An appetite for pastry... and power

February 23, 1996

He has the appetite of a horse, the memory of an elephant and the confidence of a mountain goat - and he is arguably Europe's most successful politician. Huw Richards asks academics to assess the massive political and physical presence that is German chancellor Helmut Kohl.

He isn't a great communicator. He speaks with a strong and unfashionable regional accent. He has no particular ideological message and is not regarded as especially bright. He is extremely fat and his surname means cabbage. In short (although he isn't that) he is the antithesis of the standard model for a succesful political leader in the televisual age.

Yet Helmut Kohl has an almost unanswerable claim to be the most significant and successful contemporary European politician. Any German chancellor matters, as American presidents still do and British premiers used to, by virtue of national weight. That significance is compounded when they last as long as Kohl, who this year equals founding federal chancellor Konrad Adenauer's record 14-year tenure (1949-63).

It is true that long single-party hegemonies have shown similar staying power in other major democracies. Britain is now in its 17th year of Conservative government while the left has been running Spain and Australia since the early 1980s. But Felipe Gonzalez and Paul Keating are generally expected to go down in their elections next weekend and John Major's chances of still being prime minister by the middle of 1997 are questionable to say the least.

Kohl, comparatively, is in great shape. There may be rumblings from his coalition partners, the Free Democrats (FDP). But a significant reason for FDP unhappiness is a succession of opinion polls and regional election results that suggest that pulling the rug from the coalition arrangement would be electoral suicide.

There was talk of Kohl standing down when he matched Adenauer's record. But he is now generally expected to go on at least to the 1998 election. "He will want to stay on for the intergovernmental conferences and decisions on issues such as monetary union. I think he fears that the next generation may not be as committed to European goals as he is, and there is in any case no obvious successor," says Stephen Padgett, professor of politics at Liverpool University and chair of the Association for the Study of German Politics. And the polls suggest that, provided his health and appetite for power remain robust, he might still be in the job when he celebrates his 70th birthday in April 2000.

So how does he do it? Among the first rules of political success is that you need to be lucky in your opponents. And while never attaining quite the debilitated state of British Labour in the early 1980s, the German Social Democrats (SPD) have been close to the ideal as electoral foes. Charlie Jeffrey, senior research fellow at Birmingham University's institute for German studies, says: "In the early days of Kohl's chancellorship, when neither he nor his party was particularly popular, an effective opposition might have toppled him. But the SPD was in a desperate state, hopelessly divided and indecisive and with the arrival of the Greens creating serious problems for them." One symptom of the SPD's difficulties has been a succession of leadership changes - Kohl's latest challenger, Oskar Lafontaine, is having his second shot at the chancellorship.

So you might argue that anyone leading the Christian Democrats (CDU) over the past 20 years - Kohl became leader in 1976 - would have had a pretty good electoral run. But Kohl had to capture that position, and then hold on to it. Neither was a foregone conclusion - indeed he stood down as chancellor candidate in 1980, allowing the veteran Bavarian rightwinger Franz-Joseph Strass - leader of the CDU's Christian Social (CSU) partner - to lose to the social democrat Helmut Schmidt.

Observers of German politics unite in identifying Kohl's mastery of party management as the vital underpinning of his success. Chris Harvie, professor of British studies at the University of Tubingen, notes: "He is above all a party apparatchik. His doctoral research was on the history of the Christian Democrats in the Rhineland-Palatinate and like most German politicians he has built his career on a local base.

He was minister-president of the Rhineland-Palatinate before he became party leader, and his kitchen cabinet, which is intensely loyal to him, is still based on the group he built up in those days."

That capacity to inspire loyalty now extends across a national network, built up by devoting immense time and effort. Willie Paterson, director of Birmingham's German institute, says: "He spends his Sunday mornings ringing party officials across the whole country, keeping in touch with their concerns. He is very good with people and at the personal touch - at remembering things like their partners' and children's names. I saw something of that myself when I was at Edinburgh and we gave him an honorary degree. He might very easily have sent a standard letter of thanks, but instead he sent a personal letter over which he had clearly taken genuine care."

But if the party secretary in Freudenstadt is likely to be gratified by a personal call from the federal chancellor, anyone who threatens his control of the CDU machine is in for a much less pleasant fate. The adjective "elephantine" has recurred throughout his career as a consequence of his size. Professor Harvie suggests that it might be appropriate for other reasons. "He doesn't forget anyone who crosses him. And they are squeezed out ruthlessly."

