Policy Review Banner

The Underestimated Chancellor

Sunday, August 1, 1999

Helmut Kohl’s solidity, lack of pretension, essential Bürgerlichkeit, may have made him a vote-getter with middle-class Germans, but it did nothing to endear him to the German media and intelligentsia. Even though he was regarded as belonging to the more liberal wing of the Christian Democratic Union (cdu) when he came to power in 1982, and even though in just about every other country Kohl would have been regarded essentially as a Social Democrat, his critics at home lost no time painting him a black reactionary.

The political spectrum on the right in Germany is extremely narrow. Even the bourgeois right has been taboo since World War II. There are no similar limitations on the left side of the spectrum, where it is perfectly respectable to be Trotskyite, Spartakist, anarchist, or other exotic persuasions. For instance, a fierce public outcry arose when, at the height of the terrorist wave in the 1970s, the Bundestag passed a law designed to prevent left-wing terrorist sympathizers from holding public sector jobs. (It should be emphasized that this law was introduced by a Social Democratic–led government.) Since there is no real right in Germany, the left had to invent one, and so they seized on Helmut Kohl.

According to Christoph Stölzl, director of the Deutsches Historisches Museum in Berlin, the 1960s and 1970s in Germany were a time of great illusions and even greater delusions. The protest movement of the day was completely unconnected to reality. Indeed, for all its bloody deeds, the Baader-Meinhof terrorist group was straight out of the nineteenth century German Romantic school. While the Red Army Faction and its sympathizers obviously constituted an extremely small group, some of their political views resonated in the youth movement at large (and among older radicals as well). If Americans think that the 1960s were bad, the generational conflict that beset Germany was every bit as ferocious. This postwar generation rose up with a vengeance against its parents, who, because of the Nazi era, commanded no moral authority.

German society reacted to the challenge from the radicals not with counterarguments but with well-intentioned, if misplaced, attempts to understand their bitterness and fury. The youth movement, in return, showed its lack of appreciation immediately by labeling this attitude "repressive tolerance." Respected older intellectual figures like Heinrich Böll went so far as to question the right of the republic to defend itself against terrorism. Böll viewed the violence of terrorists such as Ulrike Meinhof and Andreas Baader as less worrisome than "the lies and propaganda of the fascist press."

Equally preposterously, people on the left in Germany identified with the civil rights movement in America, deluding themselves that the situation in Germany somehow resembled that of the United States. The fact that there were no blacks in Germany, and that the Turkish guest workers who were there had come of their own volition and desperately wanted to stay (and bring their families as well) seemed of minor importance.

But they did not stop here; they identified with the poor downtrodden wherever they thought they could find them in the world. As Dorethea Sölle, a church activist, put it at a 1983 conference of the Council of Christian Churches in Canada: "Our San Salvador is in militarist West Germany, which is the place where our struggle should proceed. This is our Vietnam, our Soweto, our San Salvador, our battlefield for justice and peace."

Return to normal

Into this morass Helmut Kohl strode briskly in 1982 with a call for spiritual and moral change, a call that his enemies immediately seized upon. Some ridiculed it, others saw it as a sinister plan to impose a right-wing ideology on Germany. In part, Kohl reacted to his predecessor Helmut Schmidt, who had stated that the job of the chancellor was not to preach moral values, but to implement pragmatic policies. Schmidt had, in fact, called himself the "first civil servant" of the German state, indicative of a rather limited view of the office.

Kohl, for his part, was of the opinion that politics was more than mere pragmatism, that if Germany wanted to keep its position as a leading industrial nation, it had better rediscover some of its traditional values, such as honesty and hard work, freedom and justice, which had made its economic success possible in the first place. To have seen this as rabid right-wing ideology was way off the mark.

Says Stölzl, "When Kohl in 1982 promised a spiritual and moral change, although he might have wanted more, this meant nothing more than going back to the common sense of the great majority of the population. This was not a conservative revolution."

