R.I.P. HELMUT KOHL – Someone once said that if Hitler fell under the proverbial bus or was assassinated in 1939, historians today would be likely describing him as the greatest German politician of the 20th century. I don’t agree with this view – for all his rebuilding of Germany scarred by the defeat in the Great War, the Weimar chaos, and the Great Depression, there was way too much ugliness and evil in Hitler already by 1939, even by the standards of an otherwise ugly and often evil decade – but it’s an interesting discussion nevertheless, one that touches on the issues of collective memory and historiography. Then again, maybe I’m wrong – substantial percentages of Russians and Chinese still hold Stalin and Mao respectively in high regard, and that’s despite the horrific record of their long careers.
Who, then, are the greatest German politicians of the 20th century? I would name two: Konrad Adenauer, the man who rebuild Germany after the Second World War, both economically and morally (and whose biography by Charles Williams I’m reading at the moment; perhaps too thorough, and sometimes heavy going, but still quite interesting), and Helmut Kohl, the man who bloodlessly joined together what the war has torn asunder 45 years earlier. Both Catholic Rhinelanders, both of the Christian Democrat centre, both Chancellors, more than anyone else they made the modern Germany.
Kohl passed away yesterday at home, aged 87.
He was a bear of a man, and for me, too young to really remember Helmut Schmidt, his Social Democratic predecessor (who only died two years ago, at the age of 97, having been a heavy smoker until the end), Kohl was Germany throughout the 1980s, a staunch Atlanticist during final years of the Cold War and the great unifier of Germany at its end.
I was fond of Kohl, so much so that he makes a brief appearance towards the climax of my novel “Night Trains”. Remember a great – and good, though far from perfect (but who is?) – man. Oh, and buy the book, too.