The Forever Chancellor

West Germany in the 1980s was a country of unattractive affluence, headed by a distant, uncharismatic figure who wasn’t even particularly adept as a technocrat. During the Helmut Kohl era history was everywhere—or rather, everywhere else.

Helmut Kohl excelled in a revisionism so miniaturized that to take offense would have seemed absurd.

Helmut Kohl’s house, Oggersheim.


I learned to speak in 1982, the year Helmut Kohl became chancellor of Germany. By the time he was voted out of office in 1998, I was 18 and had cast my first vote. When Kohl died earlier this year, in June, someone my age joked on Twitter that when they were young they had not realized that “Chancellor” and “Kohl” were two separate words. I’m certain that as a child I made the same mistake.

Kohl’s death should have been a momentous event in Germany. But the flurry of reflections, obits, and references to the chancellor’s historic stature spoke more to a sense of duty than to a sense of history. Reading the coverage, it felt as though everyone was reassuring themselves that a man who had ruled over a not–unimportant country for almost two decades could not himself have been unimportant. Mention Reagan and Thatcher and you get invective or hero worship. Mention Kohl and you get, at best, something like a surprised shrug.

As the reactions to Kohl’s death in the German press and media came in, I noticed that a disproportionately large number came from my peers—people born during the sixteen years Kohl spent in power, men and women who were still teenagers, if that, when the Forever Chancellor finally fell to a centrist social democrat and a campaign funding scandal. This struck no one as strange. American obituaries focused on German unification or on the European Union. Yet for Germans something about Kohl, and about the Germany he seemed to embody, reaches into childhood. To our parents, many of them Sixties-era leftists slowly growing old and comfortable, the Kohl era was measured in outrages. Every four years our parents would fume as the election results crawled across the screen, unable to understand how anyone—other than their parents, of course—could possibly vote for this man. But their children never had this problem. Like a bad guy in a Saturday morning serial, Kohl made more sense in the instinctual, associative logic of childhood than in real life. It wasn’t clear what he wanted, nor why he did what he did. He survived elections the way Skeletor returned week after week. He represented the dark side of permanence, of habit.

Kohl came to power promising a “spiritual-moral turn” (Wende). He delivered no such thing, though he did end up presiding over an actual event that, by a quirk of language, also came to be referred to as a Wende: the collapse of communist East Germany in 1989 and unification in 1990. Yet the children of Kohl-land could sense—perhaps better than their elders—that under all that turning, nothing was really happening and, more importantly, that no one wanted it to. Of course, world history has a way of bouncing off childhood, and even when it does break in history is easily absorbed into its rhythms. The spell of Kohl-land went beyond that: the very organization of space and time seemed complicit in cocooning us. And cocooning the adults, too. It was easy when you looked at the newspapers to suppose that things were always moving. But when you were skateboarding outside the local library, it was easy to see how still they actually were.

Those of us who grew up in Kohl-land were restless. Perhaps all young people are, but there was something particularly stultifying about a world that seemed so disinterested in justifying itself to its young. And since our parents regarded their life in Kohl-land as a kind of capitulation—always sharing stories of how they had almost emigrated to Canada, how their children had almost grown up speaking French—we felt we could best them at their own dreams when we relocated to the multicultural districts of Berlin or took that internship in the UK. Whether we ever successfully perforated the cocoon is another matter entirely.

West Germany in the 1980s was a country of unattractive affluence, headed by a distant, uncharismatic figure who wasn’t even particularly adept as a technocrat. During the Kohl era history was everywhere—or rather, everywhere else. One read about it dutifully in the papers, one collected funds for its victims in church. The eastern part of the country still saw itself on a world-historic mission; thanks to sluggish rebuilding efforts, its cities still contained plenty of ruins from the last time Germany had seen itself that way. The West, meanwhile, felt its mission was simply to be there, to be prosperous and fundamentally decent. There was pride in not believing in a mission beyond that.