But even a return to normalcy seemed preposterous to the generation that had been able to indulge its left-wing fantasies while living off the accumulated wealth of its parents, who had rebuilt German prosperity after the war. The reason Kohl aroused such strong antipathy after the left-wing idealist binge of the 1960s and 1970s, according to Stölzl, was that with his solidity and his roots, he reminded everyone of what they were trying to forget — that real life involves work and responsibility, taking care of your children and your family. He spoke not just about freedoms, but also about obligations, not just about rights, but also about duties. Kohl was the embodiment of common sense after years of romanticism and escape.

Indeed, Kohl quickly became a kind of national dart board for the 1960s generation. This generation of young men and women who were on the long march through German institutions now found themselves in positions of responsibility, and had long since been tamed; the Volkswagen Beetle and the Velo Solex moped had been exchanged for a Mercedes Benz; the squatters and the activists had moved into their own villas. In a kind of Freudian way, Kohl acted as a surrogate father figure. Pointing a finger at Kohl, every schoolteacher with the liberal news weekly Die Zeit under his arm could delude himself that he still belonged to the avant-garde.

Needless to say, the intellectuals and the German media were at the forefront of the assault. As in the United States, German intellectuals and the press tend not to look favorably on conservative politicians for the simple reason that very few writers are conservatives themselves. In Germany, a great majority of the media — some 80 percent — regards Social Democratic and Green positions favorably.

But the phenomenon goes a step further. Despite the country’s extensive social welfare net, which is supported by liberals and conservatives alike, being a conservative in Germany is seen by many on the left as not only a sign of mental deficiency but also as something infinitely more sinister. Says Stölzl, "Normal people who believe in law and order in Germany are defined as Nazis. It is nonsense, of course, but there it is."

Some of it comes down to intellectual snobbery. After all, few things will make people repress their own middle-class origins more readily than a university education. Thus from the very beginning Kohl was mocked in the papers. One critic, wheeling out the heavy artillery, labeled the chancellor "an imposition on Germany as a cultural nation."

Among Germany’s heavyweight intellectuals, the most prolific of Kohl’s critics was author Günter Grass, whose contempt for Kohl was almost visceral. Of all the self-important German left-wing intellectuals, Grass is surely the most self-important. With his huge drooping moustache, grandfather pipe, and old sweater, Grass looks docile enough. This is, after all, a man who has chosen the snail as his literary emblem. But when the subject turned to Helmut Kohl and the state of Germany democracy, the snail became apoplectic.

Like his fellow author, the late Heinrich Böll, Grass has tended to see postwar Germany as a police state, a sham democracy, "a dictatorship of money" with neo-Nazis about to take over any minute, if they have not already done so. One critic perceptively compared Grass’s own political development, or rather stuntedness, to that of the hero of his most famous book, The Tin Drum, the boy Oscar Matzerath, who willed himself to stop growing when the Nazis took over and witnessed the cruelties of war from his child’s perspective while hammering away on his drum. Grass himself is forever stuck in the twilight shadows of the Third Reich, and forever banging his drum about imaginary demons without noticing or being willing to notice that the world around him has changed.

Among the print media in postwar Germany, the most influential has been the weekly magazine Der Spiegel, which has routinely portrayed itself as a savior, educator, and guarantor of German democracy, without which Germany could not have returned to the family of respectable nations. Der Spiegel held this position for decades, though with time it has lost some of its impact due to competition from other publications. But with a circulation of about 1 million, it cannot be overlooked. Most politicians are hesitant to challenge it; to be on Der Spiegel’s hit list is not a healthy place to be.

Der Spiegel is a prime example of what some call the angst industry in Germany, which is made up of a triad located in Hamburg — Der Spiegel, Die Zeit, and the "human interest" magazine Stern — or what Kohl refers to as "the Hamburg complex of the press." In common, they have a highly skeptical attitude toward power, which, given Germany’s history, may be reasonable enough. Yet in the case of Der Spiegel, skepticism reaches an almost hysterical pitch; any kind of power is suspect, including power exerted within a democracy. In Der Spiegel a minor local problem is immediately blown up to be a national crisis, while a national crisis becomes instant Götterdämmerung.

