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The Kohl System (September 28, 1998)

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Kohl, with his outstanding ability to sense shifts and trends, definitely registered these changes. His more recent speeches are filled with reflective passages about moral decline, individualization, and the loss of tradition. But he neglected to draw conclusions from these reflections and to implement them in his party. As much as he spoke about the need for change and the challenges of the twenty-first century, he said very little about the future of his own party. Whether Kohl wanted it or not, the party increasingly defined itself solely in terms of its chair and chancellor. “Without him, nothing at all had been possible for a long time,” scoffed CDU heretics, “but with him, less and less is becoming possible.”

The Wild Youth

It’s not that he didn’t foster the younger generation. But when the “wild youth” at the head of the Landtag factions and state associations disrupted the consensus politics he pursued as government head with their demands for radical tax reform, debureaucratization, and cuts in the social welfare system, Kohl reprimanded them in an authoritarian manner.

Associations within the CDU that used to see themselves as “societal antennae” have largely lost their former influence. Whether the CDA,* under which the employee and trade union group operates, or the Women’s Union, the Small and Medium-Sized Business Association (MIT), or the Senior Citizens’ Union – almost all of them have shrunk to nothing more than traditional clubs that continue their established rituals and persist in outdated ways of thinking. That also includes the Young Union (JU),** which is so tame nowadays that former JU rebel Helmut Kohl is occasionally surprised by how tractable it has become.

None of Kohl’s predecessors succeeded in determining when they would step down as chancellor. They were either dropped by their party or forced out of all responsibility by changes in the governing coalition. When looking at their terms in office, it is clear that they lost all their strength after eight years at most. Even if the decline remained hidden for a while.

None of them failed due to voters but rather on account of unfinished business. Helmut Kohl, the “Record Chancellor,” is the first head of government in Bonn who both failed to achieve his election goal and left his party with a huge legacy of unsolved problems.

* The Christlich-Demokratische Arbeitnehmerschaft Deutschlands (CDA) is the association within the CDU that represents the interests of employees – eds.
** The CDU/CSU youth organization – eds.

Source: Peter Pragal, “Ende einer Kanzlerschaft” [“The End of a Chancellorship”], Berliner Zeitung, September 28, 1998.

Translation: Allison Brown

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