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In Memory of the “Two Helmuts”: The Lives, Legacies, and Historical Impact of Helmut Schmidt and Helmut Kohl: A Forum with Clayton Clemens, Ronald Granieri, Mathias Haeussler, Mary Elise Sarotte, Kristina Spohr, and Christian Wicke

  • Andrew I. Port
Extract

Between them, the chancellorships of the “two Helmuts” span nearly a quarter-century of German history. Helmut Schmidt led the country from 1974 to 1982; his successor, Helmut Kohl, served until 1998. But the verdict on their respective tenures has been very different. Kohl was seen as a bumbling provincial when he came to office in 1982 but, by the end of his second term, he had won a place in the history books as the “Chancellor of Unity” (Einheitskanzler). By the time he lost the election for what would have been his fifth term, he was hailed as the “master-builder” (Baumeister) of Europe for his decisive role in furthering the European Community's political and economic integration through the Maastricht Treaty and the introduction of the Euro. Schmidt, by contrast, came to office with a reputation for high administrative competence and intellectual prowess, but left the chancellery under a cloud. Der Spiegel spoke for many commentators when it dismissed him as a “good chancellor with a bad record”; few features of his period in office stood out as “proof of success.” Schmidt, it was said, had been a mere crisis manager and “problem-solver” (Macher) who lacked broader vision, so that “little endured of historical significance.” This has also been the verdict of many historians.

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Footnotes
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M ost observers would likely agree, regardless of political couleur, that the Federal Republic of 1998—Helmut Kohl's final year as chancellor—was, in most respects, a much different country from the Federal Republic of 1974, the year that his immediate predecessor, Helmut Schmidt, assumed the reigns of political power. Governing successively for almost a quarter-century, the “two Helmuts”—the subject of the following forum—led the Federal Republic during what were, no doubt, some of its most turbulent years; this included the so-called German Autumn of 1977, as well as the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the protracted process of unification that followed. To mark their recent deaths (Schmidt in November 2015, Kohl in June 2017), Central European History invited a half dozen experts—five historians and one political scientist, all based in the United States, Britain, and the Netherlands—to comment on the lives, legacies, and historical impact of these two major political figures.

Each of the participants—Clayton Clemens, Ronald Granieri, Mathias Haeussler, Mary Elise Sarotte, Kristina Spohr, and Christian Wicke—was given wide latitude to approach this cluster of issues and themes in any way he or she saw fit, but the results are still, in some ways, surprising. For one, only half the contributors consider both chancellors in their initial statements, whereas the other three focus almost exclusively on Kohl. Given his role as the so-called Chancellor of Unity, this might speak to Kohl's greater historical importance—though it might also merely reflect the scholarly interests of the participants. In any event, Spohr, who recently published a major study of Helmut Schmidt as “the global chancellor,” vigorously defends the legacy of the latter, arguing that Schmidt was “no less of a pioneer in international politics” than his successor. That assessment draws attention to another unanticipated feature of this forum: its focus, by and large, on the international roles of the “two Helmuts,” rather than on their domestic legacies (apart from unification and “memory politics”). But this, too, is not entirely suprising or unwarranted: after all, as Clemens observes, both politicians saw their actions in that arena as their “main legacy.”

Taken together, the contributions to this forum have a number of other features in common. They all go beyond the prevailing hoary stereotypes—Schmidt as a “pragmatic” and “rational” Macher, Kohl as someone driven by more “emotive” considerations; they argue, furthermore, that the approaches and policies of the two men were more similar, in the end, than commonly assumed. In fact, the participants seem to agree that, for better or worse, there was a great deal of continuity in the actual policies adopted by Schmidt and Kohl—that both men largely “preserved” what they had inherited domestically, while pushing Europe forward “along a path that had already been paved” (Clemens). Finally, the participants all seem to agree (with Zhou Enlai in a much different context…) that it is still too early to judge what the legacies of the “two Helmuts” will be. That issue is still “up in the air,” Haeussler suggests, adding that one cannot be certain whether the policies they embraced will work in the future—though it would perhaps be more surprising if ones adopted decades ago were indeed able to do so in our rapidly changing world. It is here that Sarotte provocatively criticizes Kohl for failing to introduce “needed renovations” to the existing international system; that, she argues, lies at the crux of many of the problems that Europe faces today. Spohr rightly reminds us, however, that one must consider “how much freedom of maneuver political leaders really enjoy.” Or, as the first Chancellor of Unity supposedly put it over a century and a half ago: “Politics is the art of the possible…”

