OLD KING KOHL

The death of Helmut Kohl last week was understandably overshadowed by more dramatic events in Blighty, but I’ll be fair and declare that Kohl (for good or ill) was the most influential German since Franz Beckenbauer or the collective members of Kraftwerk, rather than that funny fellow with the toothbrush moustache – who was really an Austrian, anyway. Kohl passed away on Friday at the age of 87, having retired from public office in 1998; but he was German Chancellor at the most crucial stage of the country’s post-war existence, overseeing unification in 1990 and consequently becoming the first properly elected Chancellor of a united Germany since a certain Mr Hitler in 1933.

Born in Bavaria in 1930, the timing of his birth meant Kohl was legally required to join the Hitler Youth when turning fifteen, though he avoided being recruited into Adolf’s increasingly juvenile forces on account of the Second World War ending at the moment he was drafted. As with many factors in the life of Helmut Kohl – including growing up in West rather than East Germany – he found himself in the right place at the right time. Spared military service, he studied Law in Frankfurt and then history and political science in Heidelberg before entering the business world, though he’d been active in politics from university onwards, joining the newly-formed Christian Democratic Union Party. In divided post-war Germany, the legacy of the recent past necessitated a clean slate in politics as much as every other aspect of daily life, and Helmut Kohl was in attendance right at the very birth of modern German politics.

Kohl’s professional political career began in earnest with his election to the state assembly of the Rhineland-Palatinate Landtag in 1959, and he moved up the greasy pole of federal government throughout the 60s, elected Minister-President of Rhineland-Palatinate in 1969. With his centre-right stance, Kohl was at odds with the more conservative wing of the CDU; but the loss of power for the party after twenty years to the Social Democrats of Willie Brandt was compounded by Brandt’s attitude towards the GDR, which the CDU (unlike Kohl himself) officially opposed. In 1972, as West German Chancellor, Brandt instigated the Ostpolitik, a programme of rapprochement towards East Germany that attempted to establish formal relations between the two separate German states for the first time since their division.

The CDU leader Rainer Barzel gambled on public opposition to Brandt’s East German policies when he first provoked a vote of no-confidence in Brandt’s government (which he lost) and then ran as the CDU candidate for Chancellor in the 1972 federal elections; the gamble backfired again and Brandt was re-elected. Barzel’s failure gifted Helmut Kohl a clear run to becoming West Germany’s effective opposition leader, elected as Chairman of the CDU in 1973. After being a prominent figure on the German political scene for the best part of twenty years, Kohl finally led his party back into power in October 1982 at the expense of a coalition led by the Social Democrats’ Helmut Schmidt, which collapsed after losing a vote of no-confidence; and Kohl then strengthened his position via the ballot-box in the federal elections of 1983.

The previous decade had been a traumatic one for West Germany; the country’s economy may have emerged as one of Central Europe’s strongest (certainly when compared to the UK’s at the time), but the nation was as vulnerable to terrorist assaults as we were. The notorious Baader-Meinhof Gang – or, as they were more commonly known in Germany, the Red Army Faction – had repeatedly targeted holders of public office they claimed had been Nazi Party members during WWII; whatever legitimate grievances they may have held, however, were undermined by the violent means with which they addressed Germany’s recent past. Those born either during or after the war carried the guilt of their parents and resented the fact; Helmut Kohl, born before it, was equally determined to address Germany’s recent past, but by diplomatic and economic means.

Keen to forge a stronger bond with one of Germany’s oldest enemies, Kohl developed a close friendship with French President François Mitterrand; but Kohl’s plans for greater European integration and Germany being central to it were hampered by the inconvenient fact that his country remained divided. However, when the Berlin Wall tumbled down following the unexpected collapse of the East German Government in the autumn of 1989, Kohl had the opportunity he’d been waiting for. After eliciting the support of the USSR, Kohl wasted little time in drafting a reunification treaty that was signed within a year of the first civilian hammer hitting the Berlin Wall. Germany was back in one piece and Helmut Kohl now had the chance to, well, ‘make Germany great again’.

Along with Mitterrand, Kohl was the prime mover behind the Maastricht Treaty, the evolution of the EEC into the EU, and the creation of the Euro. Angela Merkel, an East German whose entry onto the national stage of German politics was as a member of Kohl’s first post-unification administration, is the most notable beneficiary of the rebirth of Germany her former boss instigated, whereas the rest of Europe now views Kohl’s achievement with decidedly mixed emotions.

Wherever one stands on the EU issue, however, there’s no denying Helmut Kohl was perhaps the most influential European politician of his generation, a man whose career spans the entire post-war history of Europe, and a man who played a major part in shaping that history by remaking the continent in his own image. That’s no mean feat.

© The Editor

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IT’S NOT OVER YET

cunt-2The decision of the ‘Newsnight’ production team and presenters to take an early holiday as of last Friday seemed to suggest 2016 had finished slinging shit at the world; paid vacations for BBC freeloaders doesn’t mean the most unpleasant twelve months in living memory has completed its catalogue of carnage, however, as yesterday’s events both in the centre and on the fringes of Europe indicated in the worst possible way. The assassination of Russia’s ambassador to Turkey in full view of TV cameras, swiftly followed by another horrible massacre – this time on the streets of a city with its fair share of past atrocities, Berlin – confirmed this year’s obituaries have been prematurely penned.

