The date I am contemplating is 22 June 1990. Hungarian Premier József Antall is on an official visit to Bonn, Germany. The guards of honour line up in front of the Chancellery, as do the delegates from Hungary. We wait briefly, then a tall, burly man steps outside and greets the guards with the words “Guten Tag, Soldaten!” His soldiers roar “Guten Tag, Herr Bundeskanzler!” in reply. Mutual introductions follow. The Chancellor greets József Antall, then stops in front of us, looks at us, and says, “What a young staff you have, Jozef!” I believe his glance fell on György Matolcsy first, but he may have meant myself as well. More to the point, when the Chancellor glimpses György O’sváth, our Premier’s Personal Advisor, his eyes grow wide in surprise. “Was treibst du denn hier?” (“What are you doing here?”), he asks incredulously. “Ich wollte dich einmal von dieser Seite begrüssen…” – “I wanted to greet you from this side for once.” I am telling you this story because this visit marked for me the moment when I probably realised what all this great geopolitical reshuffling was all about, with the democratic transition conducted in many places including Hungary, and German unification in progress. Things were falling into place, you know. O’sváth, the freedom fighter of 1956, turned Christian Democrat activist in Germany, had returned from emigration to become Personal Advisor to Hungary’s Prime Minister, while his comrade in the Christian Democratic movement had become Chancellor of a unified Germany. At long last, the pieces of the puzzle had been put together.
Could all this have worked out differently? The question can be and will be asked by historians, but I think there is not much sense in asking it after the fact. Several commentators have talked about a momentary state of grace, the “magic year”, or göttlicher Zeitpunkt, and this is all well. Indeed, it was a time of miracles, in which Helmut Kohl undoubtedly played a major role – from our point of view, certainly that of the protagonist. In fact, I am convinced that Helmut Kohl must be regarded as a key figure in the universal history of the 20th century. And while on the subject of the last century, allow me to suggest that this century, which seemed both brief and horrible in many ways, had a second half that does not deserve to be underestimated in my opinion. For instance, we would be ill-advised to underrate the enormous difference in European history between the period following World War I and the period following World War II. To me, this difference is symbolised by the two treaties, incidentally signed in the same city, or nearly the same city. The first treaties, created in Versailles, were instruments of retribution, designed to get even with the enemy. Paris later came to be the cradle of another treaty, after World War II, which set up the European Coal and Steel Community and launched the process of European integration, which has been a huge success, without question. Here I concur with the opinion of Wolfgang Schüssel, as I often do. In the end, this process of integration made a vital contribution to the series of changes, the magical concatenation of events which transpired in 1989 and 1990.
One frequently asked question is how important an individual character or personality really is in such momentous changes. In other words, who makes history? The answer depends on your perspective. I personally believe that one of Helmut Kohl’s greatest merits, among his many other virtues, lay in his ability to go beyond recognising the miraculous opportunity at that specific junction, to come up with an answer to the German dilemma that had been nagging Europe for nearly 150 years. This was of course the quandary of Germany’s envisioned future. Is the country to be a dominant force in the middle of Europe, a Zentralmacht, with ambitions to autonomously extend its sphere of influence to the West and to the East, provoking alliance in the West as well as among its Eastern neighbours, both pitted against Germany? Bismarck himself saw this problem clearly when he spoke about the cauchemar des coalitions, a chimerical coalition of two otherwise opposed camps against Germany. This is indeed the so-called conditio germaniae, articulated from all sides since then, which says that Germany is too big for European equilibrium but, as we had more than one fortunate occasion to find out, too small to dominate the Continent. It is too small to become a global superpower, but too big for a discreet, autonomous European power. This German dilemma has persisted throughout history. In 1945, the formation of West Germany provided a summary solution for this problem. This is as good a point as any to recall the answer, certainly