A strange kind of architect - the late Helmut Kohl

A letter to the editors of TIME magazine - July 2017

Dear Editors of TIME,

the recent passing of the former chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany, Helmut Kohl, was honoured in the "milestones"-section of TIME magazine (edition July 3, 2017). It was titled "Helmut Kohl - Reunification architect".

With due respect - this title is, though repeatedly used, utterly wrong. Let's contemplate what the essence of an architect's work is: After collecting information about the intended use and location of the building, he sets out to make a detailed plan of the building, taking into account the specific challenges of location, weather, use and so on.

He will oblige to the accepted rules of his profession for the specific task, and of course he will follow the applying norms. In Germany he will in most cases also be asked to have his calculations on the stability of the building be independently checked by a specialist in structural engineering known as "Statiker".

All this accounts for the reassuring fact that most buildings in developed countries remain sound and stable, at least during their expected lifetime - and do not crumble under their own weight or collapse during heavy use.

How to judge on Mr. Kohl's accomplishments in the german reunification process? Well, Mr. Kohl developed a plan of some sort and made the effort to publish it.

It was titled "10-Punkte-Programm". But it was soon utterly forgotten, because in the tumultous weeks and months that culminated in the collapse of the east German state DDR and further on of the Sowjet Union it was simply made obsolete by events.

This is not to criticize that Mr. Kohl ended up with no plan and operated mainly "on visual flight rules" - probably no German politician of the time was really prepared for the sudden disintegration of the seemingly well established DDR, and probably no one had a workable plan in his pocket. But it should make clear that the labeling "reunification architect" is wrong.

Some years later his predecessor as chancellor, Helmut Schmidt, claimed in a detailed article in the weekly "Die Zeit" that Mr. Kohl "has made no mistakes during the reunification process". If true, this would be not a meek achievement, and - coming from a lifelong opponent - also an important praise. But "making no mistakes" is a far shot from "excellent policy making", and there are a lot of important shortcomings of Mr. Kohl's policiy making that still trouble Germany and - as we will see - Europe as a whole.

A not so obvious but important case is the rejection by Kohl and his party CDU to implement a new constitutional process to develop a revised constitution for the new unified Germany. This was, at least in spirit, in disregard of the stated intention of the authors of the west German constitution, the "Grundgesetz". Kohl and his fellow CDU politicians instead chose to take the seemingly "easy" way of simply declaring accession (or "Beitritt") of the 5 eastern "Bundesländer" to the realm of the "Grundgesetz".

For that occasion the said 5 "Bundesländer" had to be somewhat invented or re-invented, for the centrally organized DDR had known no "Länder" (though we have to admit that there had formerly been "Länder" in the Kaiserreich, the Weimar republic and in the "Third Reich").

This technically easy way to unification was to have the sad consequence that a substantial part of the east german populace was feeling not represented in the new great Germany of 80 million inhabitants. At least a public discussion about what social (and maybe political) achievements of the former DDR should be continued in the unified state would have been beneficial for the coming-together of old and new union citizens or "Bundesbürger". Part of the great appeal that right-wing extremist should gain in the east German states in the years to come has, in my judgement, it's root in this initial political exclusion of the east German citizens.

But Mr. Kohl had a more urgent case in suppressing any constitutional debate - he wanted to become the first chancellor of the unified Germany to be elected in "free and fair" elections. This he would achieve, and for that cause he was to disregard clever advice. Many economists had warned that the over-hastened sellout of the east German industries by the so-called "Treuhand" would cause a widespread de-industrialization of the new Bundesländer - but Mr. Kohl was willing to take the risk because his influential friends in the established western economy were urging to do so (not without self-interest - in that way many long-standing business rivals in the east could be "terminated").

Another victim of his quest to become "chancellor of unification" was any rational debate over ways to convert the eastern economy from the "DDR-Mark"-currency to the western "D-Mark"-currency. He personally intervened to have an exchange rate of "one-to-one" instituted, although nearly all economic experts warned that this would have the gravest implications on the eastern economy. His political gamble was successful - his electoral promise to "bring the D-Mark to the east" made his party the unrivaled winner in the first "unified" parliamentary elections, and he became the "chancellor of unification". But quickly the exports of the east german industries (formerly the export champions within the east bloc !) nosedived, and widespread umemployment followed.

Interestingly, his greatest project in the european political arena, the single currency zone later to be named "the Euro", was also marred by economic incompetence.

His political calculation in relation to Europe seems - at first glance - quite sound. He sensed correctly that the German reunification was viewed with great scepticism by its neighbours, namely Italy, France and Great Britain. Although publicly all statesmen were full of praise and jubilation, the internal response was quite different - "there are two german states, and that should stay so in the future" was a confidential remark of an Italian statesman at the time.

Mr. Kohl was willing to make a deal - Germany was to relinquish its all-too-strong currency "D-Mark" in exchange for political acceptance of its greatly enhanced "gravity" in the then "European Community". The new single currency should - by virtue of greatly simplified business transactions - provide for significantly improved economic growth within the member states and thus alleviate any grievances that the non-german populations might still heed. Obviously Mr. Kohl and his followers had the historic example of the successful introduction of the D-Mark in 1948 in mind , which seemingly had enabled the famed "Wirtschaftwunder" of the German economy that followed .

