Helmut Kohl’s united Germany and Europe
Former German Chancellor and statesman Helmut Kohl, the longest-serving postwar Western leader, died at the age of 87 on June 16.
Tributes from world leaders showed that Kohl was mostly remembered for his contribution to today’s Germany and European integration. As the architect of the reunification of East and West Germany, he played a significant role in overcoming the obstacles of fusion of two Germanys in 1990 after decades of separation.
Following Germany’s defeat in the Second World War, it was until 1949 split into separate governing sectors between the victors (the United States, Great Britain, the Soviet Union and France), when two countries were formed: The Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) under the Western influence and the German Democratic Republic (GDR) under the control of the Soviet Union. It was vivid reminder of the division of Europe until the end of the Cold War years.
The FRG, a.k.a. West Germany, quickly recovered from the destructive effects of the Second World War by closely integrating with the Western bloc, becoming a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank and the European Economic Community (the forerunner of today’s European Union). On the other hand, the GDR, a.k.a. East Germany, remained in dismal and grim economic and political conditions until the disintegration of the Soviet Bloc in the late 1980s.
The long-built significant economic and social differences between East and West Germanys have continued as important obstacles for reunification even after the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989. As the Berlin Institute for Population and Development stressed in a recent study, the overwhelming majority of Germans still believe that there are more differences than commonalities between the easterners and westerners.
The leadership skills of Helmut Kohl, who was chancellor between 1982 and 1998, were important in securing U.S. and Soviet acquiescence for German re-unification, which became official on Oct. 3, 1990, back when the memories of the First and Second World Wars were still strong. However, Kohl did not only ask for the reunification of Germany; he also strongly pushed for a deeply integrated Europe that could contain a united Germany. He built strong ties with French President Francois Mitterrand and consolidated the Franco-German relationship. Together, they were most devoted proponents of deeper European integration and, as such, became the architects of the Maastricht Treaty, formally creating the European Union.
Since then, Kohl’s united Germany has become the powerhouse of Europe and one of the most important players in the global arena. While the recent financial crises of 2008 and 2017 hit all countries globally, Germany has protected its relatively stability, progressively becoming a stabilizing power in Europe as various crises, ranging from the Euro crisis to refugee flow, the rise of anti-establishment parties, and the Brexit vote have sparked debates over the future of the EU.
Today, Germany is the fourth largest economy globally, thanks in part to the U.S. security umbrella that allowed it to avoid costly military build-ups. However, from another perspective it was also the U.S. security guarantees that prevented Germany from building up an extensive army. As many of its neighbors still warily remember the last time Germany had a strong military, U.S. President Donald Trump’s recent de-emphasis of NATO - thus opening up the possibility of a stronger German army being built up in the middle of Europe - have raised few eyebrows. Germany’s so far understated desire to become one of the important players, if not a pole, in a future multipolar world should therefore be closely watched globally.