ONE LATE summer afternoon, after his first day at at school, a small runt of a boy called Helmut brought a crowd of his new classmates back home with him. With Helmut at their head, they swarmed up to the attic, dragged down an old kneading trough, launched it on a nearby pond and happily paddled round in it for hours. From that day on, his older sister Hildegard recalled many years later, the boys all followed him.
Before long, Helmut could be seen strutting around the garden with a teacosy on his head and a sheet round his shoulders, playing a favourite game. He was a bishop, and his friends were dutifully carrying his train.
Looking back now, it is clear that from his very earliest years the whole mainspring of Helmut Kohl's being was a colossal, all- absorbing drive for power, which nothing and no-one has yet been able to stop, and may still be unable to stop, even after 16 years of power.
Yet, open and uncomplicated though he is, many Germans have never quite grasped what makes him tick, for all the feeling that he has had his day. Even today, people can still marvel that a man of his limited talents can make it to the top and hang on for so long, let alone become arguably one of the greatest Chancellors Germany has had since Bismark, reuniting his country and forcing the pace of European unification through monetary union.
For when Germans think of the ideal qualities for a leader, Kohl never seems to fit the bill. He is a not a great mind, he is a mediocre speaker, he has no charisma, he does not inspire people, his image in the media has often been dismal. He is not a man of whom his compatriots have often been proud. But Kohl does not care.
Ever since his schooldays, in the Rhineland town of Ludwigshafen, Kohl has been perfecting the art of power. Although for some years the smallest in the class, he shot up suddenly at 15 to become the tallest of them all. He quickly made himself the leader, organising pranks and projects, mediating in the disputes, helping weaker members, acting as their spokesman towards the staff, and playing for the local amateur football team.
In those days, he might use his fists to make a point and when, at the age of 16, he began cutting his teeth in Christian Democrat politics, brawls with the rival Social Democrats were part of the fun. Even now he is not above simply towering menacingly over a troublemaker, using his sheer physical size to cow him or her into submission.
Yet two fundamental experiences ensured that Kohl sought and achieved power by developing great skills of conciliation and mediation demanded by West Germany's consensus. One was his devastating personal experiences of the war, in which his elder brother was killed, when he was a young teenager. The other was going to Sunday seminars held by a far-seeing Ludwigshafen priest who trained promising lads in the principles and practice of democracy. Narrow he may be, but those experiences ensured that he had the vision when it mattered, to reunite Germany, and to lock that reunification to a Europe of increasing integration.
The young Kohl had no political patron: he accumulated power entirely by trusting his own gut instincts. His technique was to woo supporters among the young, march them into local party meetings and get older rivals eliminated and himself elected to office. He would use that office to spread his vast capillary network of contacts, allies and informers, who to this day warn him of trouble, and through whom he absorbs the mood of the country. He would use each office to gain experience, defeat rivals, dispense patronage to gain others' loyalty, and win election to higher office. Step by step, he climbed the ladder, through local, district and eventually regional politics, always seeking party, rather than public office (he could rise faster that way) until, at the age of 39, he emerged triumphant with the top job - he became the prime minister of Rhineland- Palatinate.
Within seven years, he had transformed his impoverished backwater into a thriving, go-ahead region. His reforms became models for others to copy, his success an inspiration for his party. And yet, when in 1976 he became the leader of the CDU opposition in Bonn, many, even in his own party, sneered. "That provincial politician," spat a high official in the SPD government. "Those naff suits, that dreadful accent, that self-satisfied smile. Ugh!"
Few cared about Kohl's record back home. In that political village accustomed to the charismatic Willy Brandt, the Social Democrat leader, the arch- competent Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, and their retinues of high-powered intellectuals, his homespun ways seemed laughable. He became, and remained for years, the butt of endless jokes.
Few ordinary mortals could have survived the searing derision, the humiliations and the bitter defeats that Kohl suffered, yet he shrugged them off with apparent indifference. For his ambition was coupled with an absolute and unshakeable belief in himself. He called it "was hinten rauskommt" - roughly translated as "the bottom line". And the bottom line of all was winning elections.
Now, no-one laughs at Kohl. His astonishing feat in pushing through the reunification of Germany in 1990, in the brief window of time that it was possible, has given him the stature he always felt was his due. His current leadership of the drive towards monetary union has given him the statesmanship he has long for, while his extraordinary resilience, as he pursues an unprecedented fifth term as Chancellor in the elections next weekend, has marked him as a man that still can't be dismissed.
