Former German chancellor Helmut Kohl turns 75

1st April 2005, Comments 0 comments

1 April 2005, BERLIN - Former German chancellor Helmut Kohl, who has won a place in history books as unifier of Germany and Europe, turns 75 on Sunday.

1 April 2005

BERLIN - Former German chancellor Helmut Kohl, who has won a place in history books as unifier of Germany and Europe, turns 75 on Sunday.

Kohl served as Germany's Christian Democratic leader for a record 16 years from 1982 until his defeat in 1998 by Social Democratic Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder.

A heavyweight in great European events of the 1980s and 90s, Kohl bulldozed through German unification in 1990, just 11 months after the Berlin Wall collapsed amid the implosion of communist East Germany.

Along with the late French president Francois Mitterrand, Kohl took the lead in deepening European Union ties and was a prime backer of Europe's single currency, the euro, despite massive opposition at home.

"German and European unity are two sides of the same coin," said a fit-looking Kohl who took time off from still hectic globe-trotting to meet foreign reporters in Berlin earlier this year.

This oft-repeated principle underpinned Kohl's foreign policy and underlined his firmly held beliefs which led him to take a dim view of quick-shifting populism.

Kohl stuck to the euro despite all polls showing it to be a vote loser among Germans who hated the idea of giving up the D-mark.

Almost two decades earlier, amid massive protests including from his own CDU, Kohl also refused to back down on NATO's 1979 decision to deploy Cruise and Pershing missiles in Germany to counter Soviet SS-20 missiles.

Not merely a political heavyweight, Kohl remains literally a big man. German newspapers obtained his medical file in 1995 which said he weighed in at a startling 177 kilos (390 pounds).

A lover of 'saumagen' (stuffed pig's stomach) from his native Rhineland-Palatinate state, Kohl was legendary for having an advance meal before going to state banquets which featured tiny portions.

British prime minister Margaret Thatcher reportedly never forgave Kohl after he cut short a meeting with her by saying he had other important business to attend to during a summit. Minutes later she saw him tucking into a huge cream cake at a nearby cafe.

Helmut Kohl grew up in a modest and staunchly Catholic family in the central Rhine city of Ludwigshafen. He experienced the repeated World War Two bombing raids which devastated his city and was 15 when the war ended.

Kohl has vividly described a trek on foot across devastated southern Germany in 1945 as the war ended and his terror that his parents might be dead. Both parents survived the war but his beloved older brother, Walter, was killed was serving in the German armed forces.

Kohl seized on politics early in life and took part in a post- war youth protest on the German-French border at which frontier markers were symbolically torn down in a call for European unity.

After studying history Kohl went almost straight into politics. He was elected to his Rhineland-Palatinate state assembly in 1959 and served as state premier from 1969 to 1976. Kohl became leader of the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party in 1973.

Success as an international statesman came only after faltering moves toward high office. Defeated in a 1976 bid to become chancellor and forced to sit out the 1980 election, Kohl was elected Germany's leader by a vote in parliament - not a national election - only after Chancellor Helmut Schmidt lost support of a coalition partner in 1982.

Widely lampooned as a country bumpkin, Kohl seemed to most analysts to be a mere transitional figure who would swiftly be defeated. But in the following four elections - 1983, 1987, 1990 and 1994 - the laughing slowly stopped as Kohl slapped down one candidate after another put up by the main opposition Social Democrats.

"People have been underestimating me all of my life and I have made a very good living out of it," was how a grinning Kohl once described the contradiction between his image and reality.

Kohl was a tough task master. He demanded and received total loyalty from CDU members and those deemed a threat were either crushed or banished.

Although skilled at party politics, Kohl only learned the craft of international diplomacy after early stumbles.

He insisted, for example, on taking visiting US President Ronald Reagan to a cemetery where members of the Nazi Waffen SS were buried. In another blunder, Kohl publicly compared Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev with the Nazi propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels.

The rift with Gorbachev was repaired and only a few years later Kohl cut a deal with his "friend" Mikhail, which led to the 3 October 1990 German reunification.

His role as 'unity chancellor' made Kohl into a titan of German politics and earned him the more flattering nickname 'Bismarck in a cardigan'.

Otto von Bismarck was Germany's legendary Iron Chancellor who presided over the 1871 German unification. In sharp contrast to Bismarck's sharp uniforms, Kohl's trademark was a comfy cardigan he took everywhere.

Kohl became a near cult figure in East Germany when communism crumbled.

But hopes for a swift economic upswing in the region were soon dashed and Kohl's prediction of "blooming landscapes in three to five years" became the butt of jokes. Instead of winning cheers, Kohl was pelted with eggs during trips to the east during the mid-1990s.

The region remains Germany's poorhouse 15 years after unification with unemployment stuck at 21 percent and annual state subsidies to prop up the region of EUR 80 billion.

Indeed, Kohl's most bitter defeat in the 1990s was his failure to cut unemployment which reached 12.6 percent early in 1998 - the then highest nationwide level since the early 1930s.

A few months later, Kohl was defeated by Schroeder who promised to cut joblessness by 50 percent within four years. But Schroeder too failed and unemployment this year hit a new post-1933 record of 5.2 million.

Asked what his biggest mistake as a political leader was, Kohl now admits he should have forced through major reforms both of Germany's social welfare state and rigid labour market.

Kohl is less willing to talk about his other big mistake: the slush fund scandal involving secret Swiss bank accounts and money handovers at remote parking lots which engulfed him and his CDU shortly after he left office.

The former chancellor admitted he personally took DM 2.1 million (EUR 1 million) in cash for use by the CDU in elections.

Kohl, who used the German slang "bimbes" to describe the funds, has refused to reveal who gave him the money. He claims to have given the donor his "word of honour" never to do so.

Kohl was fined in an out of court settlement and was also stripped of his honorary chairmanship of the CDU.

Personal tragedy also struck during this time.

Kohl's wife Hannelore committed suicide in 2001 after suffering from a rare allergy to light. The couple had been married for 41 years and Kohl was crushed by his wife's death.

The former German leader plans to spend his birthday on Sunday at his modest home in the Ludwigshafen suburb of Oggersheim with his sons, Peter and Walter and their wives and his grandchildren Laila and Johannes.

Public celebrations are due to be held in Berlin on 11-12 April at the CDU's Konrad Adenauer Foundation.


Subject: German news

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