Der Spiegel

Licensed after the war by the British in 1946 and based on the Time magazine model, Der Spiegel and its founder and publisher Rudolf Augstein soon showed that they had their own political agenda. Openly polemical, fact and opinion mix freely in Der Spiegel’s pages, and in a time-honored European tradition, sourcing is minimal. You have to take the news on trust.

Despite the publisher’s stated nonsocialist views (he is a Free Democrat), Der Spiegel’s editorial line is decidedly left of center, with a weakness for environmental affairs. Its style, known as Spiegelese, is instantly recognizable: a cynical, insinuating, sarcastic, and streetwise tone, to which is added a hefty dollop of moral rectitude.

The style is a reflection of the personality of its publisher, a man of restless intellect who has written biographies on figures as diverse as Frederick the Great and Jesus Christ. Coming originally from a strict religious background, against which he rebelled in A Man Called Jesus (1972), Rudolf Augstein challenged the historical basis of the Bible and went on to inveigh against reactionary Catholics, who, in his opinion, ran Germany and blocked social change.

On foreign affairs, despite the early British support for the magazine, Augstein remained a German nationalist, which he combined with a deep sympathy for Russia. Always backing the underdog, which in the Cold War he believed to be the Soviet Union (a rather large underdog, one should have thought), he has always been hostile to American power in the world. Early on, Augstein proved himself an ardent enemy of Konrad Adenauer’s Western orientation and the integration of Germany into the Western defense alliance.

Augstein was one of the main cheerleaders when in 1969 the Free Democrats formed a government with the Social Democrats. Not surprisingly, his favorite chancellor was Willy Brandt, and Der Spiegel became a conveyer belt for his views, especially the opening to the East. In 1974 one of the magazine’s editors, Gunther Gauss, was appointed West German representative in East Berlin.

Accordingly, Augstein hit the roof when the Free Democrats switched allegiance in 1982 and threw their weight behind Helmut Kohl. For 16 years, Augstein waged war against Kohl. Kohl once referred to Der Spiegel as "representing a Hamburg sewer rather than reality" and advised people "to save their money and enjoy life." Its covers are famous for their depiction of the chancellor; one from 1986 shows a tiny little Kohl figure under a gigantic headline screaming "The Minus Chancellor," while a post-unification cover from 1994 shows his head on a locomotive relentlessly barreling ahead under the headline "The Power Machine."

For two decades Kohl did not grant the magazine an interview, knowing that it would make no difference in the weekly’s biased treatment of him. Why help a magazine devoted to his downfall? He even refused to read Der Spiegel. As it was still Germany’s leading magazine, and hence could not be overlooked, he would get around his own ban by leaving the unpleasant task to his press spokesman, who summarized parts for him.

Die Zeit

Compared to Der Spiegel, the weekly newspaper Die Zeit is a much more refined product. It has none of the in-your-face wiseguy tone of Der Spiegel, but politically it takes similar positions — liberal-left and Social Democrat — and its editorial line was decidedly anti-Kohl.

Its publisher, Marion Gräfin Dönhoff, the grande dame of German newspapering, came from Germany’s old Prussian nobility. She saw her brother and many of her family friends killed after the unsuccessful attempt on the life of Adolf Hitler in 1944. After the war she lost all the family lands in East Prussia and escaped on horseback from the advancing Soviet troops.

Trained as an economist before the war, and nicknamed the Red Countess because of her socialist leanings, she had a way of getting things wrong. When Ludwig Erhard declared the currency reform in 1948, which formed the foundation of Germany’s economic rebirth, she immediately pronounced it a "disaster" for Germany.

At heart, despite all her socialist leanings, Dönhoff identified with the kind of nationalism that represents the old Germany, the real Germany within the officer corps. (She has written an elegant and elegiac memoir about her childhood in East Prussia, which, incidentally, Kohl admires.)

Die Zeit’s editor-in-chief until 1992 was Theo Sommer. He had been picked decades earlier by Dönhoff as one of her promising young men. Under his stewardship, Die Zeit continuously editorialized about how the East German regime was a peace-seeking and well-meaning state that the Federal Republic should help and understand; the paper roundly criticized Helmut Kohl for constantly bringing up the unification issue.

