King Kohl finds a place in history books

Imre Karacs on the skill of the century's longest-serving German chancellor
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The Independent Online
Bonn - German politics passes a milestone this week. Tomorrow Helmut Kohl becomes, on his 5,114th day in office, the longest-serving chancellor of the century, supplanting in the record books his mentor and "spiritual grandfather", Konrad Adenauer.

According to a poll, Germans regard him as the sixth most important leader of the 20th century after Kennedy, Adenauer, Gorbachev, Brandt and Nelson Mandela, and just ahead of Churchill. Where Adenauer is remembered for the economic miracle, and Brandt for Ostpolitik, Mr Kohl is known as the "Chancellor of German unity".

Both he and Adenauer came from Catholic backgrounds, both sought majorities in the centre and steered clear of the patriotic right. They were conservatives who believed in social justice, the social market economy and the need for consensus across class divides.

Temperamentally, however, there is only a passing resemblance. As the Die Woche said: "Adenauer was cold and cynical, Kohl is warm and cynical." The warmth radiates from those animated little eyes, conveyed by a pat on the back, a joke or a smile. Nobody kisses babies with greater conviction than Mr Kohl and few squeeze hands as willingly. He works hard, sleeps little and travels far and wide. He embodies German virtues of diligence, reliability, boundless self-confidence, straight talking and clean living. He may not sound brilliant, but what he says makes sense.

Sometimes. There have been occasions when he bent the truth, revealing a different facet of his character. One has to look no further than his pronouncements in the days of unification. "Within four or five years," he promised, "East Germany will bloom". Mr Kohl must have realised, like the opposition, that the east would cost a lot more to rebuild than he admitted. He won the elections, but lost a chunk of credibility. Six years on, taxpayers still send 7.5 per cent of their earnings to the "New Lander", swathes of which remain an economic desert.

The cynicism is supplemented by Machiavellian ruthlessness. The Chancellor likes to control everything, discouraging free thinking and spontaneity in his team. Those suspected of disloyalty are expelled at the first opportune moment, always timed to perfection. The danger, insiders warn, is that a chancellor surrounded by yes-men will lose touch with reality. So far, there seems little evidence of that, but complacency is creeping in.

Adenauer, who had to be booted out of office at the age of 87 by coalition allies, shared another trait with his "grandson". Both saw the devastation Germans brought on themselves and both devoted their lives to the banishment of war. Salvation would lie in a united Europe, freed for ever of the threat of violence.

Mr Kohl, born in 1930 in Ludwigshafen, experienced privations under the Nazis, heard stories his father told on return from the Polish front, and mourned a brother who never came back. He was 14 when Walter died, and vowed to name his first-born son after him, a promise he kept 20 years later. Mr Kohl seems convinced war can return to haunt Europe unless its nations agree to pool their sovereignty.

But on this point the trust between the Chancellor and the people is coming under strain. The vision of European integration comes through as abstract and the abolition of the Deutschmark as an affront to common sense. Again, as in 1990, he promises no hardship, but memories of that false pledge still rankle.

As a result of German unification, state coffers are empty, taxpayers are over-taxed and the economy is stuttering. Because of monetary union, Europe's powerhouse cannot be stoked, lest it should fail to attain the Maastricht targets. German unity, the Chancellor's most spectacular achievement, thus becomes the greatest liability, endangering his cherished dream of a united Europe.

When Germans go to the polls in autumn 1998, at the dawn of the brave new world of the euro, they will not fail to notice the irony.