Not dissimilar to the gruesome scenes that accompanied the murder of Lee Rigby three years ago, the brazen pride in the killer of Andrei Karlov as he waved his weapon and ranted whilst the dying ambassador lay at his feet was an irredeemably ugly exhibition that suggested the secular constitution of Turkey isn’t merely under threat from the country’s dictatorial President Erdogan. The assassin, disconcertingly dressed like an extra from ‘Reservoir Dogs’, was apparently a serving police officer who quickly met the same fate as the man he shot in the back once Turkish security forces gate-crashed the incongruous surroundings of the Ankara art gallery where the murder took place.

Turkey has been a tense nation (to put it mildly) since the failed coup several months ago, but the ongoing crisis in Syria has added to the strained relations between the Turks and the Russians; lest we forget, it was only a year ago that a Russian warplane was shot down by Turkey on the border with Syria. As Syria is on Turkey’s doorstep, a leader who makes no bones about his religious leanings, not to mention having purged the police, armed forces and judiciary of his enemies, is hardly in a position to dissuade his underlings from expressing similar beliefs with the kind of violent force Russia has unsurprisingly labelled ‘terrorism’.

Barely had the international community had the chance to react to that awful act before news began breaking of the latest slaughter of civilians on a European street. Echoing appalling events in Nice last July, the same method of murder was employed in an effort to maximise the body count, i.e. a lorry ploughing pedestrians down. Mercifully, the numbers killed at the Berlin Christmas Market were far lower than the 89 in France, but the incident will no doubt place further pressure upon Frau Merkel and her benign approach to immigration on the eve of a General Election in Germany, not to mention gifting Madame le Pen a fresh batch of headlines rich in exploitative potential when she prepares to sell herself to France’s own electorate next year.

Neither incident yesterday has yet to be connected to ISIS or any other Middle Eastern paramilitary organisation with a grudge against the west, though the one in Berlin does bear all the hallmarks. Mevlut Mert Altintas, the assassin of the Russian ambassador to Turkey, had included the words ‘Syria’ and ‘Aleppo’ in his post-assassination rant as well as the popular Radical Islam catchphrase ‘Allahu Akbar’, yet his actions seem more reflective of anti-Assad, anti-Russia/pro-Syrian Rebel Forces protests in Turkey over the days leading up to the murder rather than any suggestions of ISIS sympathies. Nevertheless, all major European cities are on high alert again, anticipating sleeper cells being triggered into action by news from Berlin in particular.

If 2016 has taught us anything it’s that all the worst bits of 2015 have simply been taken to the next level, and there’s little evidence that 2017 will see any improvement. Those keen to see the back of this year will probably find next year just as gloomy, but to turn Harold Macmillan’s trademark sound-bite on its head and say we’ve never had it so bad is to betray an ignorance of the past. The world has been here before, but I suppose to anyone born after, say, 1985, the current global turmoil is unprecedented within that short lifetime.

On a trivial, mildly inconvenient level, the concerns that claim tabloid column inches such as train and postal strikes were considerably more far-reaching forty-odd years ago. In the case of Southern Rail’s ongoing chaos, a nationalised railway industry would have seen the entire nationwide workforce come out in solidarity with their London colleagues and the whole country would have been affected over the Christmas holidays rather than just the capital and its Metroland commuter belt. But I wouldn’t expect people who weren’t even a twinkle in the milkman’s eye in 1974 to grasp that fact. Equally, the Daily Mail mindset that is forever lecturing those struggling in a zero-hours minimum wage ghetto where owning one’s home is a pipe-dream merely shows how long some have resided in a cosseted cocoon from the harsh realities of trying to make an honest living when wages and prices are such distant bedfellows.

It would be jumping the gun to compare 2016 to other seismic shifts in the world order – 1848 being the most obvious; a degree of distance is really required in order to measure the after-effects once the dust has settled, and we’re still too in the thick of it to make neat summaries of how this or that event altered things forever thereafter. But the pace of change, and the periodic bursts of violence that have characterised the change as it has unfolded with relentless aggression would, as I pointed out in a post a few months ago, make for a cracking edition of ‘The Rock n Roll Years’ were we lucky enough to have some decent Rock n Roll; that we’re not seems to emphasise the absence of alternatives to the grim world about us; we’ve had to make do with overgrown school-kids dressing as clowns and people playing at statues for yet another tedious selfie fad; so much for cultural salvation.

Anyway, as the previous post attracted little in the way of attention, I’m optimistic enough to put that down to people having several distractions during a time of year when there are numerous demands on their time rather than attributing it to an especially uninspiring piece of writing. With that in mind, it’s probably best if I take a few days off myself – not that I don’t expect something else characteristically awful to occur before we hit January 1; and if it does, I’ll probably be compelled to comment, whether or not anyone is listening. Merry Xmas everybody.

© The Editor

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