a correct one for Helmut Kohl himself, proposed by Konrad Adenauer back then, when he declared point-blank that Germany belonged in the Western alliance. Of course, by this he meant West Germany. The German dilemma then continued in another guise, focused on the question of whether German unification would ever be possible in the future. Some heads of state averred – as we heard a while back – that Germany would not be unified until a French astronaut has landed on Mars. A distant future, then, to say the least. So the German dilemma survived in this new form until the annus mirabilis when Helmut Kohl stepped on the scene, to face the same questions: What to do about Germany? Where does Germany belong? Where do the German people belong? Obviously, the first challenge was how to unify the country – not an easy task to be sure. The 10 points on the agenda initially envisioned a relatively longer period to accomplish this unification, although they were quite firm on the basic issues: Germany would never be a neutral country. Germany will be part of the Western alliance. These dicta were gradually accepted by everyone, including those who had reservations at first, both in Germany (I am referring to certain hardly uninfluential circles on the left who entertained dreams of neutrality) and of course outside Germany, who pictured the country as part of some other alternative geopolitical structure. And it was at this juncture that the miracle was seen. It was the realisation by all that Germany had a place in a rapidly integrating Europe, that it belonged in the Western alliance, and that Europe could never be united until German unification was accomplished. This German unity, embodied in a unified country, would serve as a protagonist and a catalyst for building forward the dream of a unified Europe. What we see here, at the very beginning, is an intimate correlation between German unity and European unity. None of these of course went without doubts and reservations, and Helmut Kohl played a fundamental role in dispersing them. One question that immediately arose was this: Fine, let Germany be unified, but how are we to embed this unified Germany more solidly in the system of European integration? There was also a call, indeed a firm demand, for introducing the common currency. Kohl sensed that this was an indispensable condition for Germany to occupy a place in unified Europe, and voted yes, although not without adding a stipulation: Fine, let’s go for the common currency, it’s a good tool for making the process of European integration irreversible, but then let us also go for a political union, because the two are inseparable; they must go hand in hand. Then again, what will happen to the rest of Europe outside that political union? Obviously, unity should be more than a vacant slogan. If we are to take it seriously, we should extend it toward Central and Eastern Europe, embarking on a process of reunifying Europe as a whole. As for that continent-wide unification, it also seemed an unavoidable necessity in terms of economics, security policy, ethics, and even constitutional law, as clearly laid down in the Treaty of Rome. Then again, this necessity had to be recognised and transplanted into practice. It had to be realised, and Helmut Kohl was able to put it in no uncertain terms, that German unity and European unity were two sides of the same coin.
What are the lessons and consequences to be learned from all of this? First is the epiphany that opportunities, those grand and rare opportunities called Zeitfenster in German, are produced by history. The second is the realisation that it is solely up to the decisions of actors in the arena of history whether or not these opportunities will be grabbed and exploited. This is where the all-important role of personality comes in. This is where Helmut Kohl came in, as I have pointed out, who noticed the unique opening created by history precisely there and then, and had it in him to use it to best advantage. The other lesson, which I hope will be apparent from what I have had to say so far, is how essential it is to always be cognisant of who we are, about our identity and allegiances. This presupposes several things. One is historical awareness and perspective, a sense of history, the ability to face history head-on. Another prerequisite is a perfectly clear strategic vision, in which individual effort occupies an equally unambiguous position with well- defined ambitions. The third one is something Mr Viktor Orbán and later Chancellor Schüssel also mentioned: it is courage. So you need a proper historical perspective, a clear strategic vision and goals, and you also need to be bold and brave enough to attain them.
