Commemorative speech on the death of Federal Chancellor Helmut Kohl, to be delivered in the German Bundestag on 22 June 2017
Federal President, Madam Chancellor, colleagues, Excellencies, honoured guests,
Germany is in mourning for Helmut Kohl. Last Friday, our long-serving Federal Chancellor passed away at his home in the Palatinate, aged 87.
Without the momentous historical changes that are inseparably associated with his name, it would have been inconceivable that we should be honouring his memory in this very place, the Reichstag building in the heart of Berlin, the capital of a united Germany. “Which building has been more deeply marked by the traces of history?” – that question was asked by Helmut Kohl himself in this place back in January 1983 when, as the newly elected Federal Chancellor, he attended an event here in the Reichstag building, at a time when it was skirted by the Wall and the barbed wire that still divided Berlin and hence Germany and Europe too. “No building besides the Reichstag”, as the Chancellor said in that address, “embodies the history of the Germans and their hope of living in peace in a free Europe”. The history of the Germans and their hope of living in peace in a free Europe – Helmut Kohl never gave up that hope, and it is largely due to him that it has become a reality today – our united country in a free and pacified Europe.
In 1989, when the opportunity arose that many had long since written off, Helmut Kohl seized the initiative with that unfailing instinct which marks out a great statesman. In the Ten-Point Programme he announced to the Bundestag at its temporary home in the Bonn waterworks building on 28 November 1989, he gave the peaceful revolution in the GDR its ambitious political orientation towards German unification. It was one of the finest hours in the history of our Parliament as well as being his own political ‘crowning achievement’, as his predecessor, Helmut Schmidt, acknowledged. Incidentally, the steadfast commitment displayed by Schmidt as Federal Chancellor to NATO’s two-track INF decision, which was to have a great bearing on subsequent political developments and yet was highly controversial, was already fully endorsed by Helmut Kohl as Leader of the Opposition. A short time later, when he himself was in office, he expressly reaffirmed that commitment, even though he was exposed to vehement protests from hundreds of thousands of demonstrators in the Hofgarten in Bonn.
“A politician whose objectives do not contain a slice of Utopia is a poor soul”, as a young Helmut Kohl told the magazine Der Spiegel in 1968. That was a fair comment in those days.
The fact that the unification of Germany and Europe did not remain a Utopian dream is largely down to his tenacity on fundamental issues and his resolute intervention in the real historical situation.
In 1989, Kohl demonstrated a far-sightedness that had long been lost by many in the West of our divided country. The recognition of a separate East German nationality, for example, for which there was certainly some sympathy, even in parts of his own party, was never on Helmut Kohl’s agenda. What followed was the unparalleled success story of a prudent yet sharply focused diplomatic effort that resulted in the unification of Germany within the community of Western nations and values, achieved in agreement with all of our neighbours and with the support of major partners in the wider world.
Helmut Kohl knew that the only way to achieve this great national goal was through the unification of Europe. For him, however, the union of European states was never merely a means to an end but was always an end in itself – the great peace project in a previously warring continent, which, towards the end of his time in office, he also sought to make irreversible by means of the common currency.
The great outpouring of sympathy in neighbouring countries and the worldwide reaction to his death underline the outstanding contribution made by Helmut Kohl as an honorary citizen of Europe. For that reason, tribute will be paid to him at an unprecedented ceremony in Strasbourg on Saturday of next week. But it almost goes without saying that the nature and venue of the tribute to a lifetime of outstanding political achievement in and for Germany is, with all due respect, more than just a family matter. And the Bundestag is surely the best possible place for our country to pay its respects, in the presence of the Federal President and his predecessors, the Chancellor and the members of the Federal Government, numerous ambassadors and representatives of the diplomatic corps, led by its Dean, the Nuncio.
