Death of a European

Kohl's Last Great Act

  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Helmet Kohl wanted his funeral to mark a celebration of his life’s most important political project: the European Union. In so doing, he appears to want to send a posthumous message to his successor, Chancellor Angela Merkel.

  • Facts


    • Helmet Kohl was one of the main architects of The Maastricht Treaty, signed in 1992, which formally established the European Union and led to the euro.
    • In 1984, Helmut Kohl and French president François Mitterrand held hands at the historic battlefied of Verdun, a moment that came to symbolize German-French reconciliation.
  • Audio


  • Pdf
Kohl dpa Picture-Alliance-6386440-HighRes Kopie BIG
Helmet Kohl standing in front of an EU flag in 2004. Source: DPA

On July 1, Helmut Kohl will be officially honored with an elaborate ceremony in Strasbourg, France. It will be something of a state funeral without a state. Helmut Kohl wanted it that way, intending the commemoration to mark a European event, one that would take place not in Germany, but in the parliament of the European Union, the supranational organization he did so much to advance.

It was more than three decades ago in Verdun, on the battlefields of the First World War, that Mr. Kohl clasped the hand of François Mitterrand in a historic gesture of reconciliation that symbolized Europe’s advancement toward political and economic union. Now, in his death, Kohl is managing one last, grand European act. The coffin of the German chancellor will lie in state in France before being taken by boat on the Rhine River to the German town of Speyer, near his childhood home. According to the wishes of his widow, the former chancellor will be buried there without a German state funeral.

In recent years, moments of lofty European symbolism have come with dark overtones. Five years ago, for instance, as the euro crisis roiled, the European Union was unexpectedly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. In the midst of crisis, European leaders found themselves sitting next to each other in Oslo’s festively decorated city hall, yet the occasion was anything but joyful. Martin Schulz, the current social democratic candidate for German chancellor, who, at the time, was president of the European Parliament, compared the European Union to the family in Thomas Mann’s novel, “Buddenbrooks.” The first generation created the family fortune, the second generation inherited it, and the third squandered it.

Mr. Kohl is reported to have once complained that Angela Merkel was destroying “his Europe.”

When one of the keynote speakers in Oslo that day spoke of the Franco-German friendship, Angela Merkel turned to the then-French president, François Hollande, and he hesitantly took her hand in an attempt to replay the famous gesture in Verdun. Yet, the move seemed to fall flat as the two leaders looked embarrassed and stilted. The moment encapsulated the European Union’s flagging sense of purpose.

As Mr. Kohl watched Europe’s economic and political crises unfold, he sometimes criticized Angela Merkel for failing to show the visionary leadership necessary for Europe to overcome its challenges. Of course, Mr. Kohl himself was not without blame for the EU’s problems. The flaws intrinsic to the introduction of the euro under his leadership became apparent only years later. Likewise, the abolition of borders within Europe, which seemed wholly positive at the time, would later prove to have serious security ramifications. These problems are also part of Kohl’s legacy, but from his perspective, the more fundamental European problem was Ms. Merkel’s lack of will or ability to put the EU’s success first. Mr. Kohl is reported to have once complained that she was destroying “his Europe.”

Yet, just at the moment the great European leader has died, Europe may be experiencing an awakening. The challenges of Brexit, ongoing troubles with Russia, and doubts about America’s leadership, have not left the EU paralyzed, but instead appear to have convinced European leaders – particularly Ms. Merkel – that the EU must unite and take its fate into its own hands. The feeling of renewal is coming largely from France, where the election of the unabashedly pro-European Emmanuel Macron as president has restored the EU’s confidence after years of uncertainty and doubt. Yet, whether Macron’s popularity will last – and with it, the sense of European rejuvenation — remains to be seen.

Were Mr. Kohl present for his own commemoration, he likely would have viewed the current European moment with mixed feelings. With Prime Minister Theresa May of Britain losing power and influence in the midst of Brexit, the ceremony will provide Ms. Merkel and Mr. Macron a chance to project political power. That, however, does not mean Ms. Merkel will advocate for the necessity of further European integration in the way that Mr. Kohl would have liked. Mr. Kohl, traumatized by the World War II, didn’t want the EU’s path of integration left open to any doubt. “The process of Europe’s unification is irreversible,” he told the German daily Tagesspiegel in 1999. “The European train is already on the tracks,” he added. “Some skeptics will try to stop the train or have it drive more slowly. But no one in the European Union can change the direction.”

Europe’s contemporary crises will undoubtedly define what the EU looks like in the future.

Metaphors suggesting the irreversibility of the EU were typical during the Kohl years. For members of his generation, the EU was a “never again” project, an institutionalized defense against the possibility of war. There could be no alternative. But how does that outlook appear to those Europeans of today who never endured, as Mr. Kohl once put it, “the smell of burned human flesh?” The more distant the Second World War becomes, the fewer the people who wish to have an EU as Mr. Kohl envisioned it. That became clear in 2005, when both France and the Netherlands voted against a European constitution. Eleven years later, the British decided to leave the EU. Contrary to Mr. Kohl’s doctrine of irreversibility, future generations will only embrace the EU if they are able to choose the union, to have a say in what form or direction it takes.

Europe’s contemporary crises will undoubtedly define what the EU looks like in the future. The euro crisis has already caused governments to adopt common financial policies; the Ukraine crisis has driven a common foreign policy toward Russia; and the uncertainty over the American commitment to NATO’s security guarantees has opened the path to a new European defense policy.

This evolution shows that the essence of European integration has quietly changed. Mr. Kohl and his generation were able to plan far ahead: The euro and the single market were projects that were implemented step by step over decades. Today, in a less predictable world, European unification is being driven by reactions to events like the refugee crisis or the annexation of Crimea.

Mr. Kohl is not the last great European. The EU is the work of generations, with each generation facing a new and different task. The lively, argumentative, often unwieldy union of 28 member states that today’s chancellor must work with has little in common with the smaller and more manageable club Mr. Kohl was able to exert considerable control over. Ms. Merkel’s strategy toward European integration may be different, but so are the conditions she is operating in.

Mr. Kohl’s last great European political act in Strasbourg, however, will not be a moment to reflect on the two German leaders’ differences. Rather, it will be a moment to reflect on a European project that, despite the lingering internecine conflicts and crises, may just be on the cusp of resurgence.

This article was initially published in Die Zeit, a sister publication of Handelsblatt. To reach the authors:

We hope you enjoyed this article

Make sure to sign up for our free newsletters too!