selenak: (Sternennacht - Lefaym)
[personal profile] selenak
I was born in 1969, which means I was in school and just making the transition from child to teenager when Helmut Kohl became chancellor. By the time he was voted out of office, he’d been Chancellor for sixteen years. (Hence one of his nicknames: The Eternal Chancellor.) He died yesterday, the tributes haven’t stopped coming in, and as when Genscher and before him Helmut Schmidt died, I feel both a bit of history and a part of what formed my life when I was young has gone; I feel my own mortality.

Not because I was a fan. I never voted for him, not being a conservative. I disagreed with various of his policies. But when I look back, it occurs to me that growing up when I did, I internalized at least two of his core beliefs – that the European Union is our future, central to avoiding the horrors of the past (by which I don’t just mean WWII but centuries of European warfare), and that the French-German relationship is central for this. It’s no accident that probably the Kohl photograph included the most in the tributes both national and international was the one depicting him holding hands with Mitterand at Verdun. Of course, no post war German chancellor was likely to neglect France for obvious reasons, but Kohl, hailing from the Palatinate near the French border which during various French-German wars was always likely to be among the first regions to be devastated during those centuries of warfare, really made wooing the French personal. (And kept it up beyond office; till Mitterand’s death, they met at least once a month.)

(My favourite Kohl and Mitterand joke goes somewhat like this: Kohl during a state visit in Speyer inflicts his favourite dish, stuffed belly of pork, on Mitterand , who first looks appalled. Then Kohl whispers something into his ear, and suddenly Mitterand eats with all signs of enthusiasm and finishes the meal. Later, Kohl’s sidekicks want to know what he said, and Kohl reveals: “I said: If you don’t eat up, Francois, you’re getting the Saarland back.”)

Among the many obituaries trying to sum up the man, from chronically underestimated hedgehog to everyone else’s hare outmanoeuvring all rivals to lonely giant incapable of admitting mistakes or accepting criticism, I think this one works best for me, not uncritical (unsurprisingly, since it’s by Der Spiegel, a magazine Kohl saw as the enemy, but also respectful of his achievements. (Whereas, say, the obituary in the Guardian felt downright mean spirited.) I’m still trying to figure out what I feel. Not sadness; both because there would have had to have been affection first, and because he was in a very bad physical state, and had been for years. It is more like what you feel when you see a giant glacier which had been melting for many years at last dissolving into water and earth, and only then you understand that the sight of the glacier, the awareness of it, had been part of the landscape that told you who you were.
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