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Germany farewells a giant

By Daniel Steedman - posted Wednesday, 12 July 2017

Recently the world said farewell to former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, a man at the very centre of the reunification of Germany and instrumental in the formation of the European Union. He was a giant figure in late 20thcentury politics. With a federal election looming in Germany it is worth examining some of Kohl's achievements and his legacy.

Kohl, born in 1930, grew up under the Nazi regime and lived through the devastation of World War Two and its aftermath.

The impact of this period shaped his political ideals. At the core was a determination that Germany and Europe never go to war again. Kohl lost a brother in the war and came to believe that the best way for Germany and Europe to avoid conflict in the future was through deeper integration. In 1945 he witnessed the division of Germany by the Allies and Soviets. He would be the central player in its reunification 45 years later.


Kohl was a member of the Christian Democratic Union of Germany (CDU) party. His political career began as a young man in 1946. At age 30, in 1960, he won municipal office in Ludwigshafen. But Kohl, a wily political operator, had his eye on bigger things.

By 1973 he had become the federal leader of the CDU opposition. Three years later he unsuccessfully contested the federal election.

With a changed political climate by 1982, and at a time when the Cold War was entering a dangerous new phase, Helmut Kohl was elected Chancellor of West Germany. At the time the demise of eastern Europe's Communist bloc, German reunification and the end of the Soviet Union seemed almost unthinkable.

Franco German relations

Kohl was instrumental in improving relations with France. For much of the 20thcentury Franco-German relations had been divisive and tumultuous. Soon after the war it was Chancellor Adenauer who set about building new ties with France. However the French, given recent history, were highly suspicious. In particular they were wary of Germany's remaining postwar industrial power, seeing it as a threat to their national security.

Despite these suspicions slow progress was made in the subsequent decades.The notable sticking points being industrial, agricultural and defence policies. In the early 1980s, under Kohl, Franco-German relations improved markedly with profound consequences for Europe's future.


Perhaps the most striking example of this occurred in September 1984. Chancellor Kohl stood with French President François Mitterand at a memorial near Verdun for a World War One commemoration ceremony. When the national anthems were played they joined hands.

The significance of this moment should not be underestimated given the history of Franco-German relations. It was indicative, not only of how close the two men had become, but of how close the two nations had become. Europe's "duo" had found a rapprochement that had hitherto been absent.

This newfound depth paved the way for agreements and reforms that resulted in the formation of the European Union and the eventual adoption of the Euro.

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About the Author

Daniel Steedman is a Council Member at the AIIA and a member of the Committee at the Contemporary European Studies Association of Australia. Daniel holds a Bachelor of Arts with first class honours. He is a management consultant and is undertaking a PhD in International Relations.

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Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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