How Helmut Kohl Turned Satire on Its Head the German Chancellor Is Fighting for His Political Life. Frederick Baker Has Made a Film about the Strong Feelings He Inspires
Baker, Frederick, The Independent (London, England)
Show a German a pear and he'll think of a man called cabbage. Somewhat confusingly for the uninitiated, Chancellor Helmut Kohl's surname means "cabbage", but Germany's cartoonists like to portray him as a pear - fat and stupid. But what started as an insult has become an affectionate symbol for his millions of middle-class supporters. After months of seeking opinions from everyone from George Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev to Germany's top satirists for this week's BBC2 portrait of the Chancellor, I've learnt this: for Kohl, being the butt of jokes has been the key to winning, not just votes, but also friends in some very high places.
Kohl the pear was my first thought when the BBC asked me to make The German Giant. I spent a year at a German university in the late 1980s, where to have expressed anything other than derision for Kohl would have got you labelled as a raving right-winger faster than saying you fancied Eva Braun. So widespread is such prejudice that Kohl's opponents have fatally underestimated him for years.
Six months travelling the world interviewing the German Chancellor's famous friends showed me how limited my view had been. The culmination was three interviews with three former world leaders in three days: America's George Bush, Russia's Mikhail Gorbachev and Israel's Shimon Peres. Despite their very different political outlooks, I was struck by the way their praise for Kohl was so consistent. Whether through the cold blue eyes of right-winger Bush or the sad sagacious stare of the left's Peres, Kohl was seen as a man worthy of great acclaim. Only when we started interviewing people in Germany did the balance swing back: clearly this ex-footballer's away performances have stood the test of time better than his record at home.
Germany's top satirical magazine Titanic frequently features Kohl on its cover. Celebrated lines have included: "The reunification is invalid - Kohl was doped" and "Buddhism bizarre - Kohl threatens with rebirth". As Titanic's editor Oliver Schmitt told me: "In November 1982, Titanic invented the pear as a symbol for Kohl because in German pear has a double meaning. It means the fruit, but also a big empty space, like a big head, and as we know Kohl's head is really big. Our first cover was `The pear must stay Chancellor forever'."
That, of course, was a joke, but 16 years and four election victories later, the pear is still in power. Now it seems more like prophecy than mockery.
After hearing his praises sung by world leader after world leader, it became clear that the man who outwardly has the political charisma of a pair of worn carpet slippers is used to having the last laugh.
George Bush was certainly impressed. "I found that ... personal diplomacy is important. It's not going to stop someone being communist or they are not going to stop being against regulation, but if you know someone personally, a warmth builds up, one trusts the other. One sees one's word is good," he told us. "With Helmut ... we had an easy kind of humour back and forth, that made it fun."
Former British prime minister John Major also used that …
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Publication information: Article title: How Helmut Kohl Turned Satire on Its Head the German Chancellor Is Fighting for His Political Life. Frederick Baker Has Made a Film about the Strong Feelings He Inspires. Contributors: Baker, Frederick - Author. Newspaper title: The Independent (London, England). Publication date: September 6, 1998. Page number: 8. © 2009 The Independent - London. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.
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