Beyond these three prerequisites, there is something more: you need partners to collaborate with. All too often, going for sheer dominance seems to be the easier option which promises to get you where you want to be faster and more conveniently. Seeking consensus, compromise and partnership is a more involved and more protracted process, but the results will be more enduring. This is what Helmut Kohl accomplished, because the detractors I mentioned earlier eventually all came round to his position. Paris accepted the necessity, as did London. Washington had understood all of this from the start, and, what is perhaps even more germane to this discussion, so had the Soviet Union. Without a doubt, in a manner of speaking, the Soviet leadership at the time was quite broadminded about it all. You could say they accepted the inevitable in a situation when making this realisation could not have been taken for granted. And when we talk about whether any of these events could possibly have turned out in another way, we must always think about what would have happened had the Soviet leadership reacted differently. In those days – I am talking about the autumn of 1989 – the Soviet Union had not yet fallen apart and still had its military potential more or less intact. Although the leaders admitted to having lost the Cold War, this defeat and its admission were far from obvious to everyone. Crucially, at the end of the day – as Kissinger said it in a recent letter to Helmut Kohl – the Chancellor accomplished what he did in friendly concurrence with France, his foremost point of reference in European affairs, and in partnership with Washington, and in collaboration with the Soviet Union. Eventually, Moscow accepted that, while Soviet foreign policy had formerly been advocating a neutral Germany that would stand apart from the West; this was not necessarily the best scenario for them. Nowadays the Russians might take a different view, but let’s not go into that. The point I want to make here is that it became eminently clear that a Germany courting neutrality and hovering, as it were, between the two opposed world orders that still existed side by side back then, would never cease to cause strategic uncertainty and tension. Instead, it made sense to be resigned to the idea of a Germany in the fold of the Western alliance and NATO, and to negotiate a sort of partnership with that in mind. What turn these attitudes have recently taken is another matter. The bottomline is that the consensus achieved at the time is a living proof that even Russia is not always averse to cooperation, circumstances permitting or demanding, and subject to certain conditions. And it has always been a cooperation earned the hard way, to be sure. According to a popular adage, there can be two problems with Russia: one is if it is too weak, the other is when it is too powerful. In other words, a kind of balance must be found between the two extremes. In any event, it is certain – as has been shown by Helmut Kohl in his latest book – that it is not only possible but downright imperative to cooperate with Russia.
My last item on the agenda for this talk is the question of European integration, the subject of Helmut Kohl’s book Aus Sorge um Europa, which Viktor Orbán has referred to. The chief thesis of this book, on which I think we all concur, is that Europe means a common destiny, a common liability and a common opportunity. The cause of European integration is beset by hardship from all sides these days. The problems are too many to enumerate. There is a need for change across the board, but the core tenets remain the same. As Helmut Kohl put it as early as in 1976, they include Geschichtsraum, a unified historical space, Kulturraum, a unified sphere of culture and civilisation, and Wertegesellschaft, a community founded on shared values.
Today, the same ideals are at stake. The challenge is how to clinch peace in freedom. Each of these two ideals forms an inseparable condition for the other. Yet peace in freedom applies to more than just the relationship of European countries among one another, but to the global system as a whole. And this is precisely the crux of European integration as it takes strides forward. True enough, this process has delivered a solution for the dilemma of peace, the great project netting the “returns of peace” for the past 50 or 60 years as regards the coexistence of those party to it, even as Europe has been losing ground as a global actor to outside forces, economically as well as geopolitically.
And when I suggest we should give credit to the second half of the 20th century, I would also like to remind you that the 21st century, which we unanimously praise, has not really had an auspicious start either. It began with a global financial and economic meltdown, and continues with warfare between Russia and Ukraine, two major European powers, one of which happens to be a nuclear superpower. A fundamentalist Islamic movement has taken to wings, no doubt threatening Europe now. This is just to say we are not so well off as we would like to believe. The way to counteract these developments is by firming up our European unity – an imperative mission under the circumstances. And it is in this that I think lies the main message of Helmut Kohl’s latest book. We cannot afford not to lend an open ear to this message given our position here and now.
Europe must demonstrate to the world at large its ability to create and sustain peace, to assume a major role in preserving world order – even if it loses ground in terms of the global economy. If we stand by our original values firmly, improve governance, proceed with deregulation, and manage to take care of a host of other issues, then I believe that the ideals that have guided Helmut Kohl and his ilk over the past decades will remain valid in full force. I do trust that these ideals will continue to point the way to an increasingly unified Europe as it makes further progress on the road of integration.
Translation by Péter Balikó Lengyel
(Talk given at the international Helmut Kohl Conference at the House of Terror, Budapest, 2 June 2015.)