Profile: Helmut Kohl, German Chancellor A Life Devoted to Pursuit of Power

By Clough, Patricia | The Independent (London, England), September 19, 1998 | Go to article overview
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Profile: Helmut Kohl, German Chancellor A Life Devoted to Pursuit of Power

Clough, Patricia, The Independent (London, England)

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.

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