Helmut Kohl
Chancellor of Germany
In office
1 October 1982 – 27 October 1998
Preceded byHelmut Schmidt
Succeeded byGerhard Schröder
Personal details
BornApril 3, 1930
Political partyCDU

Dr. Helmut Josef Michael Kohl (born April 3, 1930) is a Catholic German conservative politician and statesman. He was Chancellor of Germany from 1982 to 1998 (West Germany between 1982 and 1990) and the chairman of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) from 1973-1998. His 16-year tenure was the longest of any German chancellor since Otto von Bismarck. During his time in office, he was one architect of German Reunification and, together with French President François Mitterrand, of the Maastricht Treaty which created the European Union.

In 1998, he was named Honorary Citizen of Europe by the European heads of state or government for his extraordinary work for European integration and cooperation, an honour previously only bestowed on Jean Monnet. Together with Mitterrand, he received the Charlemagne Award.



Kohl was born in Ludwigshafen am Rhein, Palatinate, Germany, to Hans Kohl, a civil servant, and his wife Cäcilie. He was the third child born into this conservative, Roman Catholic family which, before and after 1933, remained loyal to the Catholic Centre Party. His older brother died in the Second World War as a teenage soldier. In the last weeks of the war, Helmut Kohl was inducted also, but he was not involved in any combat.

Kohl attended the Ruprecht elementary school, and continued at the Max Planck Gymnasium. In 1946, he joined the recently founded CDU. In 1947, he was one of the co-founders of the Junge Union-branch in Ludwigshafen. After graduating in 1950, he began to study law in Frankfurt am Main. In 1951, he switched to the University of Heidelberg where he majored in History and Political Science. In 1953, he joined the board of the Rhineland-Palatinate branch of the CDU. In 1954, he became vice-chair of the Junge Union in Rhineland-Palatinate. In 1955, he returned to the board of the Rhineland-Palatinate branch of the CDU.

Life before politics

After graduating in 1956 he became fellow at the Alfred Weber Institute of the University of Heidelberg. In 1958, he received the degree of a Dr. phil. for his thesis "The Political Developments in the Palatinate and the Reconstruction of Political Parties after 1945". After that, he entered business, first as an assistant to the director of a foundry in Ludwigshafen and, in 1959, as a manager for the Industrial Union for Chemistry in Ludwigshafen. In this year, he also became chair of the Ludwigshafen branch of the CDU. In the following year, he married Hannelore Renner, whom he had known since 1948; they have two sons together.

Political Life

In 1960, he was elected into the municipal council of Ludwigshafen where he served as leader of the CDU party until 1969. In 1963, he was also elected into the Landtag of Rhineland-Palatinate and served as leader of the CDU party in that legislature. From 1966 until 1973, he served as the chair of the CDU, and he was also a member of the Federal CDU board. After his election as party-chair, he was named as the successor to Peter Altmeier, who was minister-president of Rhineland-Palatinate at the time. However after the Landtag-election which followed; Altmeier remained minister-president.

On May 19, 1969, Kohl was elected minister-president of Rheinland-Pfalz, as the successor to Altmeier. During his term as minister-president, Kohl founded the University of Trier-Kaiserlautern and enacted territorial reform. Also in 1969, Kohl became the vice-chair of the federal CDU party.

In 1971, he was a candidate to become federal chairman, but was not elected. Rainer Barzel took the position instead. In 1972, Barzel attempted to force a cabinet crisis in the SPD/FDP government, which failed, leading him to step down. In 1973, Kohl succeeded him as federal chairman; he retained this position until 1998.

In the 1976 federal election, Kohl was the CDU/CSU's candidate for chancellor. The CDU/CSU coalition performed very well, winning 48.6% of the vote. However they were kept out of the center-left cabinet formed by the Social Democratic Party of Germany and Free Democratic Party, led by Social Democrat Helmut Schmidt. Kohl then retired as minister-president of Rhineland-Palatinate to become the leader of the CDU/CSU in the Bundestag. He was succeeded by Bernhard Vogel. In the 1980 federal elections, Kohl had to play second fiddle, when CSU-leader Franz Josef Strauß became the CDU/CSU's candidate for chancellor. Strauß was also kept out of government by the SPD/FDP alliance. Unlike Kohl, Strauß did not want to continue as the leader of the CDU/CSU and remained Prime Minister of Bavaria. Kohl remained as leader of the opposition, under the second Schmidt cabinet.

On September 17, 1982, a conflict of economic policy occurred between the governing SPD/FDP coalition partners. The FDP wanted to radically liberalise the labour market, while the SPD wanted to protect the rights of workers. The FDP began talks with the CDU/CSU to form a new government.

