Helmut Kohl, 1930-2017: King of Two Unifications

Helmut Kohl, who died today, talked to Ha'aretz in 2001 about how excited he was over the euro, which he saw as a safeguard against another war in Europe

Adar Primor
Adar Primor
Former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl sits in front of a large photograph of himself during a news conference to promote his new book "Erinnerungen 1982-1990" (Memories 1982-1990) in Berlin November 2, 2005
Former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl sits in front of a large photograph of himself in Berlin November 2, 2005Credit: TOBIAS SCHWARZ/REUTERS
Adar Primor
Adar Primor

This interview with Helmut Kohl, originally published in 2001, has been published again following the former chancellor's death on June 16, 2017

Helmut Kohl can scarcely hide his enthusiasm. "In another few days, the unified currency will become a bona fide means of payment," says the man considered by many as the central architect of the single European currency - the euro.

"It will be an enormous change. Five-year-old children in Berlin, Dublin, Madrid, Rome, Helsinki and other countries will have the same coins in their pockets to buy sweets with."

His eyes are glittering - he is excited, perhaps a bit jealous. When World War II ended Kohl was 15. The surrender of the Third Reich came just in time for the former German chancellor. Had it taken longer, he would have been sent to the front like many German youths of his age. Kohl remembers the last year of the war as being particularly traumatic for him. His brother Walter was killed at the front in Westphalia at the age of 18.

This file photo taken on May 14, 1998 shows then US President Bill Clinton and German Chancellor Helmut Kohl sharing a joke 14 May aboard Air Force One while en route to Frankfurt, Germany.Credit: AFP Photo/ Joyce Naltchaya

Toward the end of the war, Kohl was sent to Brechtesgaden in the Bavarian Alps, where he received pre-military training to assist anti-aircraft battery teams. He was trained to open barrels of artificial mist during air raids to deceive the enemy. Kohl was too young to be sent to fight.

When the war ended, Kohl found himself wandering the roads of a devastated Germany, drifting on foot with released prisoners, walking side by side with allied columns. Kohl finally made it to Ludwigshafen, his birthplace on the banks of the Rhein, but he found it destroyed. The young Kohl would never forget the horrors of war. "My childhood ended in 1942," he would say later on in life. "I was 12, and for the next three years I lived under incessant bombings. It was a life of constant fear. At nights, we had to dig under the ruins of homes, to rescue survivors, to dig out bodies. All my generation is influenced by the same trauma. Some still hear the shrieking of the bombings. None of the children who experienced it has stayed `normal'".

More than half a century later, one can still see those events were key in shaping his world view. We are sitting in his office in the Unter Den Liden, the Champs Elysees of Berlin, next to the Brandenburg gate, which is being renovated. Next to Kohl's office is the British embassy, which was rebuilt with a modern architectural design incorporating yellow blocks of marble and green glass. On the other side is the Russian embassy, towering and dreary, as befits a building that served the Soviets during the East German communist regime.

Kohl is asked about his contribution to the arrival of a unified European currency, about his 16 years as chancellor that was instrumental in realizing the vision of a unified currency. He was asked about the view that had he not headed the most important country in Europe in 1998, the euro would never have been born in 1999 as the new European monetary unit.

Helmut Kohl passing the Brandenburg Gate during a private walk in Berlin, Jan. 8, 2003.Credit: AP Photo / Jan Bauer

About a month before he was trounced in the last German elections in 1998, Le Monde described him as a "political colossus", "a walking icon", and "a modern Bismarck, who unified Germany without dismantling Europe".

Political architect

Newsweek extolled him as the "last of the great Western leaders," while the New York Times called him, "the definitive European leader." After his defeat it devoted an article titled "End of an Era in Germany" to Kohl's 16-year reign. "Kohl deftly directed the peaceful reunification of Germany, helped fashion the political architecture for a united Europe and led the way to economic cooperation on the continent and the adoption of a common currency. German unification was Kohl's singular achievement," the NYT wrote, adding that he had walked out of the chancellor's office and straight into the pages of history.

Kohl hears the praise recounted, but declines to pat himself on the back. "I don't want to give myself grades," he says in an interview with Ha'aretz. "I will leave evaluation of my achievements to history." Kohl prefers to discuss the motivations and the essence of his deeds: "I experienced Nazism as a child. Like many of my generation, I was motivated by the desire to prevent another war at any price."

The former chancellor, a historian by training, takes the conversation back in time: "In my birthplace, in the federal state of Rhineland-Palatinate we had a long tradition of wars with France, a tradition of defeats and suffering." In his imagination, Kohl goes back to the 17th and 18th centuries. The conquering armies of Louis XIV pass before his eyes, as do the army of the French revolution and Napoleon's army. Kohl recollects the stories of his father, Hans Kohl, a tax inspector who fought in the killing fields of Verdun during World War I and returned with tales of horror. His son also remembers the French occupation after World War II, an occupation he experienced.