In retrospect it's hard to believe that Kohl's counterparts in the European community agreed to a system of monetary union that would leave them with no political-economic tools should Germany pursue a markedly different economic course than its neighbours. And there was plenty of economic expertise offered that warned against a premature monetary union, e.g. the manifesto of 62 professors of economics in 1992 (one of them being the longtime minister of economics, Karl Schiller).

With the transition of monetary powers to the European central bank the member states lost the ability to counter economic imbalances within the EU with revaluation or devaluation of their currencies. Also, as time was to show, the ECB is not willing to be the "lender of last resort" that the old national banks used to be for their states - at least as long as the state in need is a smaller one like Greece.

I don't know if the path of "internal devaluation" that Germany was to take in the years after the introduction of the Euro was already in the minds of the German political and industrial elites at the time of negotiation of the Maastricht treaties. But it was pursued with great effort as soon as the common currency was introduced. And the accompanying propaganda in Germany in those years was strikingly similar to that which is currently on display in France: The own country was depicted as being "the ill man of Europe", with way too much bureaucratic hindrances that restrain entrepreneurship and cause lagging economic growth. And of course the workforce was deemed lazy, clinging to old-fashioned privileges - instead people should show restraint in wages and regard layoffs as "chances" for the creation of new workplaces.

Now, nearly 20 years after the introduction of the single currency, it is all too clear that the dangers that (not only) those 62 economists warned against in 1992 have materialized. Instead of bringing economic growth and stability to all its peoples, the Euro has so far been beneficial only for one country: Germany's (traditionally strong) export industry was able to secure more and more market share for its products, partly overseas, but mostly within the European union itself. Thus unemployment has been exported as well, and Germany can boast of the lowest umployment rate in the EU. Reciprocally, umemployment in the other Euro countries has risen, in some countries dramatically.

Some people recognize these structural (or "architectural") deficiencies of the Euro system, but try to absolve Mr. Kohl from any responsibilty - since he was "only a historian" and was therefore not able to oversee the consquences. But nobody expects modern government leaders to be a kind of "multi-expert", able to excel in street planning, health system management, police work and education etc. simultaneously. What should and can be expected is the ability to select and promote able managers and experts in all fields of governing and to access valuable expertise from outside government bureaus if necessary.

Mr. Kohl is surely not the only person to be blamed for the multiple deficiencies of the single currency, but obviously his share was great.

So we have at least two instances in which Mr. Kohls decisions were to become detrimental to the well-being of his fellow countrymen or fellow europeans.

Another important issue is the adherence to norms - something that we can expect of any "architect". The norms that a member of government has to follow are of course the laws, and Mr.

Kohl's adherence to laws was, to put it mildly, "situative".

In the party donation scandal that was to finally end his leadership of the CDU party he chose to hold his "word of honour to the donors" above the law. He never disclosed the names of the donors, and he never showed remorse for breaking the rules of party financing in the first place.

But this was obviously an enduring trait of his political career, he always preferred "direct personal contacts" and secret machinations over public discussion.

Yesterday, July 1, 2017, saw a so far unique enactment of a official "European ceremony of honour" for the late Helmut Kohl. His coffin had been draped with the EU-flag and put into the center of the EU parliaments building, and a multitude of "dignitaries" including EU commission chief Juncker praised the deceased . After this ceremony, the coffin was transferred via helicopter to Ludwigshafen. The coffin - now covered with the German flag - was then transported via Boat to Speyer, where the German part of the ceremony was to take place in that city's cathedral ("Dom"). Finally, his remains were laid to rest in Speyer, traveling the last metres in another of the heavy Mercedes limousines that Kohl preferred in his lifetime (albeit somewhat marred by the absence of the Mercedes star on the grille - the hearse manufacturer Binz has come to replace it with an oversized "B") .

It is hard not to notice the pompousness of the whole thing. Especially the boat tour on the Rhine struck me as inappropriate, an all too obvious re-enactment of the boat tour that thousands of people watched 50 years ago when the first chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany was laid to rest. Very fitting for Konrad Adenauer (whose daily routine included a ferry trip over the Rhine on his way from his home in Rhöndorf to his offices in Bonn), the boat trip seemed unrelating to Helmut Kohl, of whom no special relationship to the river Rhine is on record.

Maybe ever increasing pompousness of ceremonies like this are a typical sign of regimes that lose the appreciation of their governed people (and you may extend this hypothesis to events like the G20-Summit and others). The exuberant funeral ceremonies for King Edward VII. in 1910, so brilliantly described by Barbara Tuchman in her book "August 1914", can also be interpreted as the funeral of the European system of monarchies. Most of those monarchies were gone 8 years later, after those monarchs had lead their people into the greatest carnage that the world had seen until then, the "Great War".

Well - the struggles of modern-day Europe are mostly fought on economical terrain and we can hope that the loss of life will be limited. But the inability of the European Union to tackle the basic structural deficits (e.g. the Euro system), but also a multitude of other problems (e.g. the refugee influx) does not heed well for that system, too.

(July 2017)