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Helmut Kohl turns 85

April 3, 2015

Helmut Kohl, chancellor for 16 years, presided over German reunification and set the euro currency in motion. Fellow Christian Democrat Angela Merkel wrote that "Germany has much to thank him for" in a glowing tribute.

24.03.2015 DW-TV Feature DOKU Helmut Kohl 2003 sitzend Copyright ECO Media
Image: ECO Media

Ahead of Helmut Kohl's 85th birthday, German broadcaster ARD has serialized a lengthy interview - recorded in 2004 - discussing the life's work of the country's longest-serving chancellor. Deutsche Welle TV has collated and translated excerpts of the mammoth discussion - Kohl's own chance to reflect on his 16 years at the helm first of the former West Germany, and then of a reunited Germany.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and German-US diplomat Henry Kissinger both wrote guest articles for Germany's largest-circulation newspaper, "Bild," on Friday, praising Helmut Kohl's political achievements.

"We all know this: the two happiest moments of our recent past, European union and German reunification, are also his life's work," Merkel wrote, saying Kohl followed his goals "unwaveringly" - seeking a unified Germany in a united Europe, also "solidly on the side" of the United States.

"That is the lesson, which he drew from the horror of National Socialism and the Second World War," wrote Merkel, who many regard as Kohl's protégé.

"I would wish that Helmut Kohl can look back with satisfaction on his great political legacy. Germany has much to thank him for," the current chancellor concluded.

Flash-Galerie Michail Gorbatschow 80. Geburtstag
Securing German reunification was arguably the high point of Kohl's political careerImage: AP

Kissinger, meanwhile, called Kohl "a pioneering thinker for Europe," also lauding that the reunification of Germany was completed "not with 'blood and iron,' but at the ballot boxes."

Rise and fall

Kohl, who grew up in a rural background in the western state of Rhineland Palatinate, served as the region's state premier, then as the party leader of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU).

In his home state, CDU party leader Julia Klöckner lauded Kohl as an "institution" and a part of "global history." At the regional parliament in Mainz on Thursday, a poster was unveiled in his honor.

In office as Germany's chancellor from 1982 to 1998 - when he lost to Social Democrat challenger Gerhard Schröder, allied with a growing Green party - the straight-talking, somewhat old-fashioned politician forged close ties numerous world leaders.

Most commonly lauded were his relationships with France's longstanding Socialist President Francois Mitterrand, with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and with US President George H.W. Bush.

Bildergalerie Helmut Kohl 1998
Kohl and his first wife, Hannelore, in 1998Image: picture-alliance/dpa

An expenses scandal, in which Kohl was revealed to have accepted a cash donation from unknown sources, eventually toppled him from his role at the head of the CDU. Kohl has never revealed where the money came from, despite heavy pressure, and the affair saw Merkel turn on her mentor. The chancellor insisted that breaking his silence would harm the party.

An op-ed article Merkel wrote back in 1999 for the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" (FAZ) is broadly considered as the end of their amicable partnership - despite a softening of ties in recent years. In the article, Merkel wrote that it was time for the CDU to "learn to stand on its feet" without Kohl, saying the chancellor's silence during the scandal "has done damage to the party."

Valuable footage, given unfinished memoirs

Kohl himself suffered a serious fall in 2008 and is confined to a wheelchair and now rarely speaks in public. Kohl's first wife, Hannelore committed suicide in 2001. His second wife, Maike Kohl-Richter, administers her husband's affairs.

Kohl's absence from the political stage has increased interest in the extended video interview, particularly because the fourth and final volume of Kohl's memoirs might never be published. After years working with ghost writer and journalist Heribert Schwan, the relationship collapsed. Schwan - who last year published a book containing snippets of his hundreds of hours speaking with the chancellor despite a legal challenge from Kohl's lawyers - lays the blame for the breakdown squarely at the door of Maike Kohl-Richter. At court in November last year, after the book's publication, Kohl's legal representatives won a court order preventing the Heyne Verlag publishing house from printing or issuing any further copies including quotes purportedly from Kohl.

Angela Merkel und Helmut Kohl CDU Parteitag am 16.12.1991
The former chancellor's critique of a young Angela Merkel drew international headlines last yearImage: picture-alliance/dpa

The work drew the most international attention for some of Kohl's appraisals of Merkel herself, when he complained of her being something of a political liability in her earliest days in the cabinet. Kohl told his ghostwriter how Merkel "couldn't use a knife and fork properly," and hovered "like a specter" at inopportune moments.

Schwan also asked about Merkel's notorious FAZ article, with the former chancellor replying that he needed say nothing more on the issue, but that Merkel might see fit to comment herself, one day.

Kohl was expected to spend his birthday among close friends at his home in Ludwigshafen-Oggersheim.

msh/sms (AFP, dpa, Reuters)