When Germans today think of the year 1989, they remember above all the evening of November 9th, when, following a misunderstanding of a note passed to him, the East German politburo member, Gunter Schabowski, announced that the borders to West Germany were to be opened “immediately, without delay.” That evening, the pictures of thousands of Berliners flocking from East to West, celebrating on top of the wall and even spontaneously starting to demolish it with pickaxes swept around the world. However, when historians examine that year more closely another date comes into focus, that of September 11th. On that day, if a group of prominent dissidents within the German Christian Democrat Party had had their way, Helmut Kohl would have been deposed as party leader, and his position as Chancellor of West Germany would have become untenable. The wall would probably still have come down, but it can be argued that the subsequent course of inner German history and the road to reunification would conceivably have been very different.
In mid-1989 Kohl was in serious difficulty. His party’s popularity was low and his own was still lower. A general election was due the following year and more and more people within the party had become convinced that their leader was a liability and that it was time to ditch him in favour of a more modern-looking, media-friendly candidate. The choice had fallen on Lothar Späth, the prime minister of Baden-Württenburg. Späth was popular within the party, with a good reputation for intelligence and economic competence. There was a groundswell of discontentment with Kohl within the party, much of it having to do with a perceived dictatorial and high-handed style and the fact that the public perception of him as a bumbling, stumbling, fat intellectual lightweight was growing. Nothing focuses a political party more than the prospect of a lost election and more and more commentators were convinced that Kohl’s days were numbered. A party conference was scheduled for September 10th and 11th in
As if all this wasn’t enough, in the week before September 11th Kohl had to deal with a major personal problem. His doctors had diagnosed major prostate problems and urged immediate surgery. The chancellor however decided that an absence from public view would mean the definitive end of his career and travelled to
During the summer, thousands of East Germans had prolonged their holidays in
The announcement saved Kohl’s political life. The mood in
The rest, as they say, is history. In the following months Helmut Kohl was able to use his very particular talents to network with and manipulate people with consummate skill, playing off George H. Bush, Francois Mitterand and Mikhail Gorbachev against each other (isolating Margaret Thatcher, the one allied leader who was implacably and completely opposed to any kind of German reunification, in the process) and riding the rapidly unfolding political developments with an instinctive security until the GDR formally disappeared a year later, on October 3rd, 1990. Documents released in Moscow and Paris in the past year reveal that Mitterand was also initially opposed to unification and only pledged his final support in return for a commitment from Kohl to commit Germany to the goal of European economic and monetary union. History records that Kohl honoured this commitment.
Today Helmut Kohl celebrates his 80th birthday. He is, according to all reports, seriously ill, confined to a wheelchair and has been unable to speak for the past two years. Following his retirement from active politics, he has been intensely conscious of his historical reputation and has not hesitated to take legal steps whenever he has seen that reputation as threatened, even if this has meant distancing himself from his own Christian Democrat party and those who were his faithful supporters throughout his active political life, up to and including Angela Merkel. But in this also, he has remained faithful to his guiding principle to sacrifice anything and everything, anyone and everyone to his own political vision.
I have never been an admirer of Helmut Kohl. But, like most of his critics, I am forced unwillingly to the conclusion that in 1989 he was the right man in the right place. Probably only someone with Kohl’s monumental sense of his own importance and the rightness of his own viewpoint, coupled with his capacity to manipulate and use others for his own purposes, could have pushed through German unification the way he did. Without him,