The dragged-out end of an era
In the federal elections of September 1998, Helmut Kohl wanted to "try his luck again"—and lost. After 16 years at the helm of German politics the "chancellor of unity" had to leave the office of the chancellory and confine himself to being a simple Bundestag deputy.
His disappointment in the face of defeat was more than obvious. He was elected, and re-elected, altogether four times, by a majority of Germans, all of whom seemed to identify with his sturdy, down-to-earth image and physically overwhelming stature. After his cunning coup d'état in 1982 against respected Social Democrat Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, Kohl sought to steer closer to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's Britain and President Ronald Reagan's USA, but also managed to develop strong ties with President François Mitterand of France.
At the same time, the old war horse exerted almost dictatorial power within his party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU). He crushed any potential challengers on the left. The right-wing was covered by the Bavarian Christian Social Union (CSU).
But the confessing "provincialist" took on another political front and started a kind of Kulturkampf [A "Struggle of Cultures." Initially waged by Otto von Bismarck against Catholics in the newly united Germany of the late nineteenth century. ed.] after weathering early attacks by the left-liberal intelligentsia. They tried to ridicule his clumsy appearance and lack of urbanite flair.
As a result, Kohl completely ignored media flagships like Der Spiegel. Furthermore, his long-term stay in power gave him a growing edge over his intellectual opponents. By the mid-1990s not even sharp-tongued political critics could figure out how to lash out at Kohl, who never let anything get to him.
Pride comes before a fall
In a way, Kohl's self-confidence and his hard-nosed attitude in the face of political problems, combined with his brand of anti-intellectualism designed for the "common people," made Kohl a "brother-in-spirit" to politicians like Poland's Lech Wałęsa. In all he did, Kohl saw himself—not wrongly—as living in "great times." He was making history with a capital "H."
Legal details or diverging opinions certainly never made him doubt that he was right. It was this long-term and "larger-than-life" approach to politics that brought about his success, but also his political undoing.
Kohl anticipated the fall of the Berlin Wall as much, or rather as little, as everyone else. In 1987, the anti-Communist Kohl even hosted East German leader Erich Honecker in Bonn. However, when the GDR succumbed to public protests in 1989, it was Kohl who seized the day. He made friends with Michail Gorbachev and got the Allies to restore German unity and sovereignty.
His finest moment
When Chancellor Gerhard Schröder—the would-be Blairite at the helm of the Social Democrats—took over from Kohl at the end of 1999, he made it a point of patriotic non-partisanship to express his gratitude to Kohl for his services to the nation. Kohl's eyes grew damp; in hindsight, this was his finest moment. For from then on, it was all downhill.
"History"—a term so revered by Kohl—would come back to haunt him and the CDU. In 1999 information was leaked about secret funds. Kohl appeared to have used them from the early 1980s to support ailing party branches and to finance election campaigns.
The money for these slush funds, which Kohl did not report as he should have, stemmed from a number of private sponsors. Kohl refuses to this very day to disclose any names. Although it is credible when he says he "was not bribed;" his breaches of the law on more than one occasion not only severely damaged his personal reputation, but cost the CDU millions of marks in legal fees.
At this point, the CDU hit rock bottom—both morally and in terms of power. Kohl lost his position as chairman and then even his position as honorary chairman of the party. His successor, Wolfgang Schaüble, former Interior Minister and head of the CDU parliamentary group, survived only briefly as leader of the party. He too, succumbed to allegations of involvment in the slush funds—an accusation he denies to this very day.
Starting in mid-1999 the CDU's popularity waned at the ballot box at the same time as the popularity of Gerhard Schröder's Red-Green government grew.
And the winner is...
But the big winner of the chaotic situation within the CDU was Angela Merkel. The east German shooting-star, who made her first steps in government after 1990 as Kohl's protégé, emerged as the only political survivor of the CDU shipwreck. She took over when Schaüble was forced to resign. Nevertheless, she has been under almost constant fire ever since for being "too liberal" and, no doubt, for being a woman. These accusation stem from the right-wing of the CDU and the Bavarian CSU. The race for candidate for chancellor is on.
Still now, Kohl is facing the possibility of legal prosecution, yet it does not affect him. The real blow came from one of his life-long enemies in the CDU, Kurt Biedenkopf, in 2000. It is from this attack that he will likely never recover. Biedenkopf targeted Kohl's self-image as "Chancellor of Unity."
Biedenkopf, the veteran CDU intellectual and Minister President of Saxony since 1990, was host to the celebration of the tenth anniversary of German re-unification on 3 October 2000 in Dresden. In the middle of the quarrel about Kohl's conduct, Biedenkopf replaced him as key speaker at the event. He replaced him with French President Jacques Chirac. Kohl was so furious that he refused to attend the ceremony in Dresden altogether.
Still everyone acknowledges Helmut Kohl's contributions to German politics. And he is now where he always wanted to be—in the history books, but nowhere else. In a sense, the fall of the CDU—the post-war, post-Nazi bourgeois "collaborationist" party, resembles that of its Italian sister, the Democrazia Cristiana. It marks the end of the post-war era.
A "new Germany"
The "new Germany" is led in its "new Berlin" by the Social Democrats with their long pre-war, pre-Nazi tradition. Germany is deeply democratic. However the nation has resumed its status as a nation and is no longer prepared to deny its own interests. And Kohl can stand aside as a Bismarck whose creation outlived him and took on a form—for better or worse—that he could not have even remotely imagined.