On October 1, 1982, the CDU proposed a constructive vote of no confidence which was supported by the FDP. Such a motion had been proposed once before, against Brandt in 1972. The motion carried, and, on October 3], the Bundestag voted in a new CDU/CSU-FDP coalition cabinet, with Kohl as the chancellor. Many of the important details of the new coalition had been hammered out on September 20, though minor details were reportedly still being hammered out as the vote took place.

The foundation of this cabinet is still considered controversial. Although the new cabinet was legitimate according to the Basic Law, it was contentious because, during the 1980 elections, the FDP and CDU/CSU were not allied. To answer this problem, Kohl did something more controversial. He called a confidence vote only a month after being sworn in. Members of the coalition partners abstained from voting, thereby bringing down the government. and forcing Federal President Karl Carstens to dissolve the Bundestag in January 1983. In the federal elections of March 1983, Kohl won a smashing victory. The CDU/CSU won 48.8%, while the FDP won 7.0%. Some opposition members of the Bundestag asked the Federal constitutional court to declare the whole proceedings unconstitutional. It denied their claim.

The second Kohl cabinet pushed through several controversial plans, including the stationing of NATO midrange missiles, against major opposition from the peace movement.

On24 January, 1984, Kohl spoke before the Knesset, as the first Chancellor of the post-war generation. In his speech, he used Günter Gaus' famous sentence, that he had "the mercy of a late birth".

File:Mitterrand and Kohl in Verdun 1984.jpeg
Helmut Kohl with François Mitterrand in Verdun, 1984

On September 22, 1984 Kohl met the French president François Mitterrand at Verdun, where the Battle of Verdun between France and Germany had taken place during World War I. Together, they commemorated the deaths of both World Wars. The photograph, which depicted their minutes long handshake became an important symbol of French-German reconciliation. Kohl und Mitterrand developed a close political relationship, forming an important motor for European integration. Together, they laid the foundations for European projects, like Eurocorps and Arte. This French-German cooperation also was vital for important European projects, like the Treaty of Maastricht and the Euro.

In 1985 Kohl and US President Ronald Regan, as part of a plan to observe the 40th anniversary of V-E Day, saw an opportunity to demonstrate the strength of the friendship that existed between Germany and its former foe. During a November 1984 visit to the White House, Kohl appealed to Reagan to join him in symbolizing the reconciliation of their two countries at a German military cemetary. As Regan visisted Germany as part of the G6 conference in Bonn, the pair visited Bergen-Belsen concentration camp on 5 May, and more controversially the German military cemetery in Bitburg, discovered to hold 49 members of the Waffen-SS buried there.

In 1986, much controversy was caused by an essay entitled "Land Without An History" written by one of Kohl's advisors, the historian Michael Stürmer, in which Stürmer argued that West Germans lacked an history to be proud of, and called for effort on the part of the government, historians and the media to be build national pride in German history. Through Stürmer insisted that he was writing on behalf of himself and not in an official capacity as the Chancellor's advisor, much left-wing intellectuals claimed that Stürmer's essay also expressed Kohl's views.

After the federal elections of 1987 Kohl won a slightly reduced majority and formed his third cabinet. The SPD's candidate for chancellor was the Minister-President of North Rhine-Westphalia, Johannes Rau.

In 1987, Kohl received East German leader Erich Honecker - the first ever visit by an East German head of state to West Germany. This is generally seen as a sign that Kohl pursued Ostpolitik, a policy of detente between East and West. Following the breach of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Kohl's handling of the East German issue would become the turning point of his chancellorship.

Helmut Kohl in Kreisau/Krzyzowa, Poland, 1989. The ethnic German inhabitants of Silesia were particularly happy to welcome him.

Taking advantage of the historic political changes occurring in East Germany, Kohl presented a ten point plan for "Overcoming of the division of Germany and Europe" without consulting his coalition partner, the FDP, or the Western Allies. In February 1990, he visited the Soviet Union seeking a guarantee from Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev that the USSR would allow German reunification to proceed. On May 18, 1990, he signed an economic and social union treaty with East Germany. Against the will of the president of the German federal bank, he allowed a 1:1 conversion course for wages, interest and rent between the West and East Marks. In the end, this policy would seriously hurt companies in the New Länder. Together with Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher, Kohl was able to resolve talks with the former Allies of World War II to allow German reunification and the expansion of the NATO into the former East German state. On October 3, 1990, the East German state was abolished and its territory reunified with West Germany. After the fall of the Berlin Wall Kohl, confirmed that historically German territories east of the Oder-Neisse line were definitively part of the Republic of Poland, thereby finally ending the West German territorial claims. In 1993, Kohl confirmed, in a treaty with the Czech Republic, that Germany would no longer bring forward territorial claims as to the pre-1945 ethnic German so-called Sudetenland. This was a disappointment for the German Heimatvertriebene.

