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Kohl Reemerges, Savors Role in Unification

Germany: Ex-chancellor, kicking off 10th-anniversary celebrations, chides rivals on left for doubting his vision.

September 28, 2000|CAROL J. WILLIAMS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BERLIN — Former Chancellor Helmut Kohl made a rare emergence from the shadows of a political scandal Wednesday to take his bows for overseeing German reunification a decade ago and to denigrate his Social Democratic rivals as having not believed in the dream of one nation.

The first of a weeklong slate of events leading up to Tuesday's 10th anniversary of the day East and West Germany united, Kohl's speech reminded his countrymen of the proudest accomplishment during his 16 years as chancellor and suggested that unity would never have happened if today's leaders had been in power.

"Large segments of the political left had already given up, even betrayed, the goal of German unity and freedom," Kohl told about 600 guests at the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, a think tank affiliated with the Christian Democratic Union he led for 25 years.

The conference to celebrate and discuss European integration and German unity also marked a reconciliation between Kohl and his successors in the CDU hierarchy--although perhaps solely for the sake of appearances during the week's high-profile festivities.

Fellow conservatives have ostracized Kohl since his refusal to disclose, either to the party or to a parliamentary investigative commission, the source of at least $1 million in undeclared--and therefore illegal--campaign contributions that he accepted while in office. Some CDU leaders--including party chief Angela Merkel and Kohl's former chief of staff, Wolfgang Schaeuble--have snubbed him since the scandal erupted nearly a year ago.

Schaeuble, who has a book due out next week that condemns Kohl for arrogant and conspiratorial behavior, made his enduring animosity toward his former mentor apparent by not showing up for the conference that was arranged after Kohl was excluded from the main commemorative events in Dresden next week.

The 70-year-old ex-chancellor appeared to be holding back tears when he was introduced to a packed auditorium as "the German unity chancellor, our friend Helmut Kohl."

Merkel broke the ice that has encrusted her relations with Kohl since the start of this year. In an address that preceded Kohl's speech, Merkel credited him both with unifying Germany and with strengthening a united Europe by pushing the euro currency and helping lift internal borders.

"You, Helmut Kohl, have always demonstrated that you have a vision for Europe," Merkel said in a speech that only once alluded to the recent "difficult" months.

While Kohl struck a dignified pose for the commemoration of what he described as "the most joyful day in the history of our people," he also took advantage of his now-rare moment in the spotlight to blast his government's leftist successors under Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder. Kohl noted that "only months before freedom was at hand" in Eastern Europe, the Social Democrats entered into an agreement with the East German Communist Party in 1987 pledging respect for the sovereignty of the two separate states.

Kohl aimed his most withering words at Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer of the Greens party, noting that the erstwhile leftist radical had dismissed reunification as "an illusion" only four months before the Berlin Wall fell under the pressure of mass protests in the East.

"The 3rd of October is a gift to us. With God's help we achieved this dream of unity," Kohl told his audience with humility that has been uncharacteristic since the scandal broke.

Wednesday's conference was held in the Palace of Tears, a former East German border-crossing facility attached to the Friedrichstrasse train station that was the scene of tearful partings in the age of division.

"This place, the Palace of Tears, puts a name also to the time for which it was created," Kohl said, recalling the hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Germans forced to leave friends and loved ones behind when allowed to leave for the West.

The main celebrations of Germany's 10th Unity Day are planned in Dresden, where an old CDU rival of Kohl, Saxony Gov. Kurt Biedenkopf, is de facto host of the anniversary events.

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