For a moment, Kohl jumps back to the present, but immediately makes a connection with history. It sends him back to Zurich, where he gave a speech a few weeks ago "in exactly the same spot where in 1946 Churchill gave his famous speech about the unification of Europe and insisted on the need for close cooperation between Germany and France.

"We must put an end to the long tradition of suffering and promise a new beginning - that was mine and my generation's conclusion. We have reached maturity and it is incumbent on us to devote our efforts to building European unity."

Kohl wishes to salute all "those great Europeans who experienced the war and who took upon themselves the responsibility and the mission of paving a new path for Europe, a path of friendship, understanding and cooperation". He mentions Jean Monnet, Robert Schuman, Konrad Adenauer, De Gaspery, Winston Churchill and Charles De Gaulle. "I was always attracted to the opinions and philosophies of those founding fathers," Kohl says. "So I joined that same circle, even though its members were often ridiculed as dreamers and merchants of illusions."

Today, the single European currency is becoming a fact. Everybody knows that it is the visionaries who are in fact realistic. One can see that Kohl enjoys the adventures of the past and that he is very proud of the deeds that bought him his place in the history books.

The Euro house

After each question, Kohl takes a pause to think. "That's not a question, that was a novel," he complains every now and then with a smile. One-word questions would suffice for him. His answers, on the other hand, are an opus built on very short and measured sentences. In his deep voice, Kohl answers every question thoroughly, but refuses adamantly to answer any questions that are not related directly to the subject of the interview - the euro. The show is all Kohl's and he has no intention of letting anyone steal it.

"The two main goals of my political life were the foundation of the `European house' and the reunification of Germany. I am very happy that both of these goals were achieved during my period in office", says the man who has been nicknamed the "chancellor of two unifications." According to Kohl, the two unifications - German and European - are both sides of the same coin. The first is dependent on the second. As he has said on several occasions, "the future must ensure a European Germany, not a German Europe."

Kohl's conception of the interdependence of the two unions has a direct relation to his strategic conception of the euro, which is heavily influenced by his memories of the war. "The euro is much more than a currency," Kohl explains. "It is a question of the future development of all of Europe."

During the 1998 election campaign, Kohl talked about "unprecedented peace". "For the first time in history, Germany now has friendly relations with all nine of its neighbors," he said emotionally. Kohl believes that only within the framework of a European community of nations can Germany regain its status in the continent without awakening the suspicions of its former enemies.

"If we want to safeguard the peace and freedom of the European peoples in the 21st century then we must join forces. The century that is drawing to a close was one marked by nationalism. This had terrible consequences, not least in Germany and due to Germany. Horrific crimes against other peoples and many individuals were committed in Germany's name. I do not want to return to this time. I do not think that the nation-state, in the form that emerged in the 19th century and existed in the 20th century, can guarantee our future. Our generation has a duty to construct the "European house." If we fail to do so we will relapse into old errors," Kohl said in an interview with Time magazine in September 1996.

In Kohl's view, the commercial and financial advantages of a single currency are dwarfed by the real aim of the euro - the consolidation of European integration. The single currency, says Kohl, is but a stage on the way to the political union of Europe, which, he believes, will prevent a repeat of the darkest chapters of German history.

Presidents' man

In his almost obsessive preoccupation with questions of "life and death" and "war and peace", Kohl says he received a lot of help from his friends - who have a place of honor in his office in Berlin. A large and colorful photo of his late wife Hannelore has a prominent place next to the sitting corner. Inside the frame is another smaller picture of Hannelore. She is smiling in both pictures.

To the right, is a photo of Hannelore with President Clinton. To the left, a photo of George Bush senior. A quick glance at the book cabinet shows a picture of President Reagan. All of the photos have personal dedications. All of the three American presidents worked with the "eternal chancellor" who was considered one of the most pro-American politicians in Germany.

On several occasions Kohl has said that he would never forget the generosity of the American occupation of Germany after the Second World War, and that his policy would always be influenced by that memory. A striking example of Kohl's commitment to Germany's relationship with America was his rejection of pressures imposed by a wave of anti-American pacifist demonstrations in the 1980's. He rejected calls for a neutral Germany and accepted the United States' request to place NATO nuclear missiles on German soil.

Only the special relationship with France could compete with Germany's friendship with the United States. On the white wall, above the photos of Hannelore Kohl, Bush and Clinton, hang three large pictures in a wine colored wooden frame. To the right, Kohl's mentor, Konrad Adenauer, the first chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany), which was set up after the war. In the middle, in a slightly smaller picture, Adenauer's successor Ludwig Erhard - the architect of West Germany's economic miracle. To the left, a large picture of French president, Fran?ois Mitterrand.