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References
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M ost observers would likely agree, regardless of political couleur, that the Federal Republic of 1998—Helmut Kohl's final year as chancellor—was, in most respects, a much different country from the Federal Republic of 1974, the year that his immediate predecessor, Helmut Schmidt, assumed the reigns of political power. Governing successively for almost a quarter-century, the “two Helmuts”—the subject of the following forum—led the Federal Republic during what were, no doubt, some of its most turbulent years; this included the so-called German Autumn of 1977, as well as the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the protracted process of unification that followed. To mark their recent deaths (Schmidt in November 2015, Kohl in June 2017), Central European History invited a half dozen experts—five historians and one political scientist, all based in the United States, Britain, and the Netherlands—to comment on the lives, legacies, and historical impact of these two major political figures.

Each of the participants—Clayton Clemens, Ronald Granieri, Mathias Haeussler, Mary Elise Sarotte, Kristina Spohr, and Christian Wicke—was given wide latitude to approach this cluster of issues and themes in any way he or she saw fit, but the results are still, in some ways, surprising. For one, only half the contributors consider both chancellors in their initial statements, whereas the other three focus almost exclusively on Kohl. Given his role as the so-called Chancellor of Unity, this might speak to Kohl's greater historical importance—though it might also merely reflect the scholarly interests of the participants. In any event, Spohr, who recently published a major study of Helmut Schmidt as “the global chancellor,” vigorously defends the legacy of the latter, arguing that Schmidt was “no less of a pioneer in international politics” than his successor. That assessment draws attention to another unanticipated feature of this forum: its focus, by and large, on the international roles of the “two Helmuts,” rather than on their domestic legacies (apart from unification and “memory politics”). But this, too, is not entirely suprising or unwarranted: after all, as Clemens observes, both politicians saw their actions in that arena as their “main legacy.”

Taken together, the contributions to this forum have a number of other features in common. They all go beyond the prevailing hoary stereotypes—Schmidt as a “pragmatic” and “rational” Macher, Kohl as someone driven by more “emotive” considerations; they argue, furthermore, that the approaches and policies of the two men were more similar, in the end, than commonly assumed. In fact, the participants seem to agree that, for better or worse, there was a great deal of continuity in the actual policies adopted by Schmidt and Kohl—that both men largely “preserved” what they had inherited domestically, while pushing Europe forward “along a path that had already been paved” (Clemens). Finally, the participants all seem to agree (with Zhou Enlai in a much different context…) that it is still too early to judge what the legacies of the “two Helmuts” will be. That issue is still “up in the air,” Haeussler suggests, adding that one cannot be certain whether the policies they embraced will work in the future—though it would perhaps be more surprising if ones adopted decades ago were indeed able to do so in our rapidly changing world. It is here that Sarotte provocatively criticizes Kohl for failing to introduce “needed renovations” to the existing international system; that, she argues, lies at the crux of many of the problems that Europe faces today. Spohr rightly reminds us, however, that one must consider “how much freedom of maneuver political leaders really enjoy.” Or, as the first Chancellor of Unity supposedly put it over a century and a half ago: “Politics is the art of the possible…”

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Central European History
  • ISSN: 0008-9389
  • EISSN: 1569-1616
  • URL: /core/journals/central-european-history
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