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Goodbye to Bonn


This is a historic moment,” a stalwart German Christian Democrat whispered to me as the familiar giant figure of Helmut Kohl mounted the stage at party headquarters in Bonn, shortly before seven o’clock on the evening of Sunday, September 27, 1998. As if it needed saying! Given the scale of the Christian Democrats’ electoral defeat, we all guessed that, after a staggering sixteen years in power, the chancellor of German and European unification would be stepping down. When the cries of “Helmut! Helmut!” had finally abated, he gave a dignified short speech. He congratulated the Social Democrat Gerhard Schröder on his victory and wished him “a happy hand for our land.” As for himself, he would now also retire as party leader. It felt as if the Alps had suddenly announced their departure.

As the twentieth century draws to a close, we can safely say that Helmut Kohl is its last great European statesman. Watching him leave the stage, I thought of a memorable conversation we had a few years ago. At one moment he took my breath away. “Do you realize,” he said, “that you are sitting opposite the direct successor to Adolf Hitler?” The point of this startling, even shocking, remark was that he—the first chancellor of a united Germany since Hitler—was going to do everything quite differently. Whereas Hitler had tried to put a German roof over Europe, he was determined to put a European roof over Germany. This amazing sally encapsulated several ingredients of Kohl’s greatness: his acute instinct for power, his historical vision, and the bold simplicity of his strategic thinking. Add tactical adroitness, tireless attention to party-political details, and vast physical presence and stamina—the result is a provincial politician who changed the world.

The election of Sunday, September 27, was not just the end of the “Kohl era.” It marked several other ends—and new beginnings. This is the last federal election in which the parties’ election expenses will be calculated in Deutschmarks. Next time round, in 2002, the Deutschmark, that totem of postwar West German prosperity, stability, and identity, will be no more. Everything will be done in euros. It was also the last election for which we will go to Bonn. Next year, parliament and government move to Berlin. As Christopher Isherwood didn’t write: “Goodbye to Bonn.”

Walking up the modest highway which is the spine of that dank Rhineland city, with cheerful crowds thronging the pavements, their attention soon turning back from the election to a rock band, beer, and the Formula One championships just up the road, I felt a pang of regret. Bonn is a dull place, but what came to be known as “the Bonn republic” has been a good Germany, perhaps the best we have ever had. In this election, it proved the maturity of its carefully constructed, quiet, civil democracy. Although the country has four million unemployed, German voters once again rejected the extremes of left and right. The old saying “Bonn is not Weimar”—that is, its democracy will not be torn apart by a flight to antidemocratic extremes, as in the Weimar republic—can now be adapted to a definitive, final form: “Bonn was not Weimar.”

We knew we were saying goodbye to Bonn and the Deutschmark. We thought we would be saying goodbye to Kohl. What we didn’t expect was a landslide that changes the whole political face of Germany. All the public opinion pollsters except one showed Kohl closing the gap on Schröder. Electoral arithmetic based on these polls suggested the likelihood of a “grand coalition” in which Schröder’s Social Democrats would govern together with the Christian Democrats, the latter under a new leader. This seemed about right for the Bonn republic’s style of gradual, consensual change. It is a remarkable fact that in the entire previous history of the Federal Republic, the government has never completely changed as a direct result of the popular vote. The governing coalition has either changed between elections or, in the rare event of its changing at an election, one previous coalition partner has remained in power.

This time the voters decided otherwise. As if to show that, after half a century, German democracy has fully come of age, they produced a result which means that (unless the coalition negotiations, which are not finished at this writing, go disastrously wrong) the Social Democrats replace the Christian Democrats as the senior partner, and the environmentalist Greens replace the Free Democrats as the junior partner. In this so-called “red-green coalition,” all the faces will be new.

Why was the vote so decisive? I saw three main reasons. First, and most important, after sixteen years people simply felt it was “time for a change.” That was the answer that came again and again in my own conversations and those reported elsewhere. The old man and his team had run out of energy and ideas. Voters were plain bored with those same old faces. Boredom is an underrated factor in politics.

This was exactly what happened in Britain last year, after eighteen years of Conservative rule. A Conservative candidate in that election told me that when people asked him “Isn’t it time for a change?” he simply had no answer. In his heart of hearts, he thought it was too. So also here. Contrary to some predictions, the crises in Russia and Asia did not make voters feel that it was better to stick with the experienced statesman.

Second, the “Clintonblair” Schröder was a smooth, telegenic, attractive candidate, with an unusually well-disciplined Social Democratic Party behind him, led by his colleague and rival Oskar Lafontaine. Post-election research shows that the main component of the swing was straightforward: people who voted Christian Democrat last time voted Social Democrat this time. Among them were many pensioners, whose pensions Kohl had trimmed and Schröder promises to restore.