In West Germany the last ruins of the war had finally disappeared by 1982, but they’d been replaced with heavy buildings of exposed concrete that felt like scars, or penance. Wreckage-strewn and safe outside its own borders, the problematic former capital city was an ignored island that in turn ignored everything on the other side of its wall: “whether there was life beyond the death strip soon mattered only to pigeons and cats,” wrote the novelist Peter Schneider. During the summers, West German tourists took their strong currency to a circumscribed set of holiday destinations. In some, they were welcomed by former victims with a forgiving smile. In others, former allies greeted them with a furtive nod. On Italian and Spanish beaches people displayed the German flag, which they wouldn’t dare do at home.

In Kohl-land, it was incredibly easy to forget that one was living in a half-country. The nightly news would show the outlines of the Federal Republic in green, those of the other Germany in gray. To a child catching those shapes over the shoulder of a somber news announcer, the West seemed a suburb organized around a metropolis that had fallen off the face of the earth. And it felt like a suburb: dark stone houses, bike paths, tennis courts. It was a perfect space for cycling and roller-skating—decentralized, over-designed, completely paved over. I biked and skated and fell down a lot during those years, and in my recollection every surface, no matter how inconsequential, was made of poured concrete, as though asphalt wasn’t solid enough. People had seen what could be done to brick and asphalt. Now even the local high school had to be made of concrete slabs that would withstand a nuclear blast.

In the US, people moved to the suburbs to hide from other people. But West Germans didn’t want to get away from their neighbors—they wanted to hide from history. The area around Bonn, West Germany’s suburban sort-of capital, was full of people and row houses and small yards. The landscape was leafy and rainy, and the short distances between houses felt large, thanks to the blackness of the ivy and the mossy heaviness of the trees. West Germany felt empty and crowded at once, with nothing to remind you of the bombs or the ruins, and the reasons why either of those had been necessary.

As my age cohort began to explore and rebel, often with our parents’ tacit approval, we sensed that Helmut Kohl was in league with this world, without realizing that he had co-evolved with it. Kohl once claimed for himself “the grace of late birth”—he didn’t get to or have to choose anything that would have made him culpable during the Third Reich. They trained him, but they never did anything more than train him. His immediate predecessor had been a lieutenant in the Wehrmacht, and several of his fiercest critics were later revealed to have been pressed or brainwashed into Hitler’s SS as teens. Kohl had missed the cutoff for service by perhaps a year. He was a suburbanite to history.

Like so many other German towns, Oggersheim—an old village center surrounded by low-rise modern constructions—was rural when Kohl was born but had fully suburbanized by the time he moved there, in 1971. Oggersheim sits just outside Ludwigshafen, the birthplace of BASF, the chemical giant. With its omnipresent concrete and its winding, narrow highways, Ludwigshafen is postwar Germany in a nutshell. All the more so because, like Oggersheim—its suburb—Ludwigshafen is itself a suburb: the far more important city of Mannheim is just across the Rhine. Ludwigshafen and Oggersheim are the kinds of places you end up driving through, even if you live there. Kohl’s suburban life took him from the edge of Ludwigshafen, where he was born in 1930, out to the edge of Oggersheim, where he died.

As German cities became their own periphery, a new world of sensible buildings and excellent public transit (and, later on, solar panels and compost bins) opened up all across the country. People cared deeply about the environment: low-altitude flybys, nuclear power plants, acid rain. Anything that could penetrate the cocoon was an outrage.

And so the past, too, was an outrage: its place in Kohl-land was ambiguous, destabilizing. In a country so dedicated to historical penance, Kohl excelled in a revisionism so miniaturized that to take offense would have seemed absurd. The way he talked about the Nazi past, on the rare occasions he talked about it at all, told you everything about the way his town had talked about the Nazi past: vaguely petulant, with an orneriness that was never quite assertive enough to be pinned down. An inchoate sense that one had been unfairly blamed, wronged in some way—that it was all someone else’s fault.

