WASHINGTON — The year 1990 was Helmut Kohl's. Had Saddam Hussein not suddenly emerged out of the desert sands, nobody could have claimed to have brought about greater change in the world during the last 12 months than did Germany's chancellor.
Kohl managed his country's unity skillfully, assuaging European allies' deep-seated apprehensions, deftly meshing foreign policy with domestic politics, responding to East Germans' anxious yearning for solidarity with the West and blandly finessing West Germans' disgruntlement about costs. German unification, accomplished with astounding rapidity, has altered the face of Europe in one short year--and made a dynamic Germany by far the most powerful country on the Continent.
The chancellor capped his year with an election victory last month that put his Christian Democratic Union in its strongest parliamentary position since the days of the CDU's founder, Konrad Adenauer, three decades ago. His triumph reduced the opposition Social Democrats to quivering jelly and drove the ecological, counterculture Greens almost completely out of the Bundestag.
Kohl has become chancellor of all the Germans--the first in almost a half-century. He is leader not only of the 57 million in the Western and 16 million in the Eastern part of his country but, in a sense, of the 2-3 million living in the Soviet Union, Poland and other Eastern European countries, who now look to the Germany that Kohl has united. In a time of swirling change in central and Eastern Europe, the chancellor, at 6 foot 3, and 275 solid pounds, stands like a great oak of probity, stability and reassurance for Germans.
Kohl is both instinctual and calculating as a leader. He sensed well before other politicians that the moment was ripe for unity--not in years or in decades, as he himself still believed as late as November of last year.
The moment when he sensed this is known: as he stepped out of his jet in Dresden on Dec. 19, 1989, to hear tens of thousands chanting "Germany--united Fatherland." As always, he immediately responded to the mood of the crowd. And as always, he began calculating how to make use of their feelings for his goals and how the path toward those goals should be altered.
Kohl turned to his greatest political strength, an absolute control of his party. "If there is one thing I know something about," he said genially to a group of Americans just before last month's election, "it is my CDU." Kohl has chaired it for 18 years, and headed its election campaign committee for 21. He has personally installed every key party operative. He will put a President of the United States on "hold" to telephone birthday greetings to a regional party chairman.
The chancellor set his well-oiled CDU machine to work in East Germany last winter, making unity not only his personal cause but his party's. East German voters gave the CDU smashing majorities, both in the East German parliamentary elections of March and in the national elections of December. It was the Eastern, not the Western, electorate that made Kohl chancellor of all the Germans. He presented overwhelming East German support for the CDU last March to the outside world as an irresistible democratic endorsement of German unity.
The many challenges of unifying his country transformed Kohl from a rather ordinary, always cautious, hardly popular, usually uninspired and occasionally bumbling politician. As he remarks nowadays, with a self-satisfied chuckle, he has been perennially underestimated by opponents--always to their subsequent grief.
Kohl's self-confidence grew--and so did his readiness to take risks. His willingness to defy experts increased, even those in that holiest of all German institutions, the Bundesbank . They worried on the basis of their careful analyses that rapid monetary union between East and West Germany--as Kohl wanted--would be a recipe for economic disaster.
His accomplishments last year made Kohl's place in history secure, putting him in the same league with the two great chancellors of postwar Germany, Adenauer and the Social Democrat Willy Brandt, whose Ostpolitik (Eastern Policy) of the early 1970s laid the foundation for the unification of 1990.
Kohl likes to call himself Adenauer's political "grandson." The old chancellor governed West Germany from 1949 to 1963. Adenauer's great feat of statesmanship was to bring a terribly weakened Germany, which a few years earlier had been utterly crushed in World War II, back to international respectability as an irreplaceable ally of its former enemies--the United States, Britain and France.
Like Adenauer, Kohl is completely a man of the West. The two Catholic chancellors from the Rhine River Valley also resemble each other in their love of raw political power and their pragmatic, sly and relentless readiness to exercise it.