Ladies and gentlemen, Helmut Kohl was born in 1930, on the very day on which a vote of no confidence against the newly formed government under Heinrich Brüning was defeated. That was the first of the presidential governments which, as we know today, heralded the end of the Weimar Republic and pointed the way to dictatorship. The process ended in total moral collapse and in a war that was fated to leave its mark on family histories over generations, including that of Helmut Kohl. In 1989, in front of the Frauenkirche, the Church of Our Lady, in Dresden, when the people’s desire for unity was evident to everyone, he recalled his youth in wartime with the loss of his older brother at the front – a wound that never truly healed – and in front of that church, then still a ruin, he renewed the pledge that his generation had taken: no more war, ever.
“In future, peace must always emanate from German soil – that is our common cause.”
The embodiment of this lasting mission and the symbol of reconciliation between the Germans and French is the unforgettable joining of hands with François Mitterrand over the war graves at Verdun in 1984. Ten years later, the peaceful, ceremonial withdrawal of the last Russian troops from Berlin marked what Helmut Kohl called “the closing point of the post-war history of Europe”, and everyone who attended that ceremony felt exactly the same way.
There was no longer a Soviet Union to which the former Red Army could have returned; instead, there was a general expectation of lasting peace. It certainly seemed unthinkable at the time that the “era of friendship and cooperation” proclaimed by Boris Yeltsin could be recklessly jeopardised twenty years later by the present Russian leaders through their annexation in the Crimea in breach of international law and the constant military conflicts in eastern Ukraine.
Helmut Kohl thought in historical time frames, because he was aware of the power of history to forge identities.
“Politics without history”, he said, “is rootless, with no basis and no sense of perspective. Whoever shapes the future politically must draw life from historical experience but must not stop there.”
The political tone that he was able to set during his term of office on the basis of this philosophy, even in the face of resistance, will remain; it has left its mark on our historical awareness and our culture of remembrance, reflected in facilities such as the German Historical Museum in Berlin and the Haus der Geschichte History Museum of the Federal Republic of Germany in Bonn, which always present our national history in a European context, as well as in the Neue Wache memorial on Unter den Linden to the victims of war and tyranny, which reminds us of the horrific aberrations that marked German history in the 20th century.
Colleagues, honoured guests, the many obituaries of the past few days are almost inevitably dominated by the most frequently published images of his 16-year chancellorship, in which he outlasted all other incumbents; there are also the images showing the tragedy of his final years, images that have moved many people. Behind these, however, the personality of Helmut Kohl comes to the fore again, a personality that left scarcely anyone indifferent. His integrative power and his polarising effect – not only across the party-political divide, by the way, but also within the CDU/CSU – are both the stuff of legend. I think of the passionate parliamentarian, of the man who was, in many senses, a weighty debater and opposition leader in the Bundestag, who – in the eras of Herbert Wehner and Helmut Schmidt – could hit hard but could also take equally hard blows on the chin, a man who had once been the youngest member of the Land parliament in his native state of Rhineland-Palatinate, the youngest leader of a parliamentary group and the youngest head of government; a vigorous moderniser and courageous reformer, admittedly at a time when students expected and demanded a revolution, a man about whom Der Spiegel – yes, none other than Der Spiegel – wrote in 1969,
“Whenever … old wood is being cut down, Kohl … is wielding the axe”.
A people person, he later also took an interest in new and young Members in the Bundestag – and as I know from my own experience: he kept an eye on whether they were developing in line with his expectations, more intensively than they themselves often could have imagined. His memory, both politically and privately, was phenomenal in this respect. And he frequently left his interlocutors surprised with questions or descriptions relating to activities in their areas of expertise that they were not yet aware of, but of which he very much was.
He always viewed the Christian Democratic Union, in which he had strong roots, as his family, describing its parliamentary group in the Bundestag, which he visited again in 2012 – those who were there will always remember –, as his Heimat, it was his home. He was and remained grounded, an aspect that was misunderstood as provincial by those who notoriously underestimated him. Equipped with robust charm and a distinct, occasionally derisive humour, he combined within himself the aspiration to shape events and an awareness of power, absolute determination and the gift of appealing to broad swathes of society, thanks to a very particular sense of people.