Kohl represented the way Germany didn’t talk about what it didn’t talk about. Which he did mostly by not talking. He was an oddly reticent speaker, and not a gifted one. When the artists Christo and Jeanne Claude wrapped the Reichstag, Kohl was asked whether he would visit their installation. “I have not visited the Reichstag,” he replied. “I will not visit the Reichstag. Period.” His rejection sounded decisive, but also churlish, like a child putting his foot down on the matter of the broccoli. Yet no one could say what it was he had rejected. It did sound like a comment about the past, but had that been his intention? Kohl’s dog whistles were so faint that no one could be sure they’d heard anything at all.

This was the compact that kept him in power: the right could read into his diffidence a pointed comment on history, while the rest of the country interpreted it as a rejection of history as such. It was probably the “period” at the end of his refusal that most epitomized Kohl: he was always done talking about things, or done worrying about things, even in cases where no one could recall ever talking or worrying about those things in the first place.

While Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher performed conservative revolution in grand gestures and soundbites, Kohl’s conservatism relied on the transformative, and often corrosive, power of inertia. Whatever one was anti—anti-xenophobia, anti-nuclear energy, anti-rearmament, anti-war—on the other side there squatted Kohl, unloved but always reelected. Never representing the other side, but somehow allied with it. And in any event done talking about the matter.

The strangest thing about the man who spent sixteen years as chancellor (a record, though Angela Merkel only has four years to go) was that he didn’t come by the job by way of a general election. In 1980, Kohl was the secretary general of the CDU, and while it was assumed that he wanted to be his party’s champion in its challenge to Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, it was also assumed he was too weak to do so. His party’s top echelon pressured him to drop out and throw his support behind Ernst Albrecht, a genteel and worldly state governor. Kohl complied. At the 1979 party convention, however, the vote went to Franz-Josef Strauss, a charming, voluble Bavarian loudmouth. Kohl once again relented, and everyone thought he would resign as chairman.

But despite this Russian nesting doll of humiliation, Kohl stuck around, Albrecht returned to his governorship, and Strauss went on to be soundly defeated by the popular sitting chancellor. When two years later Schmidt’s coalition government fell apart, Kohl was there to pick up the pieces. If Kohl had a certain kind of assertiveness, it was the assertiveness of habit. Time and again, his mode was to retreat and to wait out his opponents. Big gestures and clear proclamations were for other people. His genius was for simply sticking around.

Perhaps in this too, he was a creature of his country. It is a cliché to say that people recognize themselves in politicians, but it isn’t hard to imagine the kind of person who might recognize themselves in a middle manager in over his head who gets passed over for a promotion, is humiliated before all his co-workers, and eventually gets the top job anyway. For a man who amassed and wielded tremendous power, Kohl was incredibly easy to humiliate—Germans delighted in doing so nearly as much as they seemed to delight in voting for him. I suspect that some of the loyalty Kohl inspired in his party and among his voters was due to the fact that he had let himself be humiliated by them.

At the halfway mark of Kohl’s leaden tenure came the year that should have changed everything and yet changed nothing. The half-country doubled, the border everyone had ignored up and vanished. Smallness and containment gave way to wider and emptier spaces, to more troubling global questions. Where did Germany end? How would it relate to its new neighbors and their justifiably horrible recollections of a unified Germany? And yet at first, in the empty, sandy tableaus that suddenly appeared east of the Iron Curtain, West Germans discovered strangers to their own liking: themselves. It took years for people to realize just how different these German-speaking long-lost cousins really were, that forty years of different experiences take a toll.

Kohl promised “flowering landscapes” in the industrial wastelands of the communist east; eastern protestors threatened that “if the Deutschmark doesn’t come here, we’ll go there.” Both sides assumed that one could simply push the borders of Kohl-land out a bit further. Walking through the center of Berlin today, you get some sense of this project of incorporation. All the city’s government buildings are the kind of squat, exposed monstrosities of glass and exposed concrete that had dotted the rain-drenched lawns of Bonn’s provisional government district. Official Berlin now looks like a suburb of Bonn.

