Photo Gallery: Honoring the Reunification Chancellor

Foto: Clemens Bilan/ dpa

Clinton Honors Former Chancellor Helmut Kohl's Message to Merkel and Europe

"Follow Helmut Kohl's lead!" That motto, ex-US President Bill Clinton insisted at an award ceremony for the former German chancellor on Monday night, served him well when he was in the White House. Kohl himself hoped Chancellor Merkel was listening.

The European common currency is under massive pressure from the ongoing debt crisis. Europe's principle of borderless travel is under fire due to the strain of economic refugees from North Africa. And right-wing populism is on the rise across the continent.

Time to panic?

Not according to Helmut Kohl. The 81-year-old former German chancellor took the stage on a rainy evening at the American Academy on the shores of Berlin's Wannsee lake on Monday. And even as many of the political heavyweights in the audience were spending much of their waking hours attempting to patch up a frayed European Union, Kohl exuded confidence in Europe's future.

"I don't see any reason for any kind of pessimism," Kohl said. "Let us close ranks."

And Kohl, ever the German statesman, even had a bit of concrete advice to Germany's current Chancellor Angela Merkel, who was also in attendance. "We have to follow our path with the Greeks too, even if it costs us something. Those who want to do away with everything and start over again are mistaken."

'Best European Statesman'

Kohl was the guest of honor on Monday night to receive the Henry A. Kissinger Prize, an award given by the American Academy "in recognition of outstanding services to the trans-Atlantic relationship." Former US President Bill Clinton was on hand to give the laudation, along with World Bank President Robert B. Zoellick, Henry Kissinger himself, former German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher and several other luminaries.

The focus of the evening was plain from the start: Speaker after speaker honored Kohl's service to the reunification of Germany just over two decades ago. And the praise was effusive. "Kohl had vision," said Zoellick. Kohl was the "best European statesman since World War II," added Clinton.

But Kohl himself, wheelchair-bound and in unmistakably frail health, preferred to focus on the present. Despite an unsteady voice, his message was clear: "We have reached the future" for which we spent years fighting. "We want to say 'yes' to this life."

The message was all the more powerful for the speech which came before. Bill Clinton, himself 64-years-old, would seem to have lost little of the oratorical powers which propelled him to the White House in 1992. And he was effusive in his praise of Helmut Kohl. The German chancellor, he said, faced a series of thorny questions during his 16 years at the helm -- from German reunification to Russian instability to the future of NATO to the break-up of Yugoslavia.

'Follow Helmut Kohl's Lead'

"Kohl had to deal with every one of these questions," Clinton said. "And I would argue that ... he answered every single one of these questions correctly."

Clinton's praise, of course, was partially born out of the luxury of political retirement and of hindsight. Forgotten on Monday evening was the foreboding many in the world felt at the prospect of a reunified Germany -- and the consternation at the speed with which Kohl pushed forward in the 12 months following the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989. And Germany's military involvement in the Balkans at the time raised unpleasant memories of its 20th century past.

Closer to home, it has only been in the last five years that Kohl has returned from the high-society exile imposed on him as a result of a 1999 campaign finance scandal which helped propel Merkel to the top of his Christian Democrats.

But Clinton was in a magnanimous mood on Monday evening. "When I sit alone and make a list of the things I did in foreign policy that I'm really proud of," Clinton told his audience of 300, "I realize that all I had to do ... was to follow Helmut Kohl's lead."

Indeed, by the end of the evening, it began to seem that, rather than addressing the crowd of journalists and dignitaries, Clinton and Kohl were speaking to Merkel and her new vice-chancellor, Philipp Rösler.

"Let us continue," Helmut Kohl implored, "down the path on which we find ourselves."

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