“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 …