Kohl's terror at Margaret's iron teapot

Click to follow
The Independent Online
They were an inimitable double act - she, a slender woman with glacier-blue eyes; he, an affable giant, his stature dwarfed only by an over-sized ego. Together, they could have ruled the continent, but neither was satisfied with the role of co-pilot.

So they quarrelled a lot. "On more than one occasion, we had terrible rows," Chancellor Helmut Kohl confesses in his memoirs, I Wanted German Unity, published yesterday.

The purgatory of being locked in one room with Baroness Thatcher has left a deep impression on Germany's leader. On page after page, he unburdens himself, revealing the mental scars that remain from duels fought a decade ago. Whatever the issue, Mr Kohl would invariably find himself in open confrontation with "Margaret".

The Chancellor seems to have particularly strong recollections of a stormy Nato summit. In the Eighties, when he received the ultimate insult from Britain's Prime Minister. Mr Kohl opposed the deployment of short-range nuclear missiles on German soil, to which Lady Thatcher responded by "constantly using the word `cowardice', without naming any names".

"Everybody knew there that she was pointing the finger at me," says Mr Kohl. "I stated quite clearly once more why [I was against it] - because these missiles would fall on Rostock, Leipzig and other places in East Germany."

"I had said this as Chancellor, and now I would go on as private citizen Helmut Kohl: `When I look around, I am the only one here who is the father of two reserve officers. I don't need a lecture from anyone.' This clearly impressed Margaret Thatcher, though she would not yield on the issue."

At least on that occasion, Lady Thatcher let him finish the sentence. Their meetings tete-e-tete were normally characterised by a severe communication problem. "She would regularly butt in, saying, `Do not interrupt me! You never stop talking'," Mr Kohl said.

Gradually, though, Mr Kohl developed a special persona to get him through these difficult encounters. Lady Thatcher required no less than total submission, and the German Chancellor found life easier if he went along with that role.

At a dinner in Cambridge, the Prime Minister expressed amusement at the way Mr Kohl wrapped the napkin around his considerable girth. "It is a white flag of surrender before the Iron Lady," came the reply. It went down a treat.

But Helmut Kohl never came to grips with Lady Thatcher's unprovoked charm offensives. Being handbagged was one thing, but having a teapot thrust in your face was more than a man could bear. The Iron Lady wielded both with great skill.

This is how Mr Kohl remembers one such session, a reception in Britain: "Margaret Thatcher greeted me in her speech with the kindness that, God knows, I had not reckoned with. It was like hot and cold baths ... From one second to the next, she would suddenly become prime ministerial and aloof again. When the atmosphere has become too chilly, she would again pick up the tea-pot and offer a refill."

Mr Kohl says that on the German question, she held the view that the post-war era had not yet ended. She thought the leadership of Europe resided in London. Her stubborn opposition to German unity was only overcome by US pressure, Mr Kohl reveals.

Mrs Thatcher and President Francois Mitterrand of France were summoned in April 1990 to Florida. President George Bush read them the riot act, and France and Britain finally fell into line.

"That the three Western powers approved the goal of a fully sovereign united Germany was primarily the achievement of George Bush," the German Chancellor states. It's a funny old world.