Kohl, Helmut

Kohl, Helmut
born April 3, 1930, Ludwigshafen am Rhein, Ger.

Chancellor of West Germany (1982–90) and of reunified Germany (1990–98).

After earning a doctorate at the University of Heidelberg, he was elected to the Rhineland-Palatinate legislature and became the state's minister president (1969). In 1973 he was elected chair of the Christian Democratic Union, and in 1982 he became Germany's chancellor. Kohl's centrist policies included modest cuts in government spending and strong support for West German commitments to NATO. After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Kohl concluded a treaty with East Germany that unified the two countries' economic systems. Absorption of the moribund East German economy proved difficult, and Kohl's government had to increase taxes and cut government spending after unification. In 1998 his coalition government with the Free Democratic Party was defeated by the Social Democrats under Gerhard Schröder. Revelations of serious financial irregularities during Kohl's chancellorship soon emerged, tainting his reputation and weakening his party.

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▪ 1995

      The election in November 1994 of Helmut Kohl as chancellor of Germany demonstrated that the 64-year-old politician was a survivor. Despite winning confirmation by the slimmest margin of his long political career, Kohl claimed that his fragile coalition government would hold together. As he began his 13th year as head of government, Kohl reflected that his mentor, former chancellor Konrad Adenauer, had won his first election by a narrow margin and went on to rule Germany for 14 years, a record that Kohl was eager to break.

      Kohl and his Christian Democratic Union (CDU) faced a vastly different Germany from the one Adenauer had beheld in 1949; indeed, the political landscape of the country had changed drastically since Kohl himself had taken office. German reunification, long a dream of Kohl's, had occurred in 1990, but the financial and social problems resulting from it had not ended. Efforts to integrate the economically depressed former East Germany with the prosperous West had brought public debt to unprecedented levels, while those who had lived under communism often found it difficult to adjust to a society driven by a market economy.

      Kohl was born in Ludwigshafen am Rhein, Germany, on April 3, 1930. He studied at the University of Frankfurt and received a Ph.D. from the University of Heidelberg in 1958. Entering politics the next year, he was elected to the Rhineland-Palatinate state legislature. He became minister-president (prime minister) of that state in 1969 and served until 1976 when he was elected to the Bundestag (parliament), where he became Christian Democratic floor leader. After losing his bid for chancellor in the 1976 election, Kohl did not run again until 1982, when changes in the makeup of the coalition government resulted in his confirmation as chancellor. He was reelected in 1987 and 1990.

      As 1994 began, however, Kohl was running behind in the polls. His main opponent, Rudolf Scharping of the Social Democratic Party, was benefiting from disenchantment with the political status quo. Unemployment had hit record levels, and the recession that plagued Germany for much of 1993 was showing no signs of letting up. Unification was continuing to drain funds from the German treasury, while Germany's allies urged that the German government become a more active player in the European and international arena. The spring brought a change in fortune for Kohl and his party, however. The economy began a powerful recovery and, as Scharping made several errors and misjudgments, the experienced Kohl began to be viewed as a steadying influence. In the national elections on October 16 the German voters narrowed the CDU-led coalition's majority in the Bundestag to 10 seats from 134. A month later the Bundestag elected Kohl to his fourth term as prime minister by only one vote more than the required majority.


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▪ chancellor of Germany
born April 3, 1930, Ludwigshafen am Rhein, Germany

      chancellor of West Germany from 1982 to 1990 and of the reunified German nation from 1990 to 1998. He presided over the integration of East Germany into West Germany in 1990 and thus became the first chancellor of a unified Germany since 1945.

      Kohl grew up in a conservative Roman Catholic family. As a teenager in wartime Germany, he was drafted and sent to basic training, but the war ended before he had to fight. His interest in politics manifested itself early: in 1947 he began working in a Christian Democratic Union (CDU) youth organization in his native town. Kohl earned a doctorate in political science at the University of Heidelberg (1958). He was elected in 1959 to the Rhineland-Palatinate state legislature and in 1969 to the state's post of minister president (prime minister), and he soon developed a reputation as a capable administrator. He also became the CDU's national deputy chairman in 1969, and he was elected chairman of the party in 1973.

      Kohl entered the 1976 federal elections as the chancellor candidate of the CDU and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), but lost to the Social Democratic Party (SDP) led by Helmut Schmidt (Schmidt, Helmut). In 1982 many members of Schmidt's coalition partners, the Free Democratic Party (FDP), deserted their alliance with him. The combined forces of the CDU, the CSU, and the FDP defectors passed a vote of no confidence against Schmidt in the Bundestag (West German parliament) on October 1, 1982, and immediately forced him from office by giving Kohl the required absolute majority in the ensuing vote for a new chancellor.

 The CDU-CSU-FDP coalition won a 58-seat majority in federal elections held on March 6, 1983. Kohl's government went on to follow centrist policies that included modest cuts in government spending and strong support for West German commitments to NATO. These policies were confirmed by victory in the federal elections of January 25, 1987, although the CDU-CSU-FDP coalition held a reduced majority of 45 seats.

      As the Soviet Union abandoned its control over eastern Europe in 1989–90, Kohl led the drive for the speedy reunification of West with East Germany. The opposition SDP, by contrast, approached this momentous issue much more warily. When East Germany held its first democratic parliamentary elections in March 1990, Kohl campaigned vigorously for the CDU's sister parties in East Germany, which were able to form a government committed to reunification. In May 1990 Kohl's government concluded a treaty with East Germany that unified the two countries' economic and social-welfare systems and granted East Germany an equal exchange of their now-worthless East German currency for the powerful deutsch mark. Kohl worked strenuously to obtain the assent of both his NATO allies and the Soviet Union to German reunification, and on October 3, 1990, East Germany was dissolved and its constituent states joined West Germany in a reunified Germany. On December 2, 1990, in the first free, all-German parliamentary elections since 1932, Kohl and his governing CDU-CSU-FDP coalition won a 134-seat majority in the Bundestag.

      Absorption of the moribund eastern German economy proved more expensive and difficult than predicted, and Kohl's government had to commit itself to tax increases and cuts in government spending in order to finance unification. Voter discontent over these harsh realities, compounded by resentment over a severe recession in 1992–93, were reflected in the parliamentary elections of October 16, 1994, which reduced Kohl's parliamentary majority to 10 seats.

 Continuing high unemployment in Germany and voter weariness with Kohl after 16 years in office enabled the SDP, led by Gerhardt Schröder, to defeat the CDU-CSU in parliamentary elections held on September 27, 1998. In 1999 Kohl was involved in a scandal arising from the collection of illegal campaign contributions. In January 2000 he resigned his party offices and faced serious charges of misusing funds. He was assessed a stiff fine in February 2001.

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Universalium. 2010.

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