Helmut Kohl: 'I Make My Living Being Underestimated'

April 04, 1993|By HAL PIPER

Two cheers for Helmut Kohl!

The German chancellor's poll numbers are down again. The knives are out for him in his own party again. Germans of taste and sophistication confess their embarrassment that this bloviating windbag with a funny accent is the world's most visible German, successor to the great Konrad Adenauer, Willy Brandt and Helmut Schmidt. When Mr. Kohl came to Washington last weekend to meet with President Clinton, the news reports all noted that the chancellor is "in trouble" at home.

He has been in trouble for 11 years. The first "dump-Kohl" whispering started within months of Mr. Kohl's elevation in 1982. He was a deal-maker and vote-counter, the detractors said, but lacked the intellect or the vision for leadership.

Since then the United States is on its third president and Russia its fourth. The Cold War has ended and Germany reunited. But Mr. Kohl still occupies the granite Chancellery in Bonn overlooking the Rhine.

"I make my living by being underestimated," says Helmut Kohl.

Maybe a pol, not a visionary, is what Germany has needed in these turbulent years. After all, there are different kinds of visions.

In the postwar years, Willy Brandt was the Western world's favorite German visionary, and its favorite vision was the image of Brandt on his knees in Warsaw, asking forgiveness for Germany's war crimes and opening passages through the Iron Curtain. Now, when German leadership is sorely needed in meeting the challenges of the post-Cold War world, also would ** seem to call for a chancellor of great spirit and large mind.

On the other hand, there is the vision of Bela Ewald Althans. "I'm thinking of power," he is quoted in an interview in The Progressive magazine. Germany has been made to feel unnecessary shame and guilt for the crimes of the Nazi era, Mr. Althans thinks. "Germany has been colonized by America, and people are sick of it. . . . I'm thinking that the system is dying and when the system is dying, people will look for heroes."

Mr. Althans is pleased to offer himself to the hero-hungry. A tall, blond, blue-eyed Aryan, 27 years old, he is, the magazine reports, the suave new face of German extremism, quoting Nietzsche, working his car phone and fax, fluent in French and English. "I could use my intelligence to get a job in this system, make a lot of money and have fun," he says. "But I don't want it."

What he wants is to be the new Fuehrer. "I am the one who gives to the masses the words they shout at the demonstrations. . . . I am living proof that Hitler can happen again."

Mr. Althans is a scary fellow, no doubt, though perhaps more self-important than important. True, a right-wing political party scored gains in regional elections last month, riding anti-immigrant sentiment and discontent with a limping economy. A truer measure of the German susceptibility to extremism, however, is the series of rallies during the winter that protested lawlessness and violence. In Munich, 400,000 marched; in Berlin on the 60th anniversary of Hitler's taking power, 100,000 marched under a banner that read "Nie Wieder!" -- Never Again!

Memory of the past inoculates Germany against repeating it. Outward trappings of patriotism are absent from German life. The military uniform is deliberately dowdy; soldiers tend to have scruffy haircuts and unpressed trousers. The national anthem is not played before sports events. Politicians do not end speeches, as Presidents Reagan and Bush regularly did, with some German equivalent of "God Bless America."

Still, ever since the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, Germany's post-reunification role in Europe has been a subject of nervous debate and concern -- both inside and outside Germany.

Soviet power has collapsed, and the United States is withdrawing, at least partly, leaving a power vacuum in Europe. There is a danger of chaos in the weakness and instability of the new democracies of Eastern Europe. What will fill the vacuum if not Germany?

Geographically, it stands in the middle, astride what we used to call the Iron Curtain. Germany is the richest country of Europe, with the strongest currency. With its eastern lands gathered in, Germany is the most populous of Western European nations -- nearly 80 million. (Britain, France and Italy each have about 55 million people.) And Germany has longstanding cultural and economic ties in Eastern Europe.

Inevitably, Germany will become more assertive in its foreign policy. Inevitably, it will seek to influence events in the weak eastern states near its borders. Inevitably, an American president will become openly exasperated at the Germans. And inevitably, American editorial cartoonists will portray Chancellor Kohl in Bavarian leather shorts and a Prussian spiked helmet, while editorial writers trace disturbing historical parallels of one sort or another.

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