The text of Sir John Major’s comments made at Chancellor Kohl’s 75th birthday celebration, held at the German History Museum in Berlin on Monday 11th April 2005.
SIR JOHN MAJOR:
Helmut Kohl is one of the towering figures in German history. He served as Chancellor for 16 years; entrenched Germany at the core of Europe; ushered in reunification and fathered a new currency.
During the time I knew Helmut, I came to know the intense human man behind the public image. It is that Helmut, the private man, sometimes the rather emotional man, the man with a gift for friendship, who brings so many people here this evening.
My meetings with Helmut were never dull. Nor did they focus only on business. Before we turned to any agenda, we exchanged jokes, discussed friends, dissected opponents and considered events: our conversation was wholly relaxed and occasionally scurrilous. Certainly it doesn’t bear repeating this evening.
But I can take you behind the curtain a little. There are some cameos of politics with Helmut that I shall never forget.
EU Summit in Birmingham
The British Government had recently closed down a large number of unprofitable coal mines. The miners, understandably, were furious.
Thousands of them marched to the EU summit, surrounded the Hall and began chanting “Coal for ever.”
Helmut, in the Conference Hall, heard the chant and was delighted … he was confident that Anglo-German relations had reached a new high. “There you are, John” he said, “they love the Euro.”
Three way conversation
Helmut and I were meeting in Bonn when we heard reports of atrocities in The Balkans War. We phoned Boris Yeltsin and got him at the end of what had obviously been a very good lunch.
Neither in Germany, nor in Russia, did we have appropriate interpreters with us. Each contribution to the conversation passed through a second language long before it reached the recipient in German, Russian or English. It was chaos.
Helmut and Boris were shouting – one in Germany, the other in the Black Sea – and, frankly, they could have heard one another without phones. Our Ambassadors looked on horrified. When we put the phone down – confident we had saved the day – we learned the original report was false and no conversation had been necessary. We consoled ourselves with a glass of wine. The Ambassadors needed something stronger.
Much more productive was the exchange at the end of the first Gulf War. The Iraqis were murdering the Kurds. I went to the European Union Summit with plans to establish a “Save Haven” for the Kurds.
I put the plan to the meeting. Helmut agreed “Yes, John, very good. We’ll do it.” Francois Mitterrand said “France will do her duty.” The policy was borne. As a result, tens of thousands of lives were saved.
That is the measure of the man we honour tonight. On behalf of us all Helmut, I wish you a very happy Birthday.