Helmut Kohl: Viktor Orbán’s interview following memorial service
1 July 2017, Strasbourg (Straßburg)
Eszter Baraczka: The memorial ceremony has come to an end. People usually say positive things at memorial ceremonies, but here this time everyone seemed to be very sincere, and truly shaken. This is despite the fact that when Helmut Kohl accomplished his truly historic deeds, a great many concerns and fears were voiced. Is this proof of his historical greatness?
Well, there has been no funeral service yet: that will be held later this evening. This was a political ceremony. That fact can be sensed especially clearly when you consider that, for instance, the word “Christianity” was not even mentioned – even though we are burying a Christian democratic politician. So everyone spoke in accordance with the rules of political correctness, as is the permitted custom in the building of the European Parliament. So now we can talk about a political stimulus, rather than anything else. The truly moving and spiritual farewell to our Chancellor will be held tonight, in the Cathedral. But of course it was fascinating to see so many contemporaries of Helmut Kohl recount their memories in such a political memorial ceremony. And indeed this memorial ceremony was worthy of Europe in the sense that the leaders spoke about their feelings as Chancellor Kohl’s colleagues or friends, in a straightforward and sincere manner. We Central Europeans were also given a voice, with our spokesperson at the event being Donald Tusk, who was able to speak as the President of the European Council, and as a Pole from Gdansk. I feel he thanked Helmut Kohl on behalf of all Central Europeans – including the Hungarians – for everything the Chancellor did for the Hungarian people’s freedom, for pushing the Soviets out of Hungary and out of Central Europe, and for later taking us back into Europe. So we also had the chance to thank this great Chancellor of Germany for everything he did for us.
According to press reports, you were also due to speak. I don’t know whether you can confirm this, but in the German press there were news reports that the widow of the former Chancellor would have liked Viktor Orbán to deliver a speech at this European memorial ceremony.
When one buries a great man – and now a mighty oak tree has fallen – any kind of gossip or jostling for position at a memorial ceremony is bound to be unseemly. One must never take part in any of that.
I believe you can claim to have friendly ties with Helmut Kohl. You visited him last year when he was extremely ill, and a great many legends surround your visit to his family home. We don’t know why you were there. Some thought that Helmut Kohl would order Hungary to fall in line on the issue of migration, while others believed that he invited you in order to annoy Mrs. Merkel – as we know that their relationship was far from serene. Will you tell us the truth? Will we ever find out?
I visited the Chancellor several times. Back in the 1990s he convinced me that the “old greats” were right when they said that Europe will be Christian or it will be nothing. So I respected him as a great chancellor for Christianity and Christian democracy. And he shepherded our generation, if you like, with the love of a grandfather towards seeing that there are fashions, which come and go, but there is a single secure location on which a Europe of values can be built: that location being Christianity. This is where Europe’s values originated, and it must be preserved – even if this is not always popular. It was in response to his call that I found myself in the family of European Christian democrats. Our generation always received his opinion with the greatest respect. Our relationship was more like that between a grandparent and grandchildren. Parents raise and educate their children, and they also love them. Grandparents no longer educate their grandchildren: they simply love them. And Helmut Kohl was the embodiment of a grandfather. He never lectured us; he didn’t think that just because he was older or just because he was German he could afford to use any kind of lecturing tone with us. If he didn’t understand something, he asked questions; he never judged, and he was very happy to answer every question. And behind everything he said was a Christian air of optimism and love. In the old era of European politics this was nothing unusual, but now this has disappeared entirely. Today the culture of lecturing, disparagement and insult is stronger than the culture of Christian optimism and respect, but I’m sure that this culture will not be buried together with Helmut Kohl.
In his speech Jean-Claude Juncker mentioned a moment when Helmut Kohl – this man of formidable stature in every respect – started to cry. That moment was when the decision was made in the European Union to start accession talks with the Central and Eastern European countries, including Hungary. And at the time he said that this was one of the most beautiful moments in his life. Had you heard this story?
He wrote a book, and since you mentioned political stimulus at this European memorial ceremony, in his book he is fiercely critical of the European Union. One of his criticisms was that the leaders of Europe have forgotten the past, forgotten the lessons of historical mistakes, and not everyone is doing their homework. In other words, he had concern for Europe, which was the title of the book. In this respect he voiced views very similar to yours, when he said that there is no need for a European superstate, but we need the kind of plurality and diversity in Europe in which everyone can feel European and also French, German – or Hungarian, for that matter.
The Germans have a specific historical problem. Having been through a twentieth century like the one they went through, it’s very difficult to display German national feelings; and so at times when a German utters the word “Europe”, one can’t even be sure whether they mean Europe or Germany. In Germany being European is something that one is allowed to be proud of. Helmut Kohl, however, never confused these two concepts. He always made it clear that he was a German. The Germans have virtues and historical merits, while they also have very serious transgressions and faults, which act as their guidance for the future. He never denied his Germanness: he loved being German, he loved being the great chancellor of the Germans, and he also loved being the chancellor of a great Germany. He was a kind of state founder, and relished this with natural joy and optimism, in the knowledge of a kind of glory – while at the same time he managed to remain a humble man. In politics this is very difficult, and only a few politicians in the twentieth century had this gift. He represented a Europe of nations. He represented a Europe of Christianity, because only that provides firm values. And in terms of politics, he believed that Europe must be built from nations, such as the German nation, and the Hungarian, Polish and Czech nations. Consequently, the nations must be given to their due: respect and recognition. Their rights must be respected, their rights must not be taken from them, and you must not use stealthy constitutional amendments to force on them some structure in which, in the end, no one feels comfortable: neither the Germans, nor the Poles, nor the Hungarians. He knew these fundamental truths. These fundamental truths are not being revealed in full and in their richness, so we must work hard to burnish them and make them brighter and more visible. This is the mission of the Eastern or Central Europeans in Europe today: a Europe of nations.
I have one final question. Everyone knows about his legendary friendship with the President of France. Do you think the French-German axis will also be able to function today? Everyone is saying that it will start again now, and Europe will be great again. How do you see the prospects? We are at a turning point, various documents and concepts about the future of the European Union are being prepared. How do you see this?
As I see it, the future of Europe depends on character and personality: human character and human personality. If we have leaders who prove to be strong in character when the times demand it, Europe will have a future. If not, we’ll remain as we are today, in this present state of paralysis. I went to see Helmut Kohl in 1998, when the Hungarian people first honoured me by entrusting me with the task of forming a government. I went to see Chancellor Kohl: I sat down, had a long chat with him, and I asked for his opinion and advice on a number of issues. And he told me everything, just like a grandfather who doesn’t want to lecture you, but only help. In that conversation there was a moment which was also a message for the future. When I asked him about the place of morals in politics, he said: “You Hungarians always overcomplicate everything. It’s not so complicated at all. What’s good in private life is also good in politics. What’s bad in private life is bad in politics.” Europe will have a future if we have leaders who understand that this is a question of character and personality, and what’s good here is also good there. And it will have a future if we’re able to state simple truths once again, and have the courage to state our peoples’ views in relation to these simple truths, such as on the issue of migration or nationhood, or on the issue of Christianity. If we have leaders who dare to say these things openly, Europe will have a future. One thing is certain: Hungary won’t let anyone down.