Ironically, it was actually a concept for the economy that made Helmut Kohl the leader of Germany. On September 9, 1982, Otto Graf Lambsdorff published his pamphlet on increasing economic growth and termed it "proposal for independence." In it, the feisty economics minister, a member of the Free Democratic Party, made a case for free markets and called for a liberalization of markets in Germany. In this way he tore apart his party’s already-weakened coalition with the Social Democrats and their chancellor, Helmut Schmidt.
At the time, Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan were dominating the global zeitgeist with their calls for "more market," while Helmut Kohl had been languishing for six years in painful opposition. He most likely would have welcomed any opportunity to move into the federal chancellery in Bonn. Which made it all the more ironic that the opportunity presented to him was an economic one.
A historian, Mr. Kohl couldn’t have been less interested in the economy, as long as it had nothing to do with his personal network and was providing his party, the Christian Democratic Union, with cash. He certainly wasn’t at all interested in Mr. Lambsdorff’s ideas about regulatory policy. And so it was that the man hailing from Germany’s Palatinate region became chancellor, ignoring Mr. Lambsdorff’s proposals for 16 years in the same way he ignored all economic concepts. Eventually, left with no other alternative, it was Chancellor Gerhard Schröder who implemented the policies Mr. Lambsdorff had called for, 21 years after he wrote them.
Much like Willy Brandt, and quite unlike Helmut Schmidt, Mr. Kohl was an anti-economist. He called his change an "intellectual and moral renewal," he found the word "fatherland" far easier to say than "national economy." He was already being criticized a lot back then; each year the German Council of Economic Experts would urge him to unleash market forces, at long last. And again today, after his passing, the opinion being unanimously voiced is that the man seen as "the great chancellor of German unity" was miserable when it came to the economy.
Except it isn’t quite that simple. At first, dodging the zeitgeist was a successful form of denial. It wasn’t until later, after Mr. Kohl first placed Germany, and then Europe, on new foundations, that he caused huge upheavals by not paying attention to the basic rules of economics.
There is a Helmut Kohl 1.0 and a Helmut Kohl 2.0. The first, ridiculed by the left and enjoyed, in moderation, by the right, governed until 1989. The economic motto of the time involved supply policies conceived by freedom-loving economists in Chicago. The Keynesian policy of using deficit spending to boost the economy had, for now, outlived its purpose because, instead of jobs, all it produced in the oil crises of the mid-1970s and early 80’s was mounting debt. So now the state was supposed to clear the way for companies, to deregulate the system, to privatize public-owned companies and, above all, to lower taxes.
When Mr. Kohl moved into the chancellery, Ronald Reagan had already lowered the maximum tax rate from 70 percent to 50 percent in the US and in subsequent years, would chop it down to 28 percent. The German fans of radical liberalization were rubbing their hands gleefully. It seemed that "intellectual and moral renewal" must certainly also mean an economic sea change.