People who know Kohl are convinced that he pursued the total renewal of the CDU for selfish reasons and that he viewed the hired reformers and modernizers as nothing more than “useful idiots”: a temporary in-house power base that he needed in order to assert himself against established forces in the party and the Bundestag faction and make his way into the chancellery.
“Renewing the CDU to gain power, avoiding experiments to hold on to it” – that would be the solution to the Kohl puzzle,” wrote journalist Warnfried Dettling, who worked for many years as leader of the planning group and head of the political department in the party’s national headquarters.
The events of 1989 show that he wasn’t wrong in his approach: in the lead-up to the national party congress, a group of reformers under the leadership of Heiner Geißler and Lothar Späth tried to oust the CDU party chair, but the “coup” failed miserably. And Kohl showed neither scruples nor emotion in degrading his critics and rivals to marginal figures.
From that moment on, the CDU was nothing but an appendage of the chancellery. The respective secretary generals [of the party] let themselves be bullied by Kohl. The public took little notice of the squad of deputies in the party’s executive committee because they had nothing groundbreaking to say. Innovation was largely confined to technical equipment. And the CDU rank and file marched dutifully behind the chancellor as long as he remained a successful campaigner.
In 1989, when it became apparent that Kohl was going to suffer defeat in the 1990 Bundestag elections, he was saved by the “revolutionary autumn” in the GDR and the willingness of Mikhail Gorbachev to permit German unification. It was a historic opportunity for Kohl and his assured political instinct helped him seize it with resolve. Consequently, the “Unification Chancellor” triumphed over the SPD in 1990 and the same nimbus carried him to victory again in 1994, albeit by a small margin.
But anyone who looked more closely had to notice that his numbers declined from one election to the next: from 48.8 percent in 1983 to 41.4 percent in 1994. Together with the liberals [the FDP], the CDU’s lead over the Bonn opposition was barely 0.3 percent, or 142,682 votes. The CDU’s loss of power was even more pronounced in the federal states.
When Kohl speaks of the CDU’s “unique success story” at anniversary celebrations and on other festive occasions, he generally fails to mention the downsides, such as the rapid decline in party membership. In 1992, the CDU had 713,000 members; by late August 1997 that number was down to 636,285. Furthermore, the CDU has aged along with Kohl. Almost two-thirds of its members are fifty or older.
To be sure, the party chair does not carry sole blame for the emaciation of the party. The milieus that stabilized the mainstream parties and society, too, are growing weaker or disbanding. Social cohesion is dwindling, not only in political parties, but also in churches, trade unions, and associations.