms that underpin Kohl’s vision of Germany’s place in the world have been largely unchanged since he sat at the knee of West Germany’s first postwar chancellor, Konrad Adenauer, four decades ago: German reunification in peace and freedom, reconciliation with France, compensation for Israel and support for the Atlantic Alliance and European unity.

Much of what anchors the chancellor’s political compass comes from his own personal experience. His commitment to the trans-Atlantic Alliance, for example, is laced with teen-age memories of American CARE packages and his close friendships with American Presidents (photos of former Presidents Reagan and Bush are the only two non-family photographs on his desk). His careful attention to Germany’s relationship with France is that of a man born less than an hour’s drive from the present French frontier in a region swept by war with depressing regularity over the centuries.

“The towns and villages around my home have been destroyed, at least in part, by every generation (over the past 250 years),” he told a television interviewer last year.

Kohl’s gut relationship to policies is matched by his strong sense of the public mood. It is an instinct he works hard to keep honed. His circle of friends back in Ludwigshafen are not big-shot industrialists but very ordinary people--a priest, a farmer, an innkeeper. On Saturday mornings, Kohl occasionally shops by himself in a large open market in the town square.

“He stands there and talks with people,” says Erich Ramstetter, a friend and the deacon at the Ludwigshafen church where Kohl was baptized, married and still attends Mass. “He wants to know what the farmer is getting for potatoes. He really wants to know.”

Despite this common touch, Kohl has never been a popular chancellor, with his personal ratings invariably trailing those of the party as a whole. His non-intellectual image and poor television presence work to dampen his appeal.

More than any other factor, Kohl’s longevity stems from the vise-like grip he holds on his party. Kohl watched, and learned from, the demise of great leaders like Ludwig Erhard and Helmut Schmidt, who fell because they neglected their political base. And in the parliamentary democracies of Europe, Kohl understands, power still resides in the smoke-filled rooms and party caucuses, not the photo-ops and primaries that drive American politics.

But Kohl’s strengths are also his great weaknesses. His commitment to character values has left him virtually bereft of strategic thinking and goals for a nation desperately searching to redefine itself in the wake of unification and great social change. “He has no great vision for a justly organized society,” says Martin Suesskind, Bonn bureau chief for the Suddeutsche Zeitung for the last 14 years. “I believe that under Kohl’s chancellorship we’ve become a less cohesive people than we once were.”

When he does err, the mistakes can reach a grand scale. His conviction, for example, that East Germans were simply West Germans deprived of opportunity led the chancellor to badly misjudge the cleft between the two peoples and reject the idea of any special government authorities to deal with eastern affairs. “I just didn’t believe how deep the human divide is after 40 years,” he told me.

His repeated failure to lead a vigorous counterattack against the neo-Nazi threat has cost his country dearly in terms of image. To this day, Kohl has never visited the site of any right-wing extremist attacks or been seen publicly consoling the families of their victims. Last June, he pointedly refused to attend the funeral of five Turkish nationals who died in an arson attack allegedly carried out by a group of German youths. Those who know the chancellor well believe that his failure to deal more effectively with the problem of attacks on foreigners lies partly in his lack of personal experience with the country’s ethnic minorities. Because few in these groups can vote, he has no compelling political need to do so.

THE WAR CEMETERY IN THE small western town of Bitburg contained no surprises, Kohl’s staff had assured members of President Ronald Reagan’s advance team preparing the 1985 state visit. During two excursions there by U.S. officials, there was nothing to hint otherwise.

Snow had covered the grave markers on the first trip, and rain had quickly driven officials away on the second. So it was only after Reagan’s visit to Bitburg was announced officially that the truth became known: Not only German soldiers were buried there but several members of Hitler’s elite Waffen SS combat divisions as well.

For Reagan and his horrified advisers, the revelation meant that the cemetery visit had to be canceled. It meant no such thing for Helmut Kohl. For him, the wreath laying was much more than one more symbol of reconciliation between America and Germany 40 years after the final shots of Europe’s bloodiest war. The meaning went deeper. The presidential wreath was a reaffirmation of a Kohl axiom: that modern Germany is a country like any other. Just as visiting dignitaries honor war dead on visits to Washington, Moscow, Paris and London, so, too, should they do it in Germany.