Back in 1976, only Willy Brandt did not laugh. "Do not underestimate Helmut Kohl," he warned. He had recognised Kohl's ambition. But he had also spotted another, almost unbeatable, strength: the fact that Kohl is, and insists on remaining, the archetypal ordinary German. He talks like ordinary Germans, he thinks like them, he behaves like them, he lives and operates on their wavelength. His instinct for what they want - not what the chattering classes or his more sophisticated political colleagues want - has time and again saved his career. If he wins again in the elections on 27 September, long after his political era has passed away, it would be because, once again, Germans feel they need the safety, comfort and reassurance of someone like them.
His ordinariness is totally unfaked, yet he also cultivates it. He has always stubbornly refused to "improve" himself, beyond the odd change in his hairstyle or spectacles. He has made no attempt to dro the heavy accent of the Palatinate, which is about as pleasing to German ears as Liverpudlian to British ones. Privately, he is extremely cultivated, a voracious reader and seeker-out of writers and thinkers who interest him, but he keeps it to himself. His remarks in the public arena are undemandingly banal.
Sixteen years in power, world travel, friendship with the planet's leaders, have brought him vast experience but not one jot more sophistication. He still spends his summer holiday every year in the same Austrian village, he still keeps his tank of tropical fish in his office, and slops around in the same slippers and cardigan.
Many a successful politician has come from humble beginnings and Kohl's, as the son of an obscure tax official on the grimy fringes of Ludwigshafen, were as humble as any. But while many an ambitious young man would have fled its provincial stuffiness, Kohl, both mentally and physically, has never really left the vegetable plots and net curtains of that uninspiring industrial town.
After he could finally afford to marry, in 1960, he made his home in Oggersheim, a Ludwigshafen suburb whose very name conveys cloddish provinciality. It is to his bungalow there that every weekend, work permitting, he escapes to recharge his batteries and it is to there, if he is defeated on 27 September, he will surely return for good.
His family life is utterly ordinary. His pretty blonde wife, Hannelore, runs the home and does public and charitable duty as the Chancellor's wife. He guards his privacy fiercely: few know what his sister, or his two grown-up sons, even look like, what they do, or where they live. Even his supposed love-life is banal. Rumour - quite unsubstantiated - linked him for years with his secretary.
His enemies can dismiss him as provincial, and mock him as "der Oggersheimer", intending it to hurt. Kohl takes it as a great compliment. After all, the vast majority of Germans are provincial too. It is the kindly, honest, sociable people of the Palatinate, and their straightforward values, that have the greatest influence on Kohl. The comments of old schoolmates, local clergy, buddies he sweats with in the local sauna on a Saturday, can sway him more than any dossier in Bonn. Like a tree, Kohl draws his strength from his roots.
He functions through people. If he thinks of war, he thinks of the death of his beloved soldier brother, Walter. If he speaks of a social problem, it will be about the case of some person who suffers from it. He is constantly on the phone, seeking opinions from contacts, chewing over problems with presidents and prime ministers. He has an elephantine memory for names and faces. If he had not made an effort to make friends with George Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev (although not, despite his best efforts, with Margaret Thatcher, who remained resistant to his provincialism and his gargantuan appetite), if they had not known, liked and trusted him, the reunification of Germany would have been impossible.
His favourite relaxation is not the opera or a concert, but - in typical Palatinate style - good wine and plenty of heavy, traditional food, with friends or aides late in the evening after work. It is then, his associates say, that Kohl is at his best.
For many years, Kohl vowed that he would relinquish power of his own volition when the right moment came. He never wanted to repeat the experience of the aged Konrad Adenauer, the first post-war Chancellor and Kohl's role model, who clung on so long after his time that he had to be ignominiously pushed. Yet that moment never seemed to come. Once again, Kohl is battling for power.
If he is defeated, he will probably pursue some activity suitable for an elder statesman. But, after over 60 years in which power has been his life's blood, one would not care to be Helmut Kohl the morning after the power has gone.
Saumagen, or Stuffed Paunch
(as cooked by Hannelore Kohl)
1 pig's paunch, 31/2lb boneless pork shoulder and loin, 31/2lb potatoes, 31/2lb lean ground pork
2 tbs of salt, 1 tsp marjoram, 1/2 tsp each of pepper, ground nutmeg, coriander, cloves, cardamom and basil, 1/3 cup of diced onion, ground bay leaf
1. Coarsely chop the meat, peel, dice and blanch the potatoes. Mix with the meat, then the seasoning.
2. Wash the pig's paunch thoroughly. Tie up two openings with string. Fill the paunch with the stuffing, via the third opening. Tie up.
3. Bring salted water to a boil then reduce heat. Place paunch in water and cook for 3 hours over low heat.
4. Remove paunch, drain and place on a serving dish. Slice at serving.
5. Serve with fresh crusty bread, creamed potatoes, white cabbage and Palatine wine.
"If some of the stuffed paunch is left over, it can be sliced the next day and fried in melted butter until golden brown."…