Helmut Kohl (1930 - Present)
Helmut Kohl was born Ludwigshafen am Rhein, Germany on April 3, 1930. Growing up, he lived in a conservative Roman Catholic family, which largely influenced his decision to become active in the right-leaning Christian Democratic Union, beginning in 1947. After earning his doctorate in political science University of Heidelberg in 1958, Kohl's role in the party began to grow, first as a state legislator and then later on a national level. He became the CDU's national deputy chairman in 1969 and was elected chairman of the party in 1973.
Under Kohl's leadership, the CDU's role in German politics gradually expanded throughout the 1970s and 1980s, culminating with his coalition government taking a majority in the March 1983 elections and Kohl ascending to the role of Chancellor of West Germany. Kohl would hold the position until 1998, making him one of Germany's longest standing chancellors, second only to Otto Von Bismarck.
In policy, Kohl and the CDU kept Germany on much the same track set by his predecessors, largely pursuing centrist policies both domestically and abroad. By supporting decreasing overall government spending and supporting West Germany's place within NATO, Kohl's aim was mostly to maintain the status quo so as not to derail the strong German economy, which had been gaining steam since the 1970s and remained one of the most, if not only, productive economies in the EEC.
Despite falling under scrutiny for several high-profile corruption scandals, including taking bribes in exchange for passing favorable corporate tax laws and another for illegal campaign contributions (which Kohl himself was accused of), Kohl’s government was able to stay in power long enough to accomplish one of the most important feats in modern German political life – the reunification of West and East Germany. From the get-go, Kohl himself was a staunch supporter of a reunified German state and pushed hard for reconciliation during the late 1980s without much thought to how the move might be perceived by allied governments.
In fact, largely due to the strength of the German economy, many NATO allies were initially wary of the prospects of a single Germany, worried that a combined state could create be too strong and would lead to re-emergence of old German tendencies (e.g. aggressive expansionism), which were still very closely associated with the causes of both world wars. This trepidation could have easily side-tracked the path to a reunited Germany, but upon realizing these fears Kohl acted swiftly and adeptly addressed these concerns of his neighbors. His actions paved the way for reunification, which became official in October of 1990. As a result, Kohl’s popularity soared, and he was able to maintain power for the better part of the 1990s.
His fortunes ultimately changed, though, in the years after the absorption of East Germany, which proved far more difficult than anticipated. For years the East German economy had lagged far behind its western counterpart, and incorporating the eastern population into the economy proved very expensive, necessitating tax increases while simultaneously boosting unemployment. As a result, the German economic machine finally slowed, and Kohl’s popularity gradually waned until his ouster in 1998.
Hughes, H. Stuart and James Wilkinson. Contemporary Europe: A History. Pearson Education, Inc., Upper Saddle River: 2004.