The Helmut Kohl Transcripts: A New Resource for Post-Cold War History
The Helmut Kohl Transcripts on the Wilson Center Digital Archive features hundreds of conversations among world leaders on international diplomacy during the first post-Cold War decade.
The Helmut Kohl Transcripts on the Wilson Center Digital Archive features hundreds of conversations between German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and world leaders that constitute an important scholarly resource for exploring international diplomacy in the first post-Cold War decade.
Because of Kohl's wide ranging contacts with leaders from all parts of the globe and the many candid conversations recorded in his papers, the Kohl Transcripts is a tremendous resource for the study of global affairs in the 1990s. These papers, now freely and easily accessible, provide a detailed view of some of the most pressing and notable developments from this period: the Gulf War, the Balkan Wars, the Middle East peace process, diplomacy with Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin, NATO enlargement, and European integration, among other global issues and challenges. From the perspective of the 2022 Zeitenwende, the Kohl papers also cast new light on the beginnings, successes, and failures of Germany’s efforts to take on greater international responsibility.
Although more than 30 years have elapsed since the end of the Cold War, access to diplomatic documents and high-level foreign policy documentation from the 1990s remains limited in most countries. The History and Public Policy Program at the Wilson Center is publishing the Kohl materials as part of a major effort to document, primarily through the release of non-American sources, the post-Cold War era and to promote new research and teaching on the international history of the 1990s and 2000s.
Kohl’s papers depict the first chancellor of unified Germany as a master of personal diplomacy and a shrewd international negotiator and institution builder. His statecraft went beyond traditional diplomacy and formal meetings characterized by rigid protocols and suits and ties. He believed overly formal and traditional foreign affairs methods were often insufficient to build trust with counterparts abroad or to resolve challenging issues. Kohl wanted direct interactions with his interlocutors and to build relationships based on cordiality, frankness, and friendship. He spoke frequently, both in person and by phone, with the likes of George H.W. Bush, Francois Mitterrand, Mikhail Gorbachev, Boris Yeltsin, and many other foreign leaders.
George Shultz used to say that “trust is the coin of the realm.” Having the trust of his international partners is what enabled Kohl to become deeply involved in international issues, even as he presided over an extraordinarily daunting domestic challenge: German unification. Indeed, Gorbachev’s and Bush’s faith in Kohl as a reliable mediator and partner was a major factor in the peaceful end of the Cold War. Kohl’s credibility was also necessary to overcome the skepticism of other European leaders who were navigating the post-Cold War transition, European integration, and regional and global crises such as the Yugoslav Wars and the Gulf War.
Kohl’s post-Cold War diplomacy was shaped by his awareness of the fragility of peace and his insight that 1989 did not mark the “end of history,” but rather the opening of a new chapter. His papers reveal his vision for a peaceful, prosperous, and integrated post-Cold War world where the West was still needed to modernize and protect the liberal order. “We realize that greater responsibility is incumbent on the united Germany in the community of nations, not least for the preservation of world peace,” Kohl said in the German Bundestag merely one day after unification.
The documents that are now easily accessible through the Helmut Kohl Transcripts had a very limited distribution at the time of their creation. Detailed transcripts were prepared by staff from the Chancellor’s Office following the conclusion of each meeting or phone call that Kohl had with a foreign leader and would have only been accessible to Kohl and his most trusted advisors. When Kohl left office in 1998, his papers were deposited at the German Federal Archives. Kohl was granted access to his files in 2001, and his ghostwriter Heribert Schwan used the materials for a three-volume authorized biography (Erinnerungen). Otherwise the documents were kept under seal. Twenty years after later, however, in response to a freedom of information act request, the German Federal Archives finally began to make these documents accessible to the general public.
Access to Kohl’s papers is still a contested issue. In 1998, after his election loss, Kohl had about 400 binders of documents transported from the Federal Chancellery to the Archives of the Konrad-Adenauer Foundation. In 2010, he requested the files to write another volume of memoirs. After his death in 2017, these materials remained in the custody of his widow and his private estate in Oggersheim. While the Adenauer Foundation requests the return of the materials, the Federal German Archives argues that the papers from the Chancellery belong to them, according to German law.
Researchers should thus not take for granted the remarkable sets of foreign policy records that were ultimately deposited at the Federal Archives. The Kohl Transcripts on the Wilson Center Digital Archive includes a key selection of these documents: over 150 memoranda of conversation involving Kohl and his staff from 1991 through 1997. In order to enhance discovery and stimulate as much discussion and debate as possible, we have included English translations, German-language transcriptions, and facsimile copies of these materials on the Digital Archive.
The collection on the Wilson Center Digital Archive does not contain all of Kohl’s foreign policy conversations – at least not yet. One key criterion for the selection of the documents for this collection pertains to their relevance to understanding Germany’s post-Cold War foreign policy and historical research on this period more generally. Another criterion is the extent to which the papers reflect Kohl’s thinking on pivotal issues of the post-Cold War order and its manifold challenges at crucial points in time. Related records from the George H.W. Bush and William Jefferson Clinton presidential libraries are also included in the collection, enabling researchers to compare the German and American accounts of the same meetings side-by-side.
A series of subsequent postings will highlight what the Kohl papers reveal on subjects such as European integration, the Yugoslav Wars, the collapse of the Soviet Union, NATO enlargement, and German diplomacy in the Middle East and Asia.
 See also Dokumente zur Deutschlandpolitik – Deutsche Einheit. Sonderedition aus den Akten des Bundeskanzleramtes 1989/90, published by the Federal Ministry of the Interior assisted by the Federal German Archive, edited by Hanns Jürgen Küsters und Daniel Hofmann (Munich: R. Oldenbourg, 1998).
 See Helmut Kohl, Berichte zur Lage 1989-1998. Der Kanzler und Parteivorsitzende im Bundesvorstand der CDU Deutschlands, edited by Günter Buchstab and Hans-Otto Kleinmann (Düsseldorf: Droste 2012), https://digitaler-lesesaal.kas.de/publikationen/berichte-zur-lage-1989-1998/1/249/0
 See Hans-Peter Schwarz, Helmut Kohl. Eine politische Biographie (Munich: Deutsche Verlags Anstalt, 2012).
 See Klaus Wiegrefe, “Wettlauf um die Kohl Akten,“ Der Spiegel (26 June 2017), https://www.spiegel.de/politik/deutschland/helmut-kohl-akten-bundesarchiv-wehrt-sich-gegen-vorwurf-pietaetloesen-vorgehens-a-1154469.html.
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History and Public Policy Program
The History and Public Policy Program makes public the primary source record of 20th and 21st century international history from repositories around the world, facilitates scholarship based on those records, and uses these materials to provide context for classroom, public, and policy debates on global affairs. Read more