Profile: Big man on a roll: Helmut Kohl: He has united Germany. But can he do the same for Europe? Steve Crawshaw reports

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HIS supporters (and there are many) call him The Giant. His detractors (and there are many) call him The Fat One. Either way, Helmut Kohl is not a man to be trifled with.

His chances of survival have been written off more often than those of any other political leader in Europe. Yet after 12 years in power, the colossus - 6ft 5in tall, 19 stone - still looks almost unshakeable.

If re-elected in October, the 64-year-old Mr Kohl can expect to become the longest-serving Chancellor in the history of the Federal German Republic. He will break Konrad Adenauer's 14-year record in two years' time. Was it only a joke when he declared last year that he would retire 'on 3 April 2010, at 7.20am' - in other words, when he turns 80?

What John Major came up against in Corfu last weekend was the German Chancellor's stubborn desire to win - in this case, over the choice of the next President of the European Union in succession to Jacques Delors. But perhaps Mr Major will find this stubbornness an inspiration. It is rumoured that Kohl keeps a collection of Der Spiegel magazine covers announcing that his time is up. At the end of last year, the cover was headed Kanzlerdammerung ('Twilight of the Chancellor') over a picture of the back of Kohl's head. Steffen Heitmann, Kohl's favoured candidate to become German president, had been forced to stand down after some tactless comments on German history. The economy appeared to be in deep recession. The new leader of the Social Democrats, Rudolf Scharping, was a media darling. The opinion polls showed that support, both for Kohl personally and for his Christian Democrat party, was low.

But this was already a familiar pattern. In every one of the last three elections, Mr Kohl has started from behind. And then, slowly but surely, he has overtaken his opponent. How does he do it? Charisma is not the word for Mr Kohl. And yet he has undeniable electoral appeal, largely because he seems to enjoy meeting people. Mr Scharping looks almost uncomfortable on electoral walkabouts. 'Our Helmut', by contrast, never looks happier than when talking to the crowds. During campaigns, he sometimes tells his helicopter pilot to touch down for an unscheduled stop at a village or small town. Within the party, too, he is proud of his ability to keep in touch with the sergeants and lieutenants, assiduously maintaining his contacts. 'Hier Kohl' - 'Kohl here' - he announces down the phone to startled officials as he begins his soundings. Occasionally, there have been attempted palace coups, but they have been ruthlessly suppressed.

He has even, in recent weeks, dared to return to those eastern cities where, in 1990, he had promised 'blooming landscapes'. The landscape was later than promised, he said; but change was on its way. There was much enthusiasm among the crowds. As the headline in one anti-Kohl paper put it 'Kohl came, saw and bloomed'.

Kohl was born at Ludwigshafen, on the Rhine, in 1930; his father was a tax official. The family home is still nearby and he goes there every weekend, while his wife, Hannelore, lives there throughout the week. She occasionally appears in public, but spends little time in Bonn. Their two sons, Walter and Peter, both graduated in the United States - from Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, respectively. One reason for the choice of America was, it seems, to keep them out of the German spotlight. In the German press, their existence is scarcely mentioned. To a remarkable degree, Kohl keeps his home life off-limits.

International guests - most recently, the Yeltsins - are taken there and given, not sophisticated cuisine, but Saumagen (sow's stomach). The provincialism is often mocked by Germany's chattering classes. But what the electors see is an ordinary German, living as they do, and a man who makes economic crisis seem less threatening with his homely sayings about fat times and lean times.

This is the other part of Kohl's political appeal: his infectious confidence. The way he ignores criticism is a source of wonderment to his detractors and supporters alike. His typical retort is: 'The dogs bark - and the caravan moves on.' And so it often does.

KOHL HAS spent his entire adult life in the Christian Democratic Union (CDU). He has never had a career outside politics. He joined the party just two years after the war, at the age of 17. In 1953, at the age of 23, and while still a student, he was already a member of the local executive, in the Palatinate. He studied law and history at the universities of Frankfurt and Heidelberg - both within easy reach of Ludwigshafen. Then, in 1959, a year after gaining his doctorate, he became a member of the state parliament in Rhineland-Palatinate. Within four years, he was CDU leader in the region. In 1969, not yet 40, he became prime minister of Rhineland-Palatinate.

Four years later, he became the CDU federal party leader, beginning a reign that has just passed its 20th year. At first, he was in opposition to the Chancellor, Willy Brandt. His chances of success were written off. Yet in 1982 he unseated Helmut Schmidt, Brandt's successor. 'I profit from the fact,' Kohl said recently, 'that I have always been underestimated.'

Fine-tuned diplomacy, however, is not his strong point. Sometimes, his stubbornness is successful. Sometimes - as with the Heitmann presidential candidacy - it backfires badly. The deadlock at Corfu, when John Major cast his veto against the preferred Franco-German candidate for the EU presidency, Jean-Luc Dehaene, seems to have been an example. In Germany, most commentators and (privately) many

officials argued that Germany's clumsy presentation of Mr Dehaene had damaged his chances.

The same lack of diplomacy marked his handling of the fiftieth anniversary of the D-Day landings. Kohl now denies that he ever asked for an invitation; but French officials and others tell a different story. Either way, the perceived snub turned into a rumbling argument about the alleged failure of West European partners to understand that Germany has changed - and that the great majority of Germans now see the landings as a liberation, not a defeat. In theory, Mr Kohl had a point. In practice, however, his irritable response gave food for yet more anti-German headlines.

But the argument went to the heart of Kohl's mission as a politician: to give the Germans a new sense of their own identity. German unity and European unity have been his twin dreams. As Communism collapsed in East Germany in 1989, Willy Brandt famously declared: 'What belongs together is coming together.' But many in Brandt's own party were reluctant to acknowledge that unity was both inevitable and essential, and that this was a turning point in history. Kohl seized the moment. As one of his advisers put it: 'Kohl is not, in himself, a risk- taker. He's quite cautious. But during those months (negotiating German unity, in 1990), he was like a tightrope-walker without a net.' Mr Kohl can hope to be remembered as the second 'unity chancellor', after Bismarck.

His second ideal, of a united Europe, is still less comprehensible to many in Britain. For Mr Kohl, however, the path to European unity is essential, precisely so that the horrors of the past can never be repeated. Many voters react with horror to the idea that their beloved Deutschmark, seen as a symbol of Germany itself, might one day disappear. But Kohl himself has never wavered and has constantly re-stated his commitment to a single currency.

What kind of Europe does Kohl envisage? What kind of Germany, for that matter? These are more difficult questions to answer. On the economy, he has talked of the need for an end to what he called Germany's 'collective leisure park'. But there is no grand plan. If he talks of the need for change now, people may well ask what he has been doing these past 12 years.

In that sense, he is almost a German version of Stanley Baldwin, representing solid, safe, bourgeois, non-metropolitan values: safety first, take things as they come. The elections on 16 October will confirm whether this sense of continuity and normality is what Germans want. Either way, he has always been a man to keep things in perspective. When he wakes up in the middle of the night, he told an interviewer recently, he doesn't think about his place in history. He just goes to the fridge for a drink.

(Photograph omitted)