Europe

Helmut Kohl: Germany's 'under-appreciated' political giant

Former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl poses in 2011 Image copyright AFP
Image caption Helmut Kohl defined Germany's politics for a generation through the sheer force of his persona and his political genius

Now that Helmut Kohl has died, the German people and their longest-serving post-war chancellor will never be able to make their peace.

Mr Kohl felt under-appreciated until the end and even those Germans who respected him never found a place in their hearts for him.

"Germany has much to thank him for," Chancellor Angela Merkel said in 2014, when her predecessor turned 85.

She clearly felt an ungenerous country needed reminding.

Emotional bond

Helmut Kohl was a man of the moment, a brilliant tactician, ready to grasp what was coming.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption German Chancellor Angela Merkel (right) - seen here with Mr Kohl in 2012 - argues that her country has much to thank him for
Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption He was a driving force behind moves towards greater European integration

Only a few months after the Berlin Wall had collapsed in 1989 - which he too had not anticipated - Mr Kohl went to Dresden, in what was then East Germany.

His brief speech, again and again interrupted by shouts of "Helmut! Helmut!" marked a turning point. In that cold night, in front of the Frauenkirche, an emotional bond was forged between Mr Kohl and East Germans that sped the country towards unification.

Politics is all about presence, and Mr Kohl, a big man, was an expert in corporeal politics.

He always sought to draw people near, because then he was at his best. He spent hours cajoling the party ranks on the phone, and he enjoyed serving his beloved Saumagen - or stuffed pig's stomach - to foreign dignitaries, whether they liked it or not.

He held French leader Francois Mitterrand's hand over graves at the World War One battlefield of Verdun.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Mr Kohl's warm personal relationship with Francois Mitterrand helped further Franco-German reconciliation

Physical politics

In the photographs the French president will forever look conspicuously small next to the German chancellor.

It was a form of physical politics that worked well with men like then US President Bill Clinton or Russia's Boris Yeltsin, who invited Mr Kohl to join him in the sauna. Not surprisingly, it did not sit well with then UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

To a Germany that had ceased to be politically ambitious, Helmut Kohl was, for the longest time, the perfect chancellor. He looked like a man in control, while managing to make the power in his hands seem harmless.

He talked reforms, without bothering the country with too many of them.

His aura was that of a trustworthy stalwart, and his success helped him shrug off the elites' view of him as a provincial buffoon. It embittered him nevertheless.

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Image caption Mr Kohl adopted a form of physical politics that worked well with men, if not with Margaret Thatcher
Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Germany has rarely looked back after Helmut Kohl was forced out of office in 1998 to be followed by his resignation from the CDU in January 2000

Helmut Kohl defined Germany's politics for a generation through the sheer force of his persona and his political genius.

Yet after he was forced out of office in 1998, the country rarely looked back.

The Christian Democrats stripped him of the party's honorary chairmanship because of his role in a party slush fund scandal and the difficulties of the euro - devised by Mr Kohl as Germany's ultimate commitment to European integration.

These setbacks have overshadowed what he considered his greatest achievement.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Helmut Kohl was a man of the moment, a brilliant tactician, ready to grasp what was coming

His European Union, like much of his politics, was not really meant to work without him. And it didn't. Soon the global threats of terror and financial crises made him look to many Germans like a man from a different era.

Moreover, a debilitating fall in 2008 had robbed Mr Kohl of the chance to defend his political legacy.

He remained silent too when his sons wrote bestsellers disassociating themselves from their bullying father.

As his first wife Hannelore - with whom he had once authored a cookbook - had killed herself, he was now looked after by his much younger second wife in his old bungalow home in Oggersheim, in the western state of Rhineland-Palatinate.

In the end, Mr Kohl - whose politics were formed so much around relationships - had run out of friends and foes alike.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption German reunification in September 1990 was a crowning moment of Mr Kohl's career (pictured after a meeting with East German prime minister in 1989)
Image copyright AFP
Image caption In the end Mr Kohl - whose politics were formed so much around relationships - run out of friends and foes alike

In 2014 Helmut Kohl visited the Frankfurt Book Fair once more to present a book on his own account of the events of 1989-90.

Despite being close to incoherent, he spoke a few words.

Seeing their once mighty chancellor reduced to a frail figure in a wheelchair made most Germans feel uncomfortable.

A Dutch journalist witnessing the scene saw something else: a historical figure. "How moving," he said.

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