Since unification and the opening of the East German archives, interesting revelations about Die Zeit’s editorial practices have surfaced. In 1986 the magazine ran a series of articles about life in East Germany, later published in book form under the title A Journey Through the Other Germany. The archives embarrassingly reveal Sommer eagerly agreeing to downplay the significance of the Wall and other unpleasant aspects of life in East Germany and instead stress its stability and full employment. In short, the articles amount to acceptance of the journalistic terms imposed by the East German regime.

A few quotes give the flavor: "Life in the gdr [German Democratic Republic] means life under Erich Honecker. The citizens in the other German State regard him with a quiet kind of reverence. That always comes through in conversations. Honecker carefully avoids any kind of personality cultÖ. On the other side, a system has been created that in many ways surpasses ours. There is no unemployment. On the contrary, managers complain over lack of manpower."

The picture emerging from the articles was of a state that was essentially benign and unthreatening, if a little boring. The series was influential in shaping not only West Germans’ view of East Germany, but also international opinion. Sommer has since admitted in general terms that his view of East Germany was wrong, but he never apologized for the series.

In all fairness, notes Kohl adviser Wolfgang Bergsdorf, it should perhaps be pointed out that Die Zeit was not the only publication that was taken in by the East German line. "There are hundreds of journalists," he says, "who chose to close their eyes and not see the human rights violations committed in the [gdr], all in the interest of defining peace and good relations with those in power."

In his time as prime minister of the Rhineland-Palatinate, he was used to favorable reviews in the local press as an up-and-coming politician, so the onslaught of the national media came as something of a shock. Kohl was known for his "angry glare" at journalists whom he found impertinent, and he took a certain pleasure when the press had to eat its own words.

Eduard Ackermann, who as press secretary occupied an exposed post in the war with the media, recalls, "In the old days, the way a question was phrased could irritate him and throw him off his guard." Over time, he became more equanimous, but this did not prevent him from saying a question was truly stupid if he found it so.

The intellectuals

For the proper perspective, it should be remembered that Konrad Adenauer was ridiculed by the intellectuals for having a vocabulary of 500 words. And Kohl was surely no more sensitive than Willy Brandt, who when faced with jokes and media attacks assigned a psychologist in the Chancellery to delve into the mystery of why people would criticize him.

Given all the vitriol expended on him during his years in office, one may wonder how Kohl survived for so long. The answer lay partly in his understanding of and connection to the ordinary German voters and partly in the fact that Kohl was a formidable political tactician and infighter, something that was often not understood by his opponents — until it was too late. "Helmut Kohl’s survival skills were highly developed," says Wolfgang Bergsdorf. "If there was a rat that threatened to gnaw the wood of the chair he was sitting on, he could smell that rat right away." Kohl’s political enemies and rivals tended to have one thing in common: the belief that they were smarter than he was. For the life of them, they could not understand that he, not they, occupied the chancellor’s chair.

Kohl’s cdu was full of people who underestimated Kohl and lived to regret it — who woke up one day and found themselves relegated to exile in distant and fog-filled provinces in the new eastern Germany. One such was the prime minister of Saxony, Kurt Biedenkopf, a man of great intellect and wit, who fought a series of early battles with Kohl about the direction of the cdu and lost — and harbored a huge grudge. At predictable intervals, Biedenkopf would jump up and down in his palace in Dresden overcome with the injustice of it all.

Another example is Lothar Späth, the once-popular prime minister of Baden-Württemberg and in 1989 considered a serious rival of Kohl. Former U.S. Ambassador to Germany Richard Burt once asked Späth if he meant to take on the chancellor. "I’ve thought about it and it scares me," came Späth’s reply.

"Why does it scare you?" asked Burt.

"Because on weekends, when he comes down to Baden-Württemberg, and we go around to cdu winefests, he knows more people by name in my state than I do."

Predictably, the Späth challenge never emerged, and Späth went on to become ceo of Jenoptik in Jena, Thuringia. Kohl was not merely the leader who sat in the Chancellery and greeted visiting potentates and other dignitaries, he was a grass-roots politician who lived and breathed politics. "He was not just a wholesaler of politics, he was a retailer, who understood that people plus policies equal politics," notes Richard Burt.

