Former German chancellor Helmut Kohl, who passed away on Friday, cultivated an air of provincial, down-to-earth ordinariness, often saying that he had wanted to be a farmer. But in order to understand Kohl’s characteristic blend of German patriotism and passionate support for European integration, it is important to note which German province he came from. Kohl was not from some remote backwater; he was born on the left bank of the Rhine, a water-way that for centuries was at the center of European events. He was born in Ludwigshafen in the so-called “Palatinate” or “County Palatine,” near the heartland of what was once the Holy Roman Empire. The Rhine had been the border of the original Roman Empire, and the left bank was the Roman side. To this day, its inhabitants are proud of their Roman heritage, and feel a kinship (and a kind of sibling rivalry) with the Romance peoples, with whom they share a love of wine and of the carnival. Unlike much of the right bank, the left bank remained Catholic after the Reformation.
The left bank of the Rhine is the cradle of the idea of the European Union. The two most important figures in the founding of the European Coal and Steel Community (the predecessor of the EU), French foreign minister Robert Schuman and German chancellor Konrad Adenauer, both had roots in the region. Schuman’s father was from Lorraine, and Adenauer was from Cologne. Their idea of a unified Europe was influenced positively by Catholic Social Teaching and the traditions of Latin Christendom, and negatively by the horrors of the world wars and the German-French rivalry that had led to them. It is sometimes forgotten today just how astonishing their achievement of a lasting peace between France and Germany was. Another route could easily have been taken. If, for example, Alexander Kojève’s idea of a Latin Union had been realized, the series of French-German wars might have continued to this day. Kohl had vivid childhood memories of the horrors of war (he had watched neighbors dying during a bombardment), and he took Adenauer as his model, enthusiastically promoting the process of European integration as the surest guarantee of peace.
But the left bank of the Rhine is also one of the homes of a particular kind of German patriotism. In the nineteenth-century movement for German unification, the inhabitants of the left bank of the Rhine tended to favor the so-called “Greater German Solution” that called for a de-centralized, subsidiary German nation, which would include Austria and Bohemia, and be under Habsburg leadership, thus continuing the traditions of the Holy Roman Empire. However, it was the alternative, the so-called “Lesser German Solution,” that won out: a more efficient and centralized German state under Prussian leadership, which excluded Austria and Bohemia.
Something of those two traditions of German patriotism remains in German politics today. If Kohl was in the Rhenish tradition of the “Greater German Solution,” his one-time protégé Angela Merkel is in the Prussian tradition of the “Lesser German Solution.” Even the left-wing politician Gregor Gysi seems to recognize this. In a statement on Kohl’s death he said, “Kohl was for a European Germany, not a German Europe—unlike what we see today.” Kohl was much more comfortable than Merkel with the language of German patriotism (the Prussian tradition loves to obsess over guilt, and sees the language of German patriotism as being “tainted”). But Merkel’s brand of ostensibly less patriotic politics is seen as more threatening by other members of the European Union. The current German politics of imposing austerity measures on the rest of Europe stems from the tradition of what Adrian Pabst memorably termed “Kantian morality of context-less duties, Weberian statecraft void of virtue, and Bismarckian quasi-military management of citizens through centralised welfare.” And this is rightly feared by other European countries, who do not want to be reduced to efficient cogs in a system of technocratic, managerial globalism. Kohl’s pursuit of ever greater European integration, however, was informed by a vision of Europe as a common home in which various countries could have their disagreements, without recourse to arms.
Kohl was less scrupulous and correct than Merkel. One can’t imagine Merkel being embroiled in the sort of party-fundraising scandal that marred Kohl’s later years, and led her to distance the CDU from him. But nor can one imagine Merkel feasting with evident enjoyment till the small hours of the morning with foreign heads of state, as Kohl did. Kohl, for all his faults, was a big-hearted man—a man whom it was easy to trust. His greatest achievement, the reunification of Germany, would have been much more difficult had he been anything less.
The death of Helmut Kohl marks the definitive end of the post-war period in German politics. Today, patriotism and devotion to the European Union have become far more difficult to combine. Perhaps he was the last of those Rhenish-Catholic statesmen who still embodied something of the old spirit of Latin Christendom.