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The Kohl System (September 28, 1998)

This journalist for the Berliner Zeitung agrees with the general consensus: Helmut Kohl’s reputation as a modernizer of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) is beyond dispute. The journalist explains, however, that over the course of time, Kohl increasingly exploited his position as party chairman and chancellor in order to maintain and expand his own power base. Therefore, as he points out, Kohl’s defeat in the Bundestag elections left the CDU with a difficult legacy.

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The End of a Chancellorship

The Great Stature of “World Class” Politician Helmut Kohl Concealed the Weaknesses of the Union for too Long – Party Life Was Slowly Paralyzed

Some CDU party members sensed and feared the end of the chancellorship; others clearly saw it coming. But hardly anyone talked about it openly before election night. They bravely repressed their fears, shouting “Do it again, Helmut,” and trusted the myth of his invincibility.

Didn’t Helmut Kohl manage, time and again, to catch up with his political opponent in a furious final sprint and pass him at the finish line? Didn’t the “battle elephant” triumph over his respective SPD challenger on every Bundestag election night since 1983? And didn’t he put the timid and disheartened in his own party to shame? That’s how it was up to now. But even the longest success story in history has to end someday.

Program Neglected

For a long time, far too long, the great stature of the “world class” politician concealed the weaknesses of the Union. Because Kohl secured power for himself and for them, many Christian Democrats ignored the creeping paralysis of party life. Because he embodied the majority sentiment of the people more than any other German politician, party committees failed to engage in internal discourse about the party’s profile and platform. And because he managed to hold the mainstream Christian party, with all its factions and special-interest groups, together during his twenty-five years as party chair, the party’s rank and file wasn’t bothered that Kohl forced critical voices to the margins and declared calmness to be the noblest Christian Democratic duty.

When Kohl, then minister president of Rhineland-Palatinate, entered CDU headquarters in Bonn in 1973 as the new man of the house, the party was in a similar state. Under the regency of Konrad Adenauer, it had become the “chancellor election association,” a loose association of interest groups held together by the aspiration to stay in power. The successors to the “Old Man”*, Ludwig Erhard, Kurt Georg Kiesinger, and Rainer Barzel, hadn’t done much to change that. It was Helmut Kohl, the “black giant” from Mainz, as he was called at the time, who finally recognized the weaknesses and set out to liberate the club of staid dignitaries from its incrustations and transform it into a modern mainstream party.

Kohl, the man from the provinces, embodied a new type of party leader. Pragmatic, flexible, and open to reform. He surrounded himself with smart and strong-willed people, such as Kurt Biedenkopf, Heiner Geißler, and Peter Radunski, and together they turned the dusty old Adenauer House** inside out and made the CDU into a motivated, effective party.

The renewal did not confine itself to the organization alone. With his alert sense for social change, Kohl set out to tidy up the Union, programmatically speaking, and to open it up to new currents. The party congresses of the 1970s were filled with controversial, lively, and creative discussion. They debated co-determination and land reform, corporate law and the “new social question.” Spurred on by pioneer Heiner Geißler, the CDU used the “new social question” to address socially marginalized groups more directly.

Weight started shifting once the party took control of the government in1982. Safeguarding power became more important to the party than adaptability. Uncomfortable personalities gradually disappeared from the scene. The Konrad Adenauer House’s reputation as an independent intellectual center declined continuously to the benefit of the chancellor’s office. And soon enough the CDU executive committees also saw themselves more as a cheering squad than as a critical corrective to the federal government.

* Konrad Adenauer became the first postwar chancellor at the age of 73; when he resigned in 1963, he was 87 years old. Thus, his nickname “Der Alte” [“The Old Man”] – eds.
** Reference to CDU party headquarters – eds.

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