Politics can be a cruel contact sport. Nobody knew that better than Helmut Kohl, the longtime German chancellor and the father of German reunification who died on Friday.
He governed his own conservative party at times like a fief and relentlessly went after possible challengers within his own party. Like Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, he towered over and defined his country’s place in the world, and alongside them he defined the center-right consensus that drove Western foreign policy at the end of the Cold War.
Unlike Mrs. Thatcher or Mr. Reagan, however, Mr. Kohl had an ignominious end to his career, perhaps the steepest fall from grace in German postwar politics, when his former protégée and now chancellor, Angela Merkel, pushed him from power over a scandal involving illicit campaign financing. At one moment he was the hero behind German reunification; the next he was seen as an embarrassment within his own party, increasingly lonely and isolated.
But recent history has been kind to Mr. Kohl, if only by showing the contrast between the sort of international statesmanship he stood for and what passes as leadership today. He was, above all, a staunch supporter of NATO and the West, and kept his course even at times when some Western policies weren’t very popular in Germany.
When Mr. Kohl became chancellor in 1982, he faced huge protests against the stationing of nuclear-capable Pershing II missiles on German soil, in response to a Soviet buildup of Warsaw Pact forces. But he had given Germany’s word to its NATO allies to allow the missiles, and he didn’t budge. Though it made him unpopular and put his country at risk, there was a bigger issue at hand: whether the West would stand up to the Soviet threat.
At a moment when the West is in exceptional disarray, there are some important lessons to be learned from Mr. Kohl. For one, the West is doomed when it starts giving in to Russian intimidation. A second: To keep and nourish an alliance, you sometimes have to do things that are good for all partners but don’t play well domestically. And finally, trust among allies is perhaps the most precious commodity of all, which you play with to everyone’s peril.
Chancellor Kohl knew that alliances are not measured by annual balance sheets; they pay off over a longer term. His stance on the Pershings earned the trust of his American counterparts, a credit he could draw on in 1989 when the peoples of Eastern Europe, including in East Germany, were in revolt against Soviet domination and homegrown dictators. Mr. Kohl dreamed of something few people in the West thought possible: German reunification, anchored squarely in the West.
Other nations in Europe were afraid of the overwhelming power a reunified Germany could muster within Europe, and did what they could to oppose reunification. But Mr. Kohl knew he could rely on the United States for support, and President George H. W. Bush duly threw his support behind the German leader. It wasn’t because Mr. Bush thought he owed Mr. Kohl something; it was because Mr. Kohl had earned Washington’s trust.
Chancellor Kohl understood something else, too, that today’s nationalist foreign policy makers ignore: International politics is not a zero-sum game. That’s why he fought hard to make sure Germany’s victory at the end of the Cold War did not come at someone else’s expense. In a time of Russian revanchism, it is crucial to remember how many billions of dollars Germany and Europe invested in Russia to stabilize a failing country.
It was a lesson Mr. Kohl taught other Western leaders. In 2011, Bill Clinton recalled a conversation with his aides in the early 1990s. “So one of my young aides showed me a poll that said, ‘Mr. President, the American people are against your proposal to help Russia 74 to 20.’ ” But Mr. Clinton, like Mr. Kohl, knew that a stable Russia made everyone safer. “We got hired to do the right thing here,” he told the aide. “Look at what Germany’s doing; let’s do that.”
Nor did Chancellor Kohl push Germany’s interests at his Western neighbors’ expense. He did the opposite. To demonstrate the continuing German commitment to a common Europe, he agreed to give up the most cherished symbol of Germany’s postwar economic success, the mark. Whatever flaws are now obvious in Europe’s common currency, Mr. Kohl’s intentions in supporting it were noble ones. He wanted to anchor the new Germany firmly inside the European project. Being a part of the generation that had experienced the devastation of World War II, he was passionate about creating a Europe whole, free and at peace. That’s why he also helped to prepare the path for Eastern European countries to become part of the European Union and NATO.
In 2008, Mr. Kohl fell down a staircase, leaving him with difficulty speaking and forcing him to largely withdraw from public life. Still, during the euro crisis he urged his countrymen to be more forgiving toward their European brothers and sisters in distress, because he more than anyone knew how much Germany had relied on the help of others during its own trials.
At times like these, when petty nationalisms threaten the global liberal order and the coherence of the West, it is important to remember that the comparatively peaceful Western order didn’t come about by accident. It took the effort of many brilliant and decisive statesmen and stateswomen. By that same token, the Western order can be squandered by the ineptitude of today’s leaders, and by a politics that looks only to the next election to decide even the most momentous policies. It is something Mr. Kohl understood, and something we cannot forget.
Clemens Wergin is the Washington bureau chief for Die Welt.