The degree to which Kohl insisted that Reagan go through with the ceremony is an indicator of how strongly the chancellor insists that Germany be treated like a normal country. Arguments mounted from the intellectual left--such as author Gunter Grass’ contention that Germany can never get beyond Auschwitz and should not even try--are dismissed by Kohl with a single word: absurd. For him, democratic Germany should never deny Auschwitz, but must move beyond it.

Much of Kohl’s years as a politician have been devoted to building the accoutrements of normalcy for his country, including a rekindling of patriotism. As governor of Rhineland Palatinate, he brought a black, red and gold flag used during a 19th-Century democratic protest not far from his home into the state legislature. Under his chancellorship, German flags have returned to ministerial offices, the national soccer team learned to sing the national anthem once again, and words like Vaterland, Heimat and Volk --words so debauched by Nazi propaganda that they rankled when spoken--began reappearing.

Despite protests from abroad and the German political left, Kohl has never wavered. He simply bulls ahead, convinced that such symbols are essential ingredients for pride and stability. He also knew Germany’s silent majority was pleased.

In November, in the face of protests, he dedicated a memorial in Berlin “to the victims of war and tyranny,” which political critics claimed lumped Nazism’s victims together with its perpetrators.

The criticism that came with Bitburg was repeated six years later when he upgraded the reburial of Frederick the Great--the personification of Prussian militarism--first with his own presence (albeit as a private person) and then by insisting that an eight-member Bundeswehr honor guard also take part as the king’s remains were returned to his Sans Souci Palace in Potsdam.

For Kohl, none of this had to do with reviving German militarism or justifying the past. It had to do with building a normal future.

This conviction of normalcy is one additional factor that helps explain Kohl’s curious inaction in the face of rising xenophobia in Germany. For him, the skinheaded thugs involved in the attacks against foreigners have little to do with German society. They are part of a broader European phenomenon with no connection to the Third Reich, let alone to the postwar democratic successor state, he insists, declaring: “That is not Germany.”

For Kohl, the main lesson of history is not that Germans must be on the watch for a second Holocaust but that they must avoid a third national catastrophe. For him, the two World Wars stand together as proof that Germany’s abnormality lies in the undeniable reality of its size and strength, not any congenital evil.

FOR HELMUT KOHL, REUNIfication three years ago wasn’t a political goal. It was a conviction, as fundamental and indisputable as a Christian’s belief in the second coming. It would happen; the only question was when. Through his wife, who spent her youth in Leipzig, he had a personal link to the east; and during the Cold War, he was a rarity among West German politicians for his habit of crossing into the East for private visits there. Once the Berlin Wall fell in November, 1989, Kohl wasted little time.

Gathering his closest advisers in the chancellory on the night of Nov. 23, Kohl approved a daring but risky idea put forward by his chief foreign-affairs adviser, Horst Teltschik. The chancellor would brush aside the hand-wringing that had already begun among Germany’s neighbors and broach the unthinkable: He would outline a plan for West German reunification with the country’s Communist half.

The outcome of that evening--a 10-point plan outlining a gradual, phased move toward a reunited Germany--looks almost timid in the light of subsequent events. But with revolution spreading uncertainty throughout Eastern Europe and fears growing in Western Europe of a resurgent Germany, the very idea of unity was considered too explosive to discuss openly.

The chancellor’s speech unveiling the plan was nothing less than a bombshell. Not even his own foreign minister, Hans-Dietrich Genscher, knew it was coming. Suddenly, the issue of German unity was out of the closet. And Kohl had given it shape and form. Thus began what would become a perfect political year for the chancellor, as he boldly brought the east out of the Soviet orbit and fixed his stature as a European statesman.

After his initial reunification plan was announced, it would take another three weeks and his first-ever official trip to East Germany--to Dresden--before the chancellor realized that events were moving much faster than he anticipated.

The euphoric reception Kohl received that night was televised around the globe. For those who watched, it was the latest in a series of remarkable reunions between Germans east and west. For Kohl the scene carried a far deeper message, and he read it immediately.

Descending from his official aircraft at the Dresden airport, the chancellor took one look at the crowd that had come to meet him--the cheering workers, well-wishers who had climbed onto the terminal roof for a glimpse of him--and he knew that unity would come fast. He turned to chancellory minister Rudolf Seiters, descending the steps behind him, and shared his revelation. “Seiters,” he said, “it’s over.”

He was right. Germany would soon be one again. But for Kohl, unity would also end a political highpoint, since dimmed by the troubles that he and his country face today.