Someone who immediately recognized Kohl’s staying power was U.S. Ambassador Vernon Walters, who was appointed to Bonn in the spring of 1989. In one of his very first meetings at the embassy, he ordered every reference in embassy telegrams to the "bumbling and stumbling chancellor" removed. "No one stumbles and bumbles his way into the Chancellery and remains there for 16 years," says Walters. "The competition is very great. A lot of people are looking for that job." Kohl once told Walters, "My enemies have underestimated me since I ran for the city council in Mainz. And they still do it in the federal Chancellery. I hope they continue to do it."

Another key to Kohl’s survival was that he was the ultimate party man. He served his way all the way to the top through a long line of positions and knew every aspect of the party, including which closets had skeletons. While all chancellors run the risk of ending up as prisoners of their own staff and the rigid Bonn power structures — political Robinson Crusoes in splendid isolation — Kohl counteracted this by keeping close contact with local party officials at the grass-roots level throughout the country, making him in effect his own main adviser. On important questions he conferred with his friends among the clergy back in Ludwigshafen to get opinions that were not influenced by self-interest.

His favored instrument for doing business was the telephone. Kohl liked to call lowly cdu officials throughout small-town Germany with the words "Helmut here, how are things?"— and they would not be the least bit surprised. It was once said of him, and only half in jest, that if he got President George Bush on one line and a party official on the other, he would put Bush on hold.

It was indeed amusing to see how opposition newspapers like Die Zeit, on those intermittent occasions when it decided to take the chancellor seriously, managed to make his manner with a telephone sound almost Machiavellian. Like some latter-day Caesare Borgia with a telephone, Kohl was shown plotting and scheming, compartmentalizing people, sucking them dry for knowledge while telling them little, so that in the end only the man at the center of the web had the whole picture. It certainly is a frightening image, for those who are easily frightened.

As is common with politicians whose views journalists do not share and whose success they accordingly do not quite understand, Kohl’s career has been dismissed as pure luck — as was, one recalls, Ronald Reagan’s. As Kohl himself freely acknowledges, no politician gets anywhere without luck, but it has to be combined with tenacity. Ronald Reagan was not successful in his first attempt to capture the White House.

At a superficial glance Kohl’s career on paper may have a certain inevitability to it, but Kohl has seen his share of setbacks. Although in 1976 he scored the second-highest election result in postwar German history, he lost the election just 300,000 votes short of an absolute majority out of 42 million votes. In 1980 Kohl suffered another disappointment when his coalition’s candidacy for chancellor instead went to Bavaria’s Franz Josef Strauss, Kohl’s supposed ally — and always his rival.

The "King of Bavaria"

More than with anyone else, Kohl fought with Strauss, also known as the "King of Bavaria," who used to refer to Kohl as a "mere office holder." Strauss’s external demeanor of folksiness masked a keen intelligence and a ruthless political ambition. As a former minister of defense and of finance, Strauss commanded respect for his enormous expertise and knowledge, more than Kohl would ever claim for himself. Much of Strauss’s analysis of the German economy in the late 1970s and early 1980s was right on the mark. It was the way he sometimes expressed his analysis that scared people away. Similarly, when Strauss started toying with the idea that Germany should have its own nuclear deterrent, a lot of people got rather frightened.

With a gargantuan ego, Strauss was a baroque figure who once described himself as "a Hercules who carried the world on his shoulders." In Strauss’s mental universe, Winston Churchill was a quarrelsome politician who owed his career to Adolf Hitler, while Konrad Adenauer was a competent lord mayor of a minor town who had been lifted from obscurity after the breakdown of the Third Reich. Strauss was forever bemoaning the fact that he himself lived in such uneventful times, which did not call for the greatness he embodied.

Some of Strauss’s resentment of Kohl was due to genuine disagreements over policies and strategy. cdu and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (csu), are both based on Christian values, a much-needed component of political life after the Nazi period. But the csu generally lies to the right of the cdu on the political spectrum. While Kohl might be considered a middle-of-the-road Democrat in the United States, Strauss could have passed as a Republican. For decades, the two quarreled over every issue, from the economy to Ostpolitik, with Strauss demanding more reciprocity from the East Germans.