"When I was elected to head the German government, I was fortunate enough to find a partner in Francois Mitterrand," Kohl recounts. "There were differences between us and even contradictions. He was 15 years older than me, a socialist in his political orientation. I was always a part of the Christian Democratic Union." Slanderous tongues might say that while Mitterrand was conceived as an intellectual, Kohl, despite his doctorate, was perceived by his critics as a provincial politician who reached his position by chance. Particularly vilifying of Kohl was Franz Josef Strauss of the Christian Social Union, who after Kohl's defeat in the 1976 elections described him as "utterly incapable" and added that he lacked "the character, the brain and the political prerequisites" required to be chancellor. "Believe me," said Strauss, "he will never be chancellor. At the age of 90, he will write his biography under the title `My Forty Years As A Candidate For Chancellor'.

Kohl had the last laugh - he held power longer than any democratically elected leader in the 20th century.

Hand in hand

Kohl says that the differences between him and President Mitterrand did not affect the personal friendship they developed. Mitterrand himself wrote in an article called De l'Allemagne, de la France (On Germany, on France): "I was impressed by Kohl's common sense, by his ability to take blows and carry on, and his special intelligence, which too many intellectuals did not appreciate." On another occasion, he did not hesitate to describe Kohl as a man who "contributed wisdom and balance to genius."

The friendship between the two leaders was based to a great extent on two common leitmotifs. Like Kohl, Mitterrand said of himself that the lessons he learned from World War II (and it seems, World War I as well) were the power that motivated his efforts to strive for the unification of Europe. A particularly well-remembered incident is the famous conciliation gesture between the two in 1984 at the battlefields of Verdun where over a million French and German soldiers died during World War I. The famous picture of the two leaders holding hands is perhaps the most striking testimony to their partnership of interests, which was based on a blend of emotion and ideals.

The desire for normality was another factor behind Germany's policy of rapprochement with France during Kohl's term in office. The chancellor needed Mitterrand, among other things, to provide him with an alibi for the "normality" of the new and democratic Germany. Kohl worked tenaciously to achieve this goal.

From the beginning, his political activity was characterized by the understanding that only cooperation with France could push forward the federal aims of Europe. Kohl's understandings with Mitterrand were therefore the both the condition and the catalyst for his success.

"Our shared historical experiences led myself and Mitterrand to the decision that we must do everything to prevent further wars," Kohl says. "Therefore, we decided to renounce the framework of the old style nation state. Together with others who joined us, such as Jacques Delors (at the time the president of the European Commission) and Felippe Gonzales (the socialist prime minister of Spain), in 1992 we turned the European Community into the European Union. We agreed that the establishment of a common currency is crucial to the process of European political union becoming irreversible."

The great gamble

Kohl's initiative aroused criticism from economic circles that claimed monetary union could not succeed without a homogenous political body behind the single currency, as the United States federal administration stands behind the dollar. When questioned on the matter, Kohl says: "It has been discussed endless times. My opinion was and still is that had we tried to achieve political union before monetary union we would have failed in both missions and would not have achieved either."

In this aspect, Kohl finds a similarity between both of "his" unions. In Germany as well, it would not have been possible to achieve the final aim - political union of East and West Germany - without first unifying the currency. On the eve of German unification, the East German currency was worth a quarter of its West German counterpart. On the open market it was worth even less. But despite the economic absurdity, Kohl insisted on executing the monetary union at a one-to-one exchange rate, a move that secured the political union in the long term.

"Unification of the German currency was a necessity on the road to unification of Germany. There were many reservations about the exchange rate, Kohl recollects. "Had we put all the professors and professionals in one room, the overwhelming majority would have voted against the decision that was taken then. Without a doubt, they would have had weighty economic explanations. But, those experts did not see the overall picture. They did not take into account the political angle and in particular the psychological side."

Once again, Kohl uses history to explain his motifs: "When the Deutsche Mark was launched in 1948 it did not have any political power behind it. The economists and the public refused to accept the new currency that had risen from the remnants of its predecessor the Reichsmark, based on the tripartite administration of the Western occupation areas (American, French and British). However, the establishment of the currency was a political step born out of necessity. When the currency was launched, we had neither an anthem nor a flag. There was not yet a state. Today it is clear that without a solid and stable economic base in all three of the Western occupation areas, the Federal Republic of West Germany would not have come into being."

Later, as a result of the political decisions came stability and the "economic miracle", which was reflected in a strong mark that washed away some of the traumas of the past. The mark became a central pillar of German identity. After the trauma of six figure inflation in the 1920's, which indirectly helped Hitler's rise to power, and in the face of the feeling after the war that all values had collapsed - nation, army, race, Prussian and Germanic heritage - the only solid value that afforded a sense of security was the Deutschmark.

