The giant of German politics celebrates 80th

The grand but controversial colossus of recent German politics, former Chancellor Helmut Kohl, celebrated his 80th birthday Saturday with a swipe at his countrymen’s “pettiness” and failure to make the most of their opportunities.

The giant of German politics celebrates 80th
Kohl on Saturday with wife Maike Kohl-Richter. Photo: DPA

Kohl, the driving force behind Germany’s reunification at the end of the Cold War and the dominating figure in politics for nearly two decades, said his fellow Germans needed to take their responsibilities more seriously and approach their lives with more self-confidence.

“It annoys me when I see how Germany has so obviously gambled away its opportunities,” Kohl told daily Bild. “And by that I don’t mean only in politics, I mean our whole society. We Germans have all the resources and possibilities, we have proved that we are highly productive – and yet today we lose ourselves above all in lamentations and pettiness, which I can’t comprehend.

“I would wish that that everyone once again approaches his situation in reunified Germany with more seriousness and a bit more responsibility, but also with more enjoyment and self-confidence.”

Kohl was chancellor from 1982 until 1998 – making him the longest-serving German leader since Otto von Bismarck. He earned his reputation as the strong leader who reunited Germany after the collapse of the Iron Curtain and the communist German Democratic Republic. He was also instrumental in the creation of the European Union.

He was prominent even in an era of larger-than-life politicians – the US’s Ronald Reagan, Britain’s Margaret Thatcher and the Soviet Union’s reformer Mikhail Gorbechev – which prompted US President George Bush to name Kohl, “the greatest European leader of the second half of the 20th century.”

That reputation suffered, however, when it emerged in 1999 that the Christian Democratic Union party had received illegal funding under his leadership. The scandal eventually spurred current chancellor and Kohl-protege Angela Merkel to call for the party to distance itself from its former leader.

Kohl, who was to celebrate his birthday privately at home with friends and family, said in the Bild interview that the low points of his life included the suicide of his former wife Hannelore in 2001 and the funding scandal.

Rather than expressing contrition over the funding scandal, he obliquely criticised unnamed people who had turned away from him.

“You know, if you have run your life for a party and a country, and then you learn that even people who previously couldn’t get close enough suddenly turn away, indeed even turn against you, because you made a mistake, then I have to say I’ve wrestled a few times, indeed less with fate – though that is also true – than much more with people,” he said.

Kohl also spoke for the first time in depth about his health, including the heavy fall down a staircase two years ago that caused serious brain injury.

“If if weren’t for my wife, I wouldn’t be alive,” he told Bild.

The results of the fall had been “dramatic, but not unusual for a brain trauma injury of this kind and this severity,” he said.

He said he had “nearly given up hope” after the fall.

“If my wife had not been with me, constantly keeping my spirits up and had pushed me with a sense of what was possible and necessary, my fate would have taken a different path.”

He said he was doing “very well” two years on from the fall.

“Of course it would be an exaggeration to say everything was completely fine, but I am after all turning 80.”

Regarding a recent gall bladder operation, Kohl said he had recovered “remarkably quickly” after a few immediate complications.

He said his biggest regret was the way Germany’s Day of Unity, celebrated each year on October 3, had been set up, with the celebrations centred on whichever state holds the rotating chair of the upper house or Bundesrat at the time.

This had turned it into predominantly a state celebration, and had never been fully accepted as a national day, he said.

It would have been “smarter” to simply have a national celebration each year in Berlin, he said.

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