In 1989, it seemed like the world spirit was making a stop in Berlin. But it quickly moved on, perhaps because bike paths and government buildings that look like local libraries aren’t hospitable territory for epochal transformation. Nearly the entire vocabulary used to sell the bloating of Kohl’s West Germany became within a few years of unification a set of bitterly ironic bywords. Corruption and crass moneymaking rushed to occupy the space left empty by Kohl’s lack of rhetoric. But it was a quiet, creeping bitterness, a barely noticeable rot—bizarre scandals involving chip manufacturers and highway rest areas, West German men in impeccable suits having their day in court, and uncomprehending cousins from the other side trying to make sense of it all.

My generation caught on to the rot before our parents did. We had spent the majority of our lives in an all-enveloping stasis and were unusually attuned to its nuances. And so we sensed that unification would not lead to anything grandly new. To some extent Kohl’s style of politics lives on in even now, namely in Merkel’s political instincts. She too has weaponized her own humiliation, she too has managed to turn taciturnity and a total lack of charisma into a political armor. But Kohl’s mode of double address is no longer possible. When history came knocking in 1989, Kohl was able to please revisionists and modernizers alike. When it came knocking again in 2015, in the shape of 1.5 million refugees, it turned out that this kind of doublespeak no longer worked. Merkel stepped up . . . and her right-wing voters didn’t follow her. Even if, for the rest of us, it was a truly historic moment. Merkel’s decision to break with the European consensus during the refugee crisis promised to remake both the country and its image. When large parts of the population (above all young people) embraced her offer, it was to some extent an exorcism of the lingering spirit of the Forever Chancellor. But the exorcism was short-lived.

Last month, as Germans headed to the polls, I drove to Oggersheim to see Kohl’s house. I had never been, but I already knew what it would look like. I had grown up in it, in a way. The dead chancellor’s house was one of a row of low-flung modernist constructions, aggregate concrete painted white, gravel to absorb the rainwater, roller shutters on double-paned windows. The only hint of who had lived there came from the H. Kohl on the mailbox.

I quickly got turned around on my way out of Oggersheim, yet I didn’t pass a single person driving back to the highway. The mid-sized quasi-suburban towns that provided Kohl’s ideological and electoral constituency are hemorrhaging young people. These perfect little towns have now perfected clean, unfussy, utterly non-apocalyptic decline: “only medical coverage gets better, and only the cemeteries grow,” the literary critic Hans-Ulrich Gumbrecht wrote recently.

The car radio announced the election results just as Oggersheim began to give way to fields and highways. As expected, the right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD) won nearly 13 percent of the vote: the first time since 1945 that German voters had sent representatives from a far-right party into the national parliament. Merkel’s (and Kohl’s) CDU, meanwhile, received its lowest share of the vote since 1949. Oggersheim’s tidy streets and well-kept bike paths were now barely visible in the rearview mirror, and I found myself struck by the irony that those young Germans who grew up hating Kohl, and have consistently disliked Merkel, apart from a few confusing months in 2015, likely found themselves that evening longing for childhood, for that strange, confounding, infuriating holiday from history that had held the country in its grip for so long.

Yet any nostalgia we may have felt was likely tempered by a second realization: that the parenthetical spirit of the Kohl years had itself helped bring about that evening’s election results. The AfD would end up getting nearly 15 percent of the vote in Ludwigshafen. Not from former East Germans uneasily adjusting to democracy, not (or not only) from disaffected working class voters, but from the inhabitants of Kohl-land, those suburbanites who angrily defended their poured concrete, their bike paths, and their roller shutters against the universal harbingers of history: desperate people fleeing bombs and trauma. The pan-German suburb had been built to keep them out, but more importantly to keep out what they represented. That evening, a wave of irritation seemed to sweep across the affluent, unattractive, dying suburbs: addicted to stasis and to its reprieve from history, Kohl-land lashed out.

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