German Elections: Unsinkable Bismarck in a cardigan

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WHEN Helmut Kohl writes his memoirs, it will be interesting to see if he uses a description of him recently put forward by Der Spiegel. 'Bismarck in a cardigan' was how the news magazine summed up the man who is only the second in Germany's modern history to have brought together his people in a single state.

The comparison is rather unfair. The imperious 19th- century chancellor is said to have favoured Guinness and champagne, but Mr Kohl, often mocked as a bumbling provincial Rhinelander, is happier with cream cakes.

Mr Kohl goes to Austria on a two-week slimming course every year. He seems to return brimming with confidence, ready to demolish his opponents, who have never quite understood how he has managed to retain power for 12 years.

Mr Kohl, 64, says his career has flourished partly because his rivals have underestimated him. 'If I add up all those predictions of catastrophe about me, I can look upon my future with great peace of mind,' he once observed.

He has sometimes been dubbed 'Adenauer's grandson', after Konrad Adenauer, who was West Germany's first post-war chancellor, from 1949 to 1963. Like Adenauer, Mr Kohl is a Christian Democrat with an unshakeable commitment to Germany's partnership with Western Europe and its alliance with the United States. Like Adenauer, Mr Kohl towers over the government.

Less than a year ago, some sections of the press were so convinced that Mr Kohl faced defeat that they coined the semi-Wagnerian term Kanzlerdammerung -the Twilight of the Chancellor. But he fought back. In February, less than 25 per cent of Germans said they would vote for him if they could elect the chancellor directly, but by August the figure had risen to almost 45 per cent.

Part of the explanation for Mr Kohl's durability lies in the lack of stature and political misjudgements of his Social Democratic opponents. Since Helmut Schmidt, whom Mr Kohl replaced as chancellor in 1982, the Social Democrats have been unable to produce a truly heavyweight personality to govern the country.

Mr Kohl's achievement is to have steered Germany through unification without causing serious damage to its stability and without tarnishing the country's international reputation. He may not be Germany's best-loved politician, but his place in history is secure.