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President Clinton and Former Chancellor Helmut Kohl's Remarks at the Presentation of the Medal of Freedom

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Office of the Press Secretary

For Immediate Release April 20, 1999


The East

2:37 P.M. EDT

THE PRESIDENT: Secretary Cohen, Mr. Berger, distinguished ambassadors, Senator Roth, Congressman Pickett, other members of the Congress -- retired members of Congress -- present and former members of the Diplomatic Corps; and to our German and American exchange students who are here -- welcome to the White House.

Today it is my privilege to confer America's highest civilian honor on a great statesman of the 20th century, the Federal Republic of Germany's longest-serving Chancellor, Helmut Kohl.

President Kennedy first saw the design for the Medal of Freedom on July 3, 1963, just a week after he had gone to Berlin and challenged a new generation of Germans to forge a future of freedom and unity, of European integration and American partnership. No one did more to fulfill the hopes that President Kennedy expressed on that trip than Helmut Kohl.

Very few non-Americans have received the Medal of Freedom. The last year a foreign leader was honored was 1991, when President Bush presented the award to Margaret Thatcher. That day we celebrated a partnership among nations and leaders that helped to end the Cold War with a victory for freedom.

Today we honor a partnership dedicated to building a 21st century Europe that can preserve the freedom and peace, and find genuine unity for the first time. Today we honor the leader whose values and vision have made that possible.

In 1991, the world was very different. The Berlin Wall had come down, but a profound gulf separated the Eastern half of Europe from its more affluent neighbors to the West. Everyone agreed that something had to be done to bring Europe together, but not everyone had a clear idea of what that something should be.

Some people thought NATO should go the way of the Warsaw Pact, and that in its place we had to build something new -- untested, unproven -- a community that embraced everyone, but imposed no true obligations on anyone. Others felt that our challenges in Eastern Germany and Eastern Europe consisted simply of sending assistance and plenty of advice. They were in no hurry to open our institutions to nations and people they thought of as distant and foreign.

But Helmut Kohl understood that we needed a bold vision, backed by a practical blueprint, grounded in the institutions that had served us so well for so long. He said, "We are all called upon to construct a new architecture for the European house, a permanent and just peace order for our continent."

Consider the splendid house that has risen since then. Germany is united. Europe has achieved economic and monetary union. NATO has three new members. The European Union soon will embrace nations from the Baltics to the Balkans. What a remarkable few years it has been.

The story of Helmut Kohl is the story of 20th century Germany. He was born in 1930 in Ludwigshafen, a small city on the Rhine. He saw firsthand the ravages of Nazism. His brother, Walter, perished in the war that tore Europe apart. But the young man, then called "der Lange" -- the tall one -- was quick to see the possibilities of hope and rebirth in the postwar world.

Through the Marshall Plan, he saw firsthand what Europeans and Americans could do together to spread goodwill and support for democracy among young people.

When he was only 16, he was one of the very first people to join the Christian Democratic Union. Indeed, his membership number was 00246. And 50 years ago, at the age of 19, he and his friends were actually briefly detained at the French border for causing what must be the friendliest border incident in history: they tried to remove some of the barriers between the countries, and carried banners in support of Franco-German friendship and European unity. Der Lange was not your everyday teenager.

As Helmut Kohl's political star rose, he never wavered from those convictions. He believed young people were crucial to the future; he still believes that. And we thank him, and we thank the young Germans and Americans who are here to honor him.

He championed the Franco-German friendship as the linchpin of the new Europe, a friendship crystallized in the unforgettable moment he and Francois Mitterrand clasped hands at Verdun. He always maintained that the new architecture of Europe must be built on the foundation of transatlantic partnership. And he reached out to Russia, to Ukraine, to the other former communist countries, to make them a part of 21st century Europe.

He served as Chancellor for 16 years. Future historians will say Europe's 21st century began on his watch. In the months that followed the fall of the Berlin Wall, he conceived a generous vision for Germany's unification, and for a new partnership between the West and a democratic Russia. He saw the imperative of Europe's unification, politically and economically. He saw the need to embrace other nations into Europe's family, putting Germany in the center, not on the edge any longer, of a united, democratic Europe -- a Europe where borders do not limit possibilities and where nationhood is a source of pride, not a crucible of conflict.

It is to protect that vision that the NATO allies are in Kosovo today, to defeat the cynical vision embodied by Mr. Milosevic in which the most primitive hatreds and brutal oppression are more important than mutual respect and common progress.

Anyone who respects the legacy of Helmut Kohl knows that for peace to survive in Europe our alliance of democracies must stand, and stand together, against dictators who exploit human differences to extend power. And we must stay true to our vision long after we achieve military goals. Germany was buoyed by hope through the Marshall Plan; Greece and Turkey rescued by the Truman Doctrine; Central Europe helped by the West in this decade, after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Those were wise investments. We must be equally farsighted toward Southeastern Europe.

Among all the success stories of the late 20th century, none is more dramatic or instructive than the rebirth of Germany as a free and democratic nation. Germany's story has taught the world two profound truths: First, that it is possible for a people who love light and laughter to descend into the blackest darkness; and second, that it is also possible for a people to return to the light and lead others by their example.

Germany is proof that war and ethnic hatred are not inevitable; that they do not represent a permanent aspect of the human condition; that the unacceptable is not written by fate into our destiny. But we can and must remain willing to act, because the work of building a new world never ends. That is the lesson of America, the lesson of Germany, the lesson of the 20th century.

In three days, the leaders of NATO and its partner nations will gather in Washington to mark the 50th anniversary of our alliance and to chart NATO's future path. The challenge we face in Kosovo has demonstrated beyond a shadow of a doubt that America and Europe need an alliance that combines our strength to protect our values, and project stability eastward in Europe; an alliance ready