The Sensitive Elephant: Helmut Kohl's Nobel Prize Ambitions Irritate Merkel
Relations between Angela Merkel and Helmut Kohl, the former German chancellor have reached a new low point. Merkel has refused to actively promote the European statesman's nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Helmut Kohl with his former protegé Angela Merkel.
That makes it all the more comforting that European Commission President José Manuel Barroso used the celebrations in Berlin as an opportunity to propose an honorary title for Kohl that would crown a politician's life work in a way that no other title could: the Nobel Peace Prize. Kohl is a great statesman and a European by conviction, Barroso said. "Kohl deserves the Nobel prize for peace," he added. In making the statement, the Portuguese friend expressed not only his own opinion, but also that of the former chancellor.
"That lady, the formidable one"
But one person remained cool: Chancellor Angela Merkel. First she didn't think it necessary to comment on the topic at all -- which was already irritating enough to Kohl. Then, when the questions became ever more pressing, she left it to Thomas Steg to say something. The grand coalition government spokesman for the Social Democratic Party, Steg was already in office under former chancellor Gerhard Schröder, who came to power by defeating Kohl in 1998. Certainly, Merkel recognizes Kohl's contributions, Steg said. But, he added, she doesn't think it necessary to boost Barroso's initiative with "further written statements." For 77-year-old Kohl, that amounts to a considerable lack of style and an affront.
Kohl stopped thinking very highly of Merkel several years ago. When he mentions her, he usually refers to Merkel as "the priest's daughter" or "that lady, the formidable one." Merkel was the first member of the conservative Christian Democrats to disavow Kohl when he became embroiled in a campaign finance and slush funds scandal in 1999. These days, the chancellor says she appreciates Kohl's advice, but she hardly ever calls him to solicit it.
Now she even begrudges him the much-deserved honor of his nomination -- at least that's the impression of the man who was German chancellor longer than anyone else, and who has entered the history books as the "chancellor of German unity."
"You can't get any shabbier than that," he growled last week, discussing the way things have been going with confidants.
Merkel's advisors have been weighing how to best handle the nomination. Support for the Nobel Prize nomination would put the question of an honorary leadership of the Christian Democrat Union (CDU) back on the agenda too -- a position that Kohl resigned from during the scandal. It would be very difficult to explain why the former chancellor deserves one honor but not the other.
Kohl's stalwarts view Merkel's silence as resulting from far pettier motives. They suspect the chancellor is undermining the appropriate appraisal of Kohl's life achievement to prevent it from outshining her own foreign policy successes. Friends of CDU patriarch Kohl have not failed to notice how sharp-tongued Merkel can become when the years when Germany was governed from Bonn, not Berlin, become the subject of conversation.
A few weeks ago, during a dinner with a hand-picked round of journalists and political friends, the atmosphere was cheerful. Merkel enjoyed hearing the guests praise her smooth pragmatism. The evening remained pleasant until, suddenly, an old Kohl supporter spoke up. He felt the need to remind those present, he said, that one reason why "the chancellor," meaning Kohl, had been so successful was because he had always stood up for his political principles -- when it came to German reunification, for example, or when it came to European integration. "Oh, you and your Kohl eulogies," Merkel hissed.
But Chancellor Merkel doesn't want to go too far in irritating her former patron. The old elephant of Christian Democracy can still cause considerable trouble, and Merkel hasn't forgotten that. When she learned about the former chancellor's mood during her Easter vacation, she decided -- after some reflection -- to make an accomodating gesture. At the end of last week she had government spokesman Ulrich Wilhelm say that she would "personally" be pleased to see Kohl get the Nobel prize.
But Kohl is a very sensitive man, one who can also harbor resentment. And in the former chancellor's view, personal well-wishing and felicitations should be conveyed directly and not through a spokesperson.
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