Kohl first studied law at the University of Frankfurt am Main but transferred to Heidelberg University, where he earned a doctorate in history in 1958. His dissertation centered on the revival of political parties in Germany after 1945. By 1966 he was chairman of the state party organization, and in 1969 he became the minister-president of Rhine-Palatine.
Kohl's image as a dynamic reformer helped the CDU win an absolute majority in Rhine-Palatine in the elections of 1971 and 1975. His own career, however, slowed slightly. He failed in his attempt to become the national CDU chairman in 1971. After winning that post on his second attempt in 1973, he then lost the contest for the chancellorship in 1976. He went to Bonn as the leader of the opposition but was forced to allow Franz Josef Strauss, leader of the Bavarian wing of the party, to stand for chancellor in 1980. However, a constructive vote of no-confidence against the government of Helmut Schmidt allowed Kohl to take the chancellorship on 1 October 1982.
Kohl immediately made his mark, pushing through legislation that allowed the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to place new missiles in West Germany despite the protests of the Soviet Union and the West German peace movement. More important for his continuing success, however, was a steady improvement in the West German economy. Under Kohl, an additional 1.3 million West Germans found work between 1983 and 1989.
Kohl also deepened Germany's involvement with and commitment to Europe. In September 1984, he met with French President François Mitterrand at Verdun for a joint commemoration of the victims of both world wars. The two men also worked together to develop a European defense corps and a European radio station and to lay the foundations for the Treaty of Maastricht and common European currency. Kohl also worked closely with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and U.S. President Ronald Reagan. While Kohl's joint commemoration with Reagan of the victims of World War II at an SS cemetery in Bitburg created some controversy, the CDU was confirmed in government in the elections of 1983 and 1987.
Kohl was the right man in the right place when the Berlin Wall was finally breached in November 1989. He quickly seized the initiative, surprising the German parliament with a ten-point program for German unity before the end of the month. He promised immediate economic aid to the German Democratic Republic (GDR, East Germany), to be followed by political reform. He followed this with a milestone speech on the topic before more than 100,000 people at the Frauenkirche in Dresden, East Germany, on 19 December 1989. Kohl was rewarded with a resounding victory for the CDU in the first (and last) free elections held in the East Germany in March 1990.
Kohl worked to rapidly integrate the two Germanies, at great cost and with mixed success. His government barely won reelection in 1994 and was soundly defeated in 1998 largely because of the economic burdens imposed on Germany by his program of unification. Four years later, he was forced to resign as chairman of the CDU due to revelations that he had known about illegal payments made on behalf of the party. His legacy nonetheless is among the greatest of German politicians. Having served sixteen years in office, he was the longest sitting federal chancellor and ranked behind only Otto von Bismarck in time in office overall. Kohl was honored as an honorary citizen of Europe, only the second time that title was bestowed, for his role in German reunification and is still widely known as "The Chancellor of German Unity."
Timothy C. Dowling
Maser, Werner. Helmut Kohl: Der deutsche Kanzler; Biographie. Berlin: Ullstein, 1990.; Pruys, Karl Hugo, ed. Kohl: Genius of the Present; A Biography of Helmut Kohl. Berlin: Edition Q, 1996.; Pulzer, Peter G. J. German Politics, 1945–1995. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.