A Giant Turns 75

03 april 2005

Die Inkarnation der Bundesrepublik
Todays is the 75th year birthday for the former Chancellor of Germany Helmut Kohl.

In many ways, he is the incarnation of the modern history of the Federal Republic of Germanym, and he is undoubtedly one of the creators of modern Europe.

There is a solid reason why he so far is the only person that the Heads of State and Government of the European Union has declared Honorary Citizen of Europe.

For me, he was for decades a man from whose experience and perspective I learnt a lot. I got to know him in the mid-70’s as I attended different party conferences of the CDU, and gradually our relationship developed.

These were years when the Federal Republic in Sweden was seen as something reactionary and bad, while the picture of the dictatorship of the German Democratic Republic was seen in a competely different lights.

Helmut Kohl was among those that preserved the dream of his country being able to overcome its last dictatorship and its division in peace and in freedom. For many, that was seen as a bizarre dream out of the past.

I happened to believed that one day, in some sort of way, it would come through. I had personally seen the weakness of the communist systems of the East and the failure of the GDR regime to get its population to accept its prisoner fate.

Helmut Kohl served longer as Chancellor of Germany than even Bismarck, and he saw his dream come theough. The collapse of the Soviet empire wasn’t his doing, but the fact that out of the debris could be maneuvered a peaceful reunification of Germany within the framework of the European Union and NATO is to no small degree to his credit.

He is, deservedly, seen as the Chancellor of German unification. When he, on October 3rd 1990, saw the old GDR dissolved and freely join the Federal Republic, it was a dream coming through for many millions.

But he is very far from a German nationalist. He was born in the Third Reich and brought up in its dying days. He is intensely conscious of the historical burden that his nation has to carry after the monstreous crimes of the Nazi years.

That’s why he always wanted to have a Europeanized Germany rather than a Germanized Europe, and why it was an absolute necessity that the unification of Germany was carried out within a very firm framework of European and Atlantic integration. He did not want to revive the fears of the past.

But this meant more than just the Maastricht Treaty and Germany abandoning its cherished D-Mark – the symbol of its post-war strength and stability – in favour of the common Euro. It also meant a commitment to the enlargement of the European Union that was sometimes at odds with what some of the more strident integrationists were saying.

He was key in opening the door of the European Union to Sweden. As I was responsible for our accession negotiations, I had to see him now and then to break the log-jams that occasionally happened in the talks. He was always supportive and constructive, and was instrumental in bringing forward our talks so as to make membership from the beginning of 1995 possible.

But even more important for him than bringing in the former ”neutrals” – Finland, Austria, Sweden – was paving the way for the former communist dictatorships to join the European structures of democratic integration.

This was naturally a question of securing their democracy and freedom, restoring the rule of law and opening up the possibility of what he would call social market economies for them.

But even more important was paving the way for further reconciliation after the wars of the past, and making certain that all the neighbours of Germany was part of the same political and security alliances.

Reconciliation with France was of immediate importance for him. As a young boy in school, he saw the French occupation of his part of Germany. The picture of him and the President of France Francois Mitterand standing and holding hands in the war cementry of Verdun is truly historic.

But it wasn’t only France. As often as I have heard him talk about the importance of that reconciliation, I have heard him speak about the even more difficult reconciliation with Poland, not to speak of with Israel and the Jewish community throughout the world.

The present generation of German governmental leaders belong to another generation. At times, it is all too obvious that they don’t have the historical perspective that nearly always guided the policies of Helmut Kohl.

He will be honoured in many ways, public and private, in the days to come. Later in the month, I am honoured to be part of the more private celebrations of this giant of our present European age.