The undead are among us
The year 2000 has also seen the unpalatable legacy of the Third Reich surface in many shades. Although these shadows of the past are not able to threaten the fabric of a democratic Germany, they shake Germany's self-image and tarnish the historical achievement of unity.
Ever since re-unification, violent actions, including murder and arson, have been committed by right-wing extremists. These crimes have been committed mostly against "foreigners": any foreign-looking person regardless of their nationality. Yet for a long time, these crimes were played down by politicians who feared a poor reputation for their constituencies, especially in the former east.
It was only when a group of Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union were targeted that German politics felt compelled to look into this issue. Once started, the problem was revealed to be of worrying proportions, shaking up the self-congratulatory world of the Standort Deutschland.
A network of extremists
Right-wing extremist organisations are showing a growing degree of self-organisation and improved networking. As a result, even formerly unassociated groups are brought into a national (and even European) net of political activists from both sides of the spectrum. They are united only in their hatred of the "system" and their strife for purity of the National Socialist variety—"racial" as well as social.
This has led to the creation of so-called "nationally liberated zones," where neo-Nazis exert "cultural hegemony" in eastern Germany. It is in the east that socio-political development could not keep pace with the economic growth. This means that everyone who does not "fit," is beaten up, if not worse.
After years of leniency and hushing-up, public prosecutors have taken the problem into their own hands and have started imposing severe penalties on convicted perpetrators of extremist crimes. The bigger problem, however, lies in educating these young people, and plenty of older people too. Nobody really knows how to change the minds of those who condone violence as a means of reaching political aims.
Spectres of the past
These are people who, when all is said and done, have not made the break from the spiritual legacy of the Nazi and Communist dictatorships—dictatorships of almost identical world views. Both envision friends and foes, battle and annihilation, victory or death. Even in the best case scenario this education will take ages. And well-meaning German politicians have always been hampered by fear and indecision.
An attempt to prohibit the National Democratic Party of Germany (NPD) as a vehicle for right-wing networking, or to consider a general restriction on freedom of demonstration, are typical bureaucratic (ordnungsstaatliche) responses to the problem. Furthermore, they offer no clear result.
9 November: a controversial date
Encouraging, though arguably also of little use, are symbolic actions like the large anti-racism demonstration held in Berlin on 9 November—the unofficial "National Day of Germany." Led by Federal President Johannes Rau, Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and Parliamentary President Wolfgang Thierse, tens of thousands marched through the capital to the Brandenburg Gate to show the world the "other Germany."
Many argue, however, that racism does not start with neo-Nazi violence. Throughout the year, discussions touched again and again on the nature of systemic xenophobia. This was the case when the Christian Democrats won the elections in the Land (province) of Hessen in January, despite a successful economic situation. Their success was based on a blitz campaign against the prospect of dual citizenship as proposed by the new Red-Green federal government.
Similarly, the CDU's election campaign in North-Rhine Westfalia sought—this time without success—to exploit the fear of foreigners. The campaign was a response to attempts of the government to attract foreign computer experts through the issuing of so-called "Green Cards"—five-year residence and work permits."Kinder statt Inder" (Children, not Indians) was the infamous slogan used by the CDU.
Ironically, few Indians have applied for the permits anyway; graduates from India prefer English-speaking Britain and the USA. Most applications for the German variety of "Green Cards" have come, thus far, from the former Soviet Union and Central Europe.
The curtain went up for the last act of this tragic comedy when the term Leitkultur (defining culture) was used by the CDU's federal parliamentary leader Friedrich Merz. In truly German fashion, mutual accusations took the stage, leaving all reasonable debate to powerless academics. When all is said and done, however, the concern over Leitkultur is more the substance of political battles rather than concern for foreigners in Germany. Defining the issues for the elections in 2002 are what matters.
Acknowledging the past
Directly linked to the legacy of the Nazi regime were two resolutions by the Bundestag this year. First after ten years of heated debate, the decision was adopted to build a "Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe" in the very heart of Berlin as an unparalleled acknowledgment of German responsibility. Second, a public foundation was established dedicated to "Commemoration, responsibility and the future."
This foundation will pay an aggregate DEM ten billion (EUR 5.11 billion) to survivors of the Holocaust and victims of slave labour in Nazi Germany. These are to work in co-operation with the Geneva-based International Organisation for Migration (for non-Jews) and the American-based Jewish Claims Conference (for Jews).
Both Germany and the corporations, many of which profited from slave labour during the war, pledged to pay DEM five billion (EUR 2.55) each. However, the private sector has shown serious difficulty—some would say hesitancy—to live up to its pledge. The financial capabilities of some of the world's leading companies are known and the fact that are unprepared to give some money to the few survivors, combined with their attempt to shift the burden to state-owned companies has outraged parliament and government. It is an embarrassing stupidity.
This should be clearest of all to the companies themselves. The whole scheme was set up in order to protect them from collective law-suits filed with American courts. The American and German governments had agreed to back this approach since both prefer their economic relations not to be burdened by yearlong legal actions and the resulting bad public reputation. Yet, some German companies seem to lack a wider perspective on this issue. They could see the consequences of this earlier than expected—a Bush administration would certainly not be softer on the issue.
Jens Boysen, 11 December 2000
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