Iron men German records falling: Kohl surpasses Adenauer, aims at Bismarck.

November 01, 1996

HELMUT KOHL is to Konrad Adenauer what Cal Ripken is to Lou Gehrig. Yesterday, the German chancellor surpassed Adenauer's old record of 5,145 days (or 14 years and one month) in office to become the longest serving head of the German government in the postwar era.

Purists will be unimpressed. They will note that Otto von Bismarck, the "Iron Chancellor," served more than 19 years from 1871 to 1890. And while Baltimore's Cal made history when he swept by the Gehrig record of 2,130 consecutive games played, this is not all. He started his Oriole career in 1981 -- fully a year before Mr. Kohl ascended to the chancellorship.

This, however, is not the moment to give up on Mr. Kohl's durability. Even today, at age 66, he is seven years younger than Adenauer was when he began his tenure as chancellor. If Mr. Kohl should win an unprecedented fifth term in 1998, he would be well on his way to passing Bismarck, who did not have to face elections.

Mr. Kohl, like Konrad Adenauer before him, has already governed longer than the span covered by the Weimar Republic or Hitler's "Thousand-year Reich." His place in history is secure.

As the Communist regime in East Germany was crumbling, he plunged ahead with the reunification of his country. And he defied all economic logic by allowing near-worthless East German marks to be exchanged, one-for-one, with mighty West German marks. This was the beginning of a $600 billion subsidy effort that is still going on even as cultural differences continue to divide the two parts of Germany.

His current task is to chip away at the expensive social welfare system started by Bismarck that undercuts the German work ethic and the nation's ability to compete in a global economy.

There are always detractors who persist in underestimating Helmut Kohl. When he took office, he was considered a provincial bumpkin, a caricature of German Gemuetlichkeit. But this disarming persona served only to increase his ability to dominate the German political scene, champion the cause of European union and gently lead his country away from Hitlerian shadows into a position where it could increasingly exert its natural power and position on behalf of postwar democratic traditions.

Pub Date: 11/01/96

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