The Personal Nationalism of Helmut Kohl: A Paragon of Germany's New Normality?

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Helmut Kohl, the purported 'Chancellor of Unity', is a key figure in the history of German nationalism. During the Cold War era, when a German nation-state was territorially absent and society in the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) had developed a culture of Vergangenheitsbewältigung, of trying to come to terms with the horrific Nazi past, Kohl's personal nationalism made up the quest to be a normal nation.1 After World War II, the FRG assimilated into the conglomerate of Western nation-states situated under the umbrellas of NATO and the European Community. West German state officials were forced to espouse the government line that the division of the nation had been unjust and unnatural, and that the FRG was the only legitimate representative of the German nation. While West German politicians frequently faced tensions between the cultures of Vergangenheitsbewältigung and Westernisation, the representatives of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) marketed their country as the one that stood essentially in opposition to the fascist culture of the Nazi empire and its continuation in the FRG. The incorporation of the GDR into the FRG on 3 October 1990 ended this dichotomous political development in the form of the (re-)establishment of a German nation-state, which could be interpreted as a historic leap towards normality. Jürgen Habermas, who is of the same generation as Kohl, has been apprehensive about this process of normalisation. The German philosopher feared his fellow citizens would lose their critical awareness of the fact that they only truly became Western through, and after, the atrocities of the Holocaust, and were thus gambling away their post-national achievements.2

Kohl's biography provides a useful tool not only for exploring the development of contemporary nationalism in postwar Germany, but also for engaging with some theories and ideal typologies that emerged within the broad field of Nationalism Studies. This paper is not intended to offer a classic, chronological account of Kohl's life, but rather to address the value of biographical method in relation to the concepts of nation and nationalism, and the application of ideal types of nationalism to the analysis of the personal nationalism of an individual. First, I shall discuss this methodological approach, and outline the (West) German context in which Kohl's personal nationalism can be located. Subsequently, I shall take some very high angle shots of four significant biographical features that together animate the 'ecology' of Kohl's national identity.3 These four features will be directly linked to particular kinds of nationalism that have been established here for analytical purposes, without assuming that this ideal typology existed in any real and pure form.

Kohl will be treated as a (1) Catholic Nationalist, whose religious denomination shaped the way he represented himself and his national identity. Kohl will then be observed as a (2) Liberal Nationalist, whose date of birth influenced his ideology and self-narration. Born on 3 April 1930, he belonged to the '45-er' generation, those who were on the whole strongly loyal to the newly Westernised state of the FRG. Further, his origin in the Rhine, in the Palatinate region near the French border, also played an important role in Kohl's personal nationalism. This allows me to examine Kohl as a (3) Romantic Nationalist, who expressed a cultural, decentralised and almost apolitical nationalism. As a final point, Kohl will be analysed as a (4) Nationalist Historian. Fiis educational socialisation, including a PhD in Flistory from the University of Heidelberg (in 1958) on the political reconstruction of his home region after 1945,4 facilitated his world view, in which nations constitute a normative order, legitimised through the historicisation of positive continuities that transcended negative periods, such as the Nazi era. This work, moreover, had obvious autobiographical tendencies: Kohl described the place of his political socialisation. …


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