It's no surprise, says Kohl, that 50 years later, the East Germans were the ones to object to the renunciation of the mark in favor of the euro.

Fruits of history

"We are sitting here in East Berlin. People in Tel Aviv can not imagine, but in 1990, here in Leipzig or Dresden, whoever wanted to buy a car had to wait 14 years. The East Germans worked like people in the West, but the fruits of their labor were harvested by a criminal regime. They were not given the opportunity to invest the money they earned, or withdraw the money they saved. Therefore, when this reality changed after unification, people in the East said `at last we have a decent currency and now this crazy Kohl comes along and changes it for a new one'"

But in West Germany as well, many still harbor fears about the European currency. There were fears that countries without a tradition of monetary strictness would take over the monetary union and undermine its economic stability. Italy, more than any other country, represented the devil that would "pollute" the German currency with the weak lira.

In order to sweeten the bitter pill the Germans had been asked to swallow, Kohl had to summon all his powers of political creativity and spin. He pushed for European legislation imposing financial discipline and strict criteria for stability, but as usual, he also thought about the psychological aspect. In this vein, he compelled the Europeans to accept Frankfurt as the location of European Central Bank, a symbolism that gave the Germans a feeling that financial control of the single currency was in their hands and made it easier for them to accept it.

Kohl also convinced the Europeans to give up the original name of the single currency - the ecu, based on the name of an ancient French coin - in favor of a neutral, pan-European name. Once again, Kohl was thinking primarily of the psychological affect. The move was intended to give Germans a feeling that other countries would not have too much influence. This mixture of encouraging the Germans to accept concrete decisions, while persuading other countries to accept symbolic but significant concessions, ended in a great achievement.

Israel's privileged status

Kohl believes that the historical developments in Europe must have a direct connection on Israel's relations with the old continent. His 16 years in power were characterized by a strengthening of diplomatic, economic and defense ties with Israel. In December 1994, Kohl used his status as the "strong man of Europe" to gain Israel "special status" in its relations with the European Union.

The aim of the historic decision taken in the city of Essen was to anchor Israel officially and in the long-term within the European Union - with a status that would transcend regular bilateral agreements reflecting short-term interests.

Kohl explains that the idea was to make Israel an organic part of the European family and end its isolation in the international arena based on his understanding that Israel must stand firmly on two legs. On the more important one, the United States, but also on a second leg, which must be Europe. "As a German, in view of the history of World War II and the terrible deeds of the Nazi period, I feel a special obligation to help as much as I can to develop European-Israeli relations and thus contribute to ensuring Israel's future and existence."

Kohl, who is proud of the fact that the Hebrew University chose to name its school of European Studies after him, adds: "The European Union is growing, and within a few years it will encompass over 500 million residents.

"One doesn't have to be an expert to understand that we are talking about social-economic-political power of the first degree. This process - and I assume more and more Israelis understand this - compels Europe and Israel to build the base that will enable Israel to stand firmly on two legs."

Go with the flow

In his book Ich Wollte Deutschelands Einheit (I Wanted to Unite Germany, published 1996) Helmut Kohl described his fateful meeting in 1998 with the President of the Soviet Union, Mikhael Gorbachev. Kohl relates that they sat in the garden of the chancellor's residence in Bonn overlooking the Rhine, which was illuminated by the moon.

Kohl pointed at the river and said to the last Soviet leader: "Can you see the flow of the river? It's like the flow of history. One can build a damn on the river, but it will overflow its banks and will always find the way to the sea. One can never stop the flow. The same applies to the unification of Germany."

Kohl's view of Europe is the same. The river flows in one direction - unstoppable unification. "You can note down my prediction, which I am giving exclusively to Ha'aretz," Kohl says with emotion. "In five years it will be possible to pay with the euro in London, and in ten years in Zurich. In five years almost nobody will remember the D-mark, and in 10 to 15 years, the euro will have become the symbol of a lively and vibrant Europe. I am very proud of my little contribution."

Kohl is not troubled by the fact that since its launch in 1999, the euro has lost almost a quarter of its value. "It's a question of pessimism against `realistic optimism'. The situation today is better than it was a year ago. I haven't the slightest doubt that single European currency will become the second most important currency in the world. The strongest currency after the dollar, stronger than the yen.

"If you look at German policy today, you can see this when you listen to the speeches of the current chancellor (Gerhard Schroeder), of the Foreign Minister (Joschka Fischer) and the Finance Minister (Hans Eichel). The three of them were vociferous objectors to the euro. Now the three of them praise it as if they had created it. "If you wait another two years, you will hear these people say that they were always in favor of the euro, and that the one who objected to it was Helmut Kohl. That's the way it is," Kohl says with a triumphant grin.



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