From Strauss’s side, however, the rivalry between the two was in large part a personality clash. Strauss could not quite get used to the idea that somebody other than himself held the title of chancellor. His hatred of Kohl verged on the irrational, and it clearly clouded his political judgment. He never missed an opportunity to vent his contempt for the chancellor.

Kohl and Strauss also differed on election strategy. Strauss always regarded the Free Democrats as untrustworthy and wanted to go for a clear cdu/csu majority government in the 1980 elections. Kohl meanwhile had learned from his own defeat in 1976 that obtaining a clear majority was not politically feasible and that, therefore, cooperation with the Free Democrats was the only way for the conservatives to regain power.

When Strauss was chosen as chancellor candidate for the 1980 election, Kohl gave him his full backing. Instead of sulking and returning to the Rhineland-Palatinate, Kohl stuck it out, the ultimate party loyalist. Not even Strauss could accuse Kohl of destroying his chances. Accordingly, when Strauss suffered a humiliating defeat, the second worst result in cdu/csu history, proving once and for all that he was a nonviable candidate, Kohl was there to take over again as chancellor candidate for the opposition in Bonn.

When Kohl became chancellor in 1982, he made it clear to Strauss that the heavyweight ministries such as foreign affairs, finance, and economy would not be an option for him. Instead, Strauss was offered a beefed-up defense portfolio, which he turned down and which he was meant to turn down. Kohl did not want the Wild Man from Bavaria in his cabinet.

Despite the insults, Kohl always tried to have a good working relationship with Strauss because he needed his support to keep the right from joining up with nationalist parties like the Republikaners. According to Ackermann, "Kohl surely clenched his fist in his pocket many times, but he put up with it. Easy it wasn’t, of course."

Kohl himself, in a moment of exaggerated enthusiasm, once described the relationship with Strauss as a Männerfreundshaft, a "friendship among men," but it could best be described as an armed truce. The two would go for long walks in the Bavarian mountains, hashing out pressing issues. Along the route, Strauss would place photographers at strategic locations to document how the chancellor came to Bavaria to seek advice and guidance.

The results of these walks would vary considerably depending on who was doing the retelling. Whereas Kohl usually stressed the picnic aspects of these trips and waxed lyrical about the impressive Bavarian landscape, in the belief that this was a confidential conversation, Strauss invariably claimed to have won some gigantic concession from the chancellor.

When Franz Josef Strauss died in 1988 and was given a funeral worthy of a Bavarian king, Kohl gave a most moving tribute to him. When you have triumphed over people in life, you can afford to be generous at their death.


The ominous term Männerfreundshaft has also been used to describe the other key political relationship in Kohl’s career, the one with Hans-Dietrich Genscher, leader of the Free Democrats.

While Genscher’s party was still in coalition with the Social Democrats, Kohl started cultivating him, knowing that he would need his support to form a government one day. Kohl needed Genscher in order to have a majority, and Genscher needed Kohl to continue to play a national role after the demise of the Schmidt government. Like all marriages of necessity, it was an uneasy one.

Genscher, whose trademark big ears earned him the nickname "Jumbo" among caricaturists, is an intriguing character. Growing up in the city of Halle in Saxony, during the war Genscher served as a plane spotter at an anti-aircraft battery. He had just completed Pioneer school when the war ended. Genscher was taken prisoner by the Americans and then turned over to the British. When the Western Allies left Saxony, which was to become part of the Soviet Zone, Genscher, rather than taking the offer of going with the British, chose to go back to his mother in Halle, where he went on to study law.

But in 1952 it became clear to Genscher that the law was not highly regarded in the new East German regime. Accordingly, he and a couple of friends packed their suitcases as if going on holiday, went to Berlin, and took the S-Bahn from the Eastern part to the Western part, avoiding the East German ticket control, something that in the days before the Berlin Wall was still possible. From Berlin, he went to Bremen, where he settled and quickly established himself professionally and politically as a member of the Free Democrats.

During Genscher’s time as minister, first as minister of the interior under Brandt, then as foreign minister, Genscher demonstrated an uncanny ability to hog the limelight. He jetted around the world as no German foreign minister had ever done. And Helmut Schmidt once joked that he hardly dared take a holiday for fear that Genscher would jump into his chair.

Genscher assiduously propagated the myth of "Genschman" — the superdiplomat who indefatigably traveled the world in search of peace, the man who invented the "working funeral," as when he held meetings with U.S. Secretary of State George Schultz and his British counterpart, Sir Geoffrey Howe, at the funeral of Pakistani President Zia ul Haq.

For years, Genscher was the most popular politician in Germany, precisely because of his tendency to give a great segment of the population the peace pabulum they so wanted to hear. Once, Stern magazine asked its readers, if they were stranded on a desert island with a politician, with whom would they prefer to be stranded? The majority responded: Hans-Dietrich Genscher.

The interdependence between Kohl and Genscher as coalition partners prevented an honest airing of differences; mostly, one has to read between the lines of this long and complicated relationship. Genscher’s political survival skills were legendary. One of Henry Kissinger’s favorite jokes describes how two German Luftwaffe aircrafts collide somewhere in the Atlantic. Investigators discover that Genscher was aboard both of them. What’s more, he survived.

Partly because of Genscher’s constant need to keep up the political profile of his tiny party, partly because of his own vanity and personal ambition, which had been strengthened by a long and life-threatening battle with tuberculosis, Genscher quickly started making his own personal foreign policy. This was often at odds with the chancellor’s. On several such occasions, Genscher refused to go along, and Kohl had to give in. For instance, when in 1989 Germany had to decide on the modernization of short-range missiles, Kohl favored going ahead with the nato modernization program, but Genscher dug in his heels and modernization was scrapped.

As a counterweight to Genscher and his minions at the Foreign Ministry, Kohl established his close associate, Horst Teltschik, as his national security adviser in the Chancellery, sending a clear message that ultimately this was where German foreign policy would be made.

The nature of the Kohl–Genscher relationship is illustrated by their respective books — mainly that they have very little to say about each other. In 1995 Genscher published his mammoth memoirs, Erinnerungen, which Foreign Ministry officials had the grim duty of learning by heart (the honest ones admit they never quite made it through). In the book, Genscher emerges as the omniscient master strategist who can predict every development months in advance. Kohl’s role, on the other hand, is pretty much reduced to signing what he is told by the Foreign Ministry.

By contrast, Kohl in his book carefully avoids addressing major policy differences between himself and his foreign minister. Indeed, he does not mention Genscher at all, except when it is absolutely unavoidable, limiting himself to a few veiled remarks about his foreign minister’s prima donna complex.

Of all Kohl’s battles, his fight with former President Richard von Weizsaecker, whose relations with Kohl go all the way back to the days in the Rhineland-Palatinate, has been the most discrete. Von Weizsaecker owes his whole career to Kohl, becoming mayor of Berlin from 1981 to 1984, and later president of the Bundesrepublik from 1984 to 1994.

The two were continually engaged in a kind of political shadow boxing. In Germany, the presidency is largely ceremonial. The patrician and eloquent von Weizsaecker over the years developed the role into a strong platform for moral leadership, becoming the nation’s conscience, so to speak. He spoke movingly about Germany’s special responsibility after World War II.

But there were certain differences between Kohl and von Weizsaecker. Von Weizsaecker was always more nationalist than Atlanticist, more skeptical about the United States, preferring a European option for Germany. Richard Burt notes, "Particularly during the missile debate, von Weizsaecker was a little ‘wobbly,’ to use Margaret Thatcher’s term. I doubt if von Weizsaecker had been chancellor, he would have seen the missile deployments through."

Toward the end of his term in office, in 1992, von Weizsaecker got carried a little too far in his lofty idealism, overstepping the bounds of the presidency. He took to writing about the sordid rough-and-tumble of everyday politics. "I am convinced," he wrote, "that our state is dominated by two things: the hunger for power to achieve election victory and the hunger for power in the political leadership task of implementing content and concept," comments that were clearly aimed at Kohl.

On another occasion, von Weizsaecker acidly spoke of career politicians as "generalists with a special knowledge of how one destroys political opponents." Again the target of this comment was never in doubt; "generalist" was one of the words Kohl frequently used to describe himself.

Why this animosity, which some might call ingratitude? Probably it had something to do with class. Says Burt, "I know von Weizsaecker had people around him constantly telling him he should be chancellor rather than this oaf from the Palatinate, that he was really the symbol of the greatness of his country. Kohl made von Weizsaecker. What does von Weizsaecker do in return but quietly piss on Helmut Kohl. I think he saw Kohl as a mediocre intellect and as a kind of crass politician, and I think his mistake was that he let people know that, and it got back to Kohl."

Though Kohl never criticized von Weizsaecker in public during the latter’s time in office, von Weizsaecker’s sniping, according to close Kohl associates, did not sit well with the chancellor, and along the way the two ceased to be on speaking terms, only addressing each other when absolutely necessary. The Social Democrats, of course, did their utmost to exploit the differences between Kohl and von Weizsaecker.

Kohl or chaos

With friends like these, one might well ask, did Kohl really need enemies? But of course they existed on the other side of the political spectrum, too. In particular, Kohl did not think much of academic types with cushy state sector jobs, people who joined the Social Democrats out of self-interest more than devotion to the workers’ struggle. However, despite the youthful brawls and Kohl’s famous battle cry from the 1976 election campaign that he would fight the Social Democrats "on land, on water, and in the air," he was well aware that in a country with a history like Germany’s, political discourse had to be kept within civilized boundaries.

Throughout his career, Kohl had cordial relations with many leading Social Democrats. As prime minister of the Rhineland-Palatinate, Kohl once sent his friend, the mayor of Bremen, a case of Rhine wine with a small card attached to the effect that since the Social Democrats seemed to have little idea how to handle money, Germans might as well get used to the idea of going back to the old barter system.

During most of his period in office, however, Kohl was blessed with an opposition in tatters, much like the Labour Party in Britain during the Thatcher era. Though not quite as colorful as the British Labour Party (and with considerably better dental work), the Social Democrats for a long time seemed bent on self-destruction.

Having beaten the mild-mannered Hans-Jochen Vogel in the 1983 election, Kohl won again in 1987. By the previous year, Kohl had wiped out inflation, and for the first time in 27 years, prices fell. The election itself was a less than brilliant performance, and Kohl squeezed by with a narrow margin. He could thank a particularly inept opposition for helping to make that possible.

Kohl’s 1987 opponent was Johannes Rau, the prime minister of North Rhine Westphalia, a "feel-good" Social Democrat whose selection as candidate was an attempt on the part of the party to project a more moderate and avuncular image. Rau was a member of the Evangelical Church Council and read the Bible every morning, which earned him the nickname Brother Johannes. He wore a Helmut Schmidt–type skipper’s cap throughout the campaign to signal his moderate credentials. Still, Rau could not paper over the deep fissures in the Social Democrats between the more moderate camp and Oskar Lafontaine’s more radical left wing on issues such as nato and the relationship with the United States.

Some Social Democrats thought they had a chance of gaining power in 1987 by forming an alliance with the Greens. Rau, to his credit, opposed this alliance, though his party’s Lafontaine wing lambasted him for his opposition to teaming up with the Greens. At the same time, the Greens were steering further left, coming up with proposals to legalize sex between adults and children and offering free karate lessons to women.

Throughout Kohl’s years in office, his steadiness, imperturbability, and optimism were the key factors in his winning. Invariably, Kohl slumped in midterm, and his party lost important state elections as Germans grumbled about this and that, and why didn’t the government do something about it. Yet, when it came to the actual decision in federal elections on who should run Germany, four times the voters cast their support behind Kohl. The more alarmist the opposition sounded — the more they raved about the manifold impending catastrophes threatening Germany — the more trustworthy and father-like Kohl looked. This made it seem like a choice of Kohl or chaos, which suited Kohl just fine.