Third, there was the east. Back in the historic spring of 1990, Helmut Kohl won a crucial election in what was still East Germany by promising to create “blooming landscapes” out of the post-communist wasteland. That vote meant East Germany became just east Germany: the eastern part of a larger Federal Republic.1 By the time of the last federal election, in 1994, with old communist factories rusting all around, and their workers on the dole, “blooming landscapes” had become a bitter joke. I saw people holding up placards at Kohl’s election rallies asking “Where are the blooming landscapes?” or exclaiming simply “Blooming landscapes!” But enough people still had enough confidence in Kohl to give the CDU the largest share of the vote.2

This time, I spent much of the pre-election week in the east. In the city of Schwerin, I watched disillusioned youngsters, many of them unemployed, heckle the chancellor as he spoke glowingly of growth and jobs. They held up a satirical banner proclaiming “Helmut: You are the Way, the Truth and the Light.” Then, on the hustings at a village on the outskirts of east Berlin, I was amazed to see a poster proclaiming “Vote for Blooming Landscapes—CDU.” The left-wing cartoonist Klaus Staeck was not amused. “That was my joke,” he protested. And a joke in the end it proved to be, since the CDU vote in the east plummeted from more than 38 percent in 1994 to just over 27 percent in 1998. In the west it fell less than half as much, from just over 33 percent to just under 28. It was the east that turned a defeat into a rout.

There’s a deep irony here. For Kohl has been voted away at a time when large parts of that eastern landscape actually are beginning to “bloom.” Traveling around, I still found large patches of desolation, rust, unemployment, and the accompanying mixture of apathy among the old and often xenophobic anger among the young. But I also found impressive areas of large-scale construction, new jobs, enterprise, and hope.

Nowhere else in post-communist Europe does one see such vistas of shining new steel, glass, and concrete. Hardly surprising, given that west Germany has pumped more than DM 1,000,000,000,000 ($600 billion) into the east over the last eight years. And there is huge private investment too. The mayor of one community in the so-called “bacon belt” of prosperous commuter villages around Berlin showed me the new streets and fire station, the freshly renovated school, and a whole neighborhood of detached, private houses, built by local people on savings and building loans. The old kingdom of Saxony in the south is booming under the Christian Democrat Kurt Biedenkopf, who presides like a new king in Leipzig and Dresden. Even in the poor northern province of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, which has more than 17 percent unemployment, every village I drove through had some new building projects.

Still more important is the mental architecture. The picture you get from the British or American press is one of almost universal resignation and resentment. Yet I found people hungrily participating in a democracy that is still new to them. This was the liveliest campaign in the east since the vote for unification back in 1990. Walls were plastered with posters. Meetings were packed. More than 80 percent of those eligible turned out to vote, compared with 72 percent four years ago. And it’s not only at election time. The mayor of that “bacon belt” village tells me she is deluged with petitions and “citizens’ initiatives.” Many are dedicated to protecting the selfish interests of the new middle class. For example, the residents of that new private housing estate protest about being asked to contribute to the cost of a local bicycle path. This is “civil society” emerging, but civil society less as the central European dissidents dreamed of it than as Karl Marx analyzed it—the self-defense of the bourgeoisie!

A comparison is sometimes made between the German East after unification and the American South after the Civil War. But this is quite misleading. East Germany was always an artificial unit, the Soviet Zone of Occupation turned into a state. The flourishing southern provinces of Thuringia and Saxony now feel themselves closer to Bavaria than to Mecklenburg. East and west Berlin are slowly but surely getting mixed up together. The arrogance, condescension, and incomprehension that many west Germans display toward their eastern compatriots is still a big problem. It was rightly said after 1990 that while Germany had been united, the Germans had not. But even that is beginning to happen. In the early 1990s there continued to be a mass emigration of east Germans to the west. Last year, for the first time, almost as many west Germans came to live in the east.

All just as Kohl promised—though a lot more slowly, painfully, and expensively. Yet those ungrateful easterners have bitten the hand that fed them. So now Helmut Kohl will retire to his modest house in the small western town of Oggersheim, while Gerhard Schröder will move into the grand new Chancellery in the big, raw, eastern city of Berlin. A half-century of the Bonn republic has suddenly and decisively ended.

  1. 1

    See my “East Germany: The Solution,” The New York Review, April 26, 1990.

  2. 2

    See my “Kohl’s Germany: The Beginning of the End?” The New York Review, December 1, 1994.

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