Nobody does it better than Helmut Kohl – German chancellor’s political success leads to his fourth term

Nobody does it better than Helmut Kohl – German chancellor’s political success leads to his fourth term – Column

Ronald Reagan had to stand down after two sweeping election victories. Margaret Thatcher was deposed after three. Democracies are meant to be that way. Yet German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, who came from behind to win a plurality in Germany’s October federal elections, has pulled out his fourth victory in a row.

Kohl first swept to parliamentary power in 1982 and won again in 1986 and 1990. Even if he fails to form a government because of the vagaries of the German electoral system, he has added another astonishing record to his amazing achievements during the last 12 years. No one in the modern political history of any major Western democracy has “four-peated” in the last 33 years. You have to go back to Franklin D. Roosevelt, elected president of the United States in 1932, 1936, 1940 and 1944, to equal it, or to modern Germany’s own founding father, Konrad Adenauer, elected chancellor in 1949, 1953, 1957 and 1961.

How did Kohl do it?

Apart from France’s President Francois Nutterrand, now ailing from cancer and considered unlikely to see out his full term of office, Kohl is the last of the great group of leaders who reinvigorated the West in the 1980s. And, like Ronald Reagan and Israel’s Yitzhak Sha-mir, he pulled off his achievements while appearing to stumble into them, re-peatedly disguising his political skill behind the sleight of hand of apparent bumbling.

It was Kohl, new to the chancellorship, who stuck fast to the decision to deploy NATO’s Pershing II mobile, intermediate-range nuclear missiles in the early 1980s, despite an immense Soviet propaganda effort to prevent it. That deployment in one stroke neutralized decades of Soviet conventional and military buildup aimed at the heart of Western Europe and forced Moscow to the negotiating table — on Western terms.

Then he seized the day in 1989 to facilitate the collapse of the East German communist state, knocking over the crucial domino that toppled all the others in Moscow’s Eastern European empire. He was the driving force for rapid reunification, sweeping along the initially cautious George Bush and sweeping aside the fears of Thatcher, to create what always had been believed impossible — a unified Germany that remained a stable, democratic pillar of NATO and the European Union.

While all the wiseacres counseled caution, Kohl pushed through virtually instantaneous economic integration. The prophets of woe predicted runaway inflation. Instead, helped by a tight fiscal policy from Germany’s Bundesbank, rapid integration on generous terms produced stability. East Germany, alone of Europe’s former communist states, has been spared the “Zyuganov effect” — named after Gennady Zyuganov, leader of Russia’s neo-communists — whereby reorganized communist parties have stormed back to power or come close to it by feeding off the pains of transition to free-market and democratic systems.

Kohl’s election strategy was sneered at by German and other pundits, but it reflected his understated shrewdness. Only four years after reunification, he ran a “feel good” campaign eschewing policy issues or ideological arguments. For Kohl, unlike Woodrow Wilson’s successors after World War I or Britain’s Winston Churchill after World War II, recognized that his people needed breathing space from history. The same quality that has led intellectuals and pundits to underestimate him again proved his greatest strength. A convivial man who combines streetsmart, hands-on political skills with a warm, gregarious pleasure in food, beer and friends, Kohl once again showed himself without equal in understanding the aspirations of his people. As with our own FDR, Kohl’s ordinariness proved to be his greatest strength.

But there has been far, far more to him than that. Kohl is assured of an honored place in German history. He completed the great work started by Adenauer by finally triumphing over the communist East’s alternative vision for his country. And he rolled back the evil heritage of a century of German history. For only the third time in 700 years since the fall of the Hohenstaufen dynasty in the 13th century, he reunified the German lands under native rule. But he did not do it by recourse to an evil, racist ideology, like Adolf Hitler in the 1930s. And he did not do it by cynical, ruthless recourse to war and bloodshed like Otto von Bismarck, the “Iron Chancellor” of the late 19th century.

As the great historian Friedrich Meinicke concluded in The German Catastrophe, Bismarck’s achievement legitimized and romanticized a worship of amoral force that led Germany to catastrophe in two world wars. But Kohl achieved Bismarck’s dream of reunification through persuasion and the instruments of democracy The 6-foot-4-inch, 250-pound leader never pretended to be an iron chancellor” and never aspired to be a fuhrer. His detractors called him “The Fat Man.” It should be acclaimed a title of honor, for Kohl has served his country and the world well.

Martin Sieff is the State Department correspondent for the Washington Times.

COPYRIGHT 1994 News World Communications, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group