After the 1990 elections — the first free, fair and democratic all-German elections since the Weimar Republic era — Kohl won by a landslide over opposition candidate and prime minister of Saarland, Oskar Lafontaine. He formed the Cabinet Kohl IV.

After the federal elections of 1994 Kohl was narrowly re-elected. He defeated the Minister-President of Rhineland-Palatinate Rudolf Scharping. The SPD was however able to win a majority in the Bundesrat, which significantly limited Kohl's power. In foreign politics, Kohl was more successful, for instance getting Frankfurt am Main as the seat for the European Central Bank.

By the late 1990s, the aura surrounding Kohl had largely worn off amid rising unemployment figures. He was heavily defeated in the 1998 federal elections by the minister-president of Niedersachsen, Gerhard Schröder. A red-green coalition government led by Schröder replaced Kohl's government on October 27, 1998. He immediately resigned as CDU leader and largely retired from politics. However, he remained a member of the Bundestag until he decided not to run for reelection in the 2002 election.

Life after Politics

Kohl's life after politics was characterized by the CDU-party finance scandal and by developments in his personal life.

A massive party financing scandal became public in 1999, when it was discovered that the CDU had received and maintained illegal funding under his leadership.

Investigations by the Bundestag into the sources of illegal CDU funds, mainly stored in Geneva bank accounts, revealed two sources:

  1. Sales of German tanks to Saudi Arabia (kickback question),
  2. Privatization fraud in collusion with the late French President François Mitterrand who wanted 2,550 unused allotments in the former East Germany for the then French owned Elf Aquitaine.

In December 1994 the CDU majority in the Bundestag enacted a law that nullified all rights of the current owners. Over 300 million DM in illegal funds were discovered in accounts in the canton Geneva. The fraudulently acquired allotments were then privatized as part of Elf Aquitaine and ended up with TotalFinaElf, now Total S.A., after amalgamation.

Kohl himself claimed that Elf Aquitaine had offered (and meanwhile made) a massive investment in East Germany's chemical industry together with the takeover of 2,000 gas stations in Germany which were formerly owned by national oil company Minol. Elf Aquitaine is supposed to have financed CDU illegally, as ordered by Mitterrand, as it was usual practice in African countries.

Kohl and other German and French politicians defended themselves that they were promoting reconciliation and cooperation between France and Germany for the sake of European integration and peace, and that they had no personal motives for accepting foreign party funding.

In 2002, Kohl left the Bundestag and officially retreated from politics. In recent years, Kohl has been largely rehabilitated by his party again. After taking office, Angela Merkel invited her former patron to the Chancellor's Office and Ronald Pofalla, the Secretary-General of the CDU, announced that the CDU will cooperate more closely with Kohl, "to take advantage of the experience of this great statesman", as Pofalla put it.

On July 5, 2001 Hannelore Kohl, his wife, committed suicide, after suffering from light allergy for years. On March 4, 2004, he published the first of his Memoires called "Memories 1930-1982", they contain memories from the period 1930 to 1982, when he became chancellor. The second part, published on November 3, 2005 included the first half of his chancellorship(from 1982 to 1990). On December 28, 2004, Kohl was air-lifted by the Sri Lankan Air Force, after having been stranded in a hotel by the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake.

Political Views

Kohl had strong, although complex and somewhat ambiguous political views, focussing on economic matters and on international politics.

Public perception

During the earlier years of his tenure, Kohl faced stiff opposition from the West German political left. His adversaries frequently referred to him by the widely known and disparaging nickname of Birne (a German word for pear; after unflattering cartoons showing Kohl's head as a pear). This public ridicule subsided as Kohl's political star began to rise: as the leader of European integration and an important figure in the German reunification. Kohl became one of the most popular politician in Germany and a greatly respected European statesman. Some criticize him for taking personal credit for German reunification, while without historical developments in the USSR and East Germany in the late 1980s, reunification would not have been possible. After his chancellorship, especially when the claims of corruption sprang up, Kohl fell in public perception.


Political offices Preceded byHelmut Schmidt Chancellor of Germany 1982–1998 Succeeded byGerhard Schröder Preceded byMargaret Thatcher Chair of the G8 1985 Succeeded byYasuhiro Nakasone Preceded byJohn Major Chair of the G8 1992 Succeeded byKiichi Miyazawa