In international relations, too, this enabled him to establish close political ties and personal friendships with the important heads of state all over the world, in France, the USA and Russia alike – he was the “personification of trust building in global politics”, as he has accurately been honoured in the media these past few days.
A typical example of this, one likely remembered in Poland more readily than here, are the circumstances surrounding his state visit to Warsaw on 9 November 1989 – a visit that Kohl did indeed interrupt in order to be present for the monumental moment in world history in Berlin, but which he did not call off, instead continuing his visit on 11 November, to the surprise of his hosts.
Colleagues, renowned Swiss historian Jacob Burckhardt wrote in his Reflections on history:
‘“No man is irreplaceable,” says the proverb. But the few that are, are great. ... The great man is a man of that kind, a man without whom the world would seem to us incomplete because certain great achievements only became possible through him in his time and place and are otherwise unimaginable. He is an essential strand in the great web of causes and effects.’
Unimaginable? Helmut Kohl no more bore sole responsibility for achieving German unity than Bismarck did for the German nation-state – but it is nigh impossible to think of both fundamental changes in German history without those two names.
The Bonn Republic began with Konrad Adenauer; and it ended with the chancellorship of Helmut Kohl, who helped to ensure that the foundations of that Republic are stable enough to bear the weight of the Berlin Republic today. Significant figures are often a reflection of their eras. Helmut Kohl’s importance as a historical figure is shown not only by his decisive influence in shaping one era, but also by his achievement in linking two different epochs; he not only helped to bring the first of these to a successful conclusion, but also laid lasting foundations for the second – our epoch, lived in a united Europe. For him, one thing was wholly obvious – something of which many people, including I myself, remained to be convinced: that a Germany reunified in peace could no longer be governed from Bonn, but would have to be governed and overseen by Parliament from Berlin.
The bright light which radiates from such significant figures casts shadows. Helmut Kohl was no exception to this, and he described his own life as a path marked by both great successes and resounding defeats. In 1976, when Kohl stood as Chancellor, the CDU/CSU received 48.6 per cent of the vote with a large voter turnout – the second highest level of support ever achieved in Bundestag elections, both at the time and in those to come – so far. Yet he became leader of the opposition – for it is one of the unwritten rules of parliamentary democracies that a country may be governed without participation by the party which won by far the biggest share of the votes, providing the necessary majorities are found in Parliament.
Kohl’s path was marked amongst other things by hurt – hurt he suffered himself and hurt he inflicted on others. Kohl admitted some of his mistakes. The nature of his departure from active politics following his departure from government was ultimately made inevitable by the circumstances of the – in the words of his biographer Hans-Peter Schwarz – “creative concealment of party donations”, which, in turn, was connected to Kohl’s remarkable – indeed sometimes remarkably stubborn – personality.
His death represents a watershed. When the generation of Kurt Schumacher, Theodor Heuss and Konrad Adenauer ceased to be, this meant the end of those biographies reaching back well beyond the Nazi era to the time of the Kaiserreich; now that Kohl has joined the others of his generation who are already deceased – Willy Brandt, Walter Scheel, Helmut Schmidt, Richard von Weizsäcker, Roman Herzog and Hans-Dietrich Genscher – we must manage without those generations for whom the eras of the World Wars were not just second-hand accounts, but times they had experienced at first hand, meaning that Europe was for them always a matter of war and peace. Reminding ourselves of this legacy is, it seems, more necessary than ever.
Helmut Kohl described Konrad Adenauer, to whose legacy he felt indebted, as a “stroke of luck for Germany”; Helmut Kohl, too, was a stroke of luck, for Germany and Europe. We in Germany can feel grateful for prominent figures of this stature, for whom we are envied by some of our neighbours.
We bow down in respect and gratitude for the lifetime achievements of Helmut Kohl: Unification Chancellor and Honorary Citizen of Europe. Our thoughts at this time are with his family. We wish them strength and comfort at their time of mourning.
I now ask you to rise to your feet as a sign of respect, gratitude and sorrow, in remembrance of Helmut Kohl.