In discussions of Kohl's party management two names invariably recur. In the late 1980s, with reunification still to come, his position appeared to be threatened by Heiner Geissler, a liberal, modernising party general secretary, and Lothar Spath, the highly ambitious premier of Baden-Wurttemberg. "Kohl pulled the rug out from both of them. Spath was voted off the party executive and Geissler lost his post," says Dr Jeffrey.

Those fixing skills also matter in running the government. Professor Paterson says: "A chancellor has to balance two jobs - keeping both his party and his coalition partner under control. It isn't easy, as Helmut Schmidt found in 1982 when his party started moving away from him, and he lost his coalition partner. Kohl has been much better at this, partly because he has a more relaxed style. Schmidt wanted to interfere in everything."

An unideological style undoubtedly helps in this. In a system which prizes consensus he has generally been happy to deal and make concessions in order to win consent for government measures. If he shared some of Margaret Thatcher's luck, their styles of conservatism had little in common - one reason undoubtedly for the antipathy most famously reflected when members of her entourage, freed for the afternoon when Kohl cut short a meeting pleading an important prior engagement, ran across a vast and familiar figure blissfully contemplating a newspaper and an outsize cake in a Salzburg cafe.

Eberhard Bort, research fellow at Edinburgh University's international social science institute and a former SPD councillor, notes that his laid-back style has had an impact on the German language. "The term Aussitzen, which literally means to sit things out, has gone into the vocabulary. It makes him a very frustrating and extremely difficult opponent. When Bundestag debates are broadcast you see opposition spokesmen attacking the government and this benign Buddha-like figure sitting there beaming, unmoved by it all."

Years of opposing him have left Dr Bort with very little doubt about his essential popular appeal. "One of his great advantages is that he so obviously enjoys the job and is comfortable in it." And what may look from the outside like disadvantages are often electoral assets. Paterson says: "One very important difference is that Germany is not a metropolitan society. So the fact that he has a strong regional accent, that his grasp of German syntax is rather shaky and that he goes back to his home town of Augersheim every weekend helps rather than hinders. People can identify with him, where Schmidt - a much more obviously accomplished man - was seen as rather coldly superior."

Similarly with the famous appetite - Edinburgh's gown-makers reckoned his robes took twice as much material as the average and he cheerfully supplemented the lunch menu with two haggises. Paterson argues that Germans like physically imposing politicians - Brandt being the most obvious other example. Given what a small man with a moustache did to them, this is hardly surprising. Harvie points to his open tears at Francois Mitterrand's funeral as further evidence of his ability to react like Everyman rather than display the cool dignity of high office.

This lack of pretension has had other benefits. "People have always understimated him," says Bort - one reason perhaps why he and John Major struck a ready rapport. He notes that revisionism started before the great turning-point of reunification. "From about 1986 on political commentators started to recognise that he was an exceptionally deft instinctive political operator."

But the skills of the trimmer and fixer are not always best adapted to defining moments of crisis, such as that which confronted Kohl when the Berlin Wall came down in 1989. Dr Jeffrey points out that his initial reaction was much more cautious than is now generally realised. "His ten-point plan was very cautious, envisaging a gradual reunification." Nor, as Harvie notes, was it necessarily going to be in his interests to speed the process. "He rather assumed, as most people did, that the East Germans would be likely to back the SPD and it would work against him."

But most remarkable political careers have their defining moment, when the politician acts against expectation and benefits. Mitterrand did it in 1958 in France, punctuating a career of calculating opportunism by standing out against the apparently all-powerful De Gaulle. Kohl did so in Germany in 1990, recognising the desperation of the East German desire for reunification. Padgett says: "Once he had realised what was going on, the political instincts asserted themselves. He showed he was capable of rising above everyday politics and grasping the opportunity offered to him."

He also showed his continuing grasp of realpolitik by swallowing the East German CDU, in Harvie's words "an appalling bunch of old Stalinists, hopelessly compromised by collaboration with the Communists".

Today he has political stature to match his physical build. How history will see him, measured against predecessors of the quality of Adenauer, Brandt and Schmidt, may depend on Germany's economic performance in the remainder of this century.

Padgett says: "He is very much a product of the German model and its success. We are now seeing suggestions that it is too inflexible to be internationally competitive. If that proves to be true, I doubt that he is the man to carry through the liberalisation that will be demanded. If not, I think he will be seen as comparable with Adenauer, Brandt and Schmidt."

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