Germany’s ‘Chancellor of Reunification’ left behind a lasting yet unfinished legacy

DRESDEN: Some world leaders may find it challenging to direct one country. Helmut Kohl was essentially in charge of two.

When he assumed the office of chancellor in 1982, he presided over West Germany, but by the time he was forced out of office 16 years later, Kohl led a reunified nation which was occupied with gradually overcoming the differences decades of separation had created.

There is no individual who shaped contemporary Germany as much as Kohl, despite his ignominious exit after he was involved in a large-scale donation scandal that shook the nation. He has been widely praised, regardless of party affiliation, as “Mr Germany”, “Chancellor of Reunification” or “black giant” — in reference to the colour being used by his Christian Democratic Union.

The German reunification which Kohl oversaw is considered a major success story, but it remains a polarising one which is still to be continued. Until today, there are striking differences between eastern and western Germany in regards to wages, pensions and politics.

When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, there was no role model scenario Kohl and others were able to rely on. At the time, Kohl’s era was believed to have come close to its end, as his critics were increasingly vocal about what they called a lack of profile. The fall of the Berlin Wall gave Kohl a second chance to stay in office by positioning himself as a strong and reliable leader, and he seized the opportunity.

Germany had just become an unprecedented experiment the entire world was watching — but not all of Kohl’s policies succeeded.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, formerly communist eastern German companies and factories suddenly had to compete with their much more efficient western counterparts. Capitalism came too fast, Kohl’s critics argued. Amid the rapid influx of competition, many eastern German companies went bankrupt, and some regions never recovered from the shock. Until today, income levels are much lower in the east than in the west.

In western Germany, reunification soon also turned into a huge financial burden as it began to finance the formerly communist east. Financial transfers from the west to the east still continue, much to the dismay of western German mayors who complain about facing a lack of funding for infrastructure projects or schools.

The financial support from the country’s west has helped to turn the east into an increasingly prosperous part of the country which attracts global technology companies and investors. Yet, the reinvigoration has been limited to a handful of larger cities, such as Dresden or Leipzig. Many young people in rural eastern Germany say they are forced to move to the west or to larger eastern cities because of a lack of competitive wages and job opportunities.

Disillusionment with the unexpected negative side effects of capitalism contributed to another worrisome phenomenon which rattled the reunified nation shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Neo-Nazi groups quickly grew in size and found particularly many supporters in the formerly communist east. The climate is still less friendly to foreigners in the east, according to a study by Leipzig University researchers who interviewed 16,000 Germans over 10 years.

Could Kohl have done more to prevent the side effects of a rapid and at times seemingly uncontrolled reunification which continues to plague parts of the east until today?

Speaking at a panel discussion in 2007, the former chancellor himself acknowledged that he underestimated some of the implications of reunification, but said that most of the repercussions were largely unavoidable. “It probably takes a generation. [But] if I look at today’s generation of students I am quite optimistic,” said Kohl, referring to Germany’s youth which largely does not identify along geographical lines any longer.

The perhaps strongest indication of how much Kohl was able to unite Germany despite lasting challenges came in 2005. Seven years after being forced out of office, his former protégé was elected chancellor.

Although the formerly communist territory is home to less than 20 per cent of the country’s total population, Germany elected a woman who had grown up there: Angela Merkel.

By arrangement with The Washington Post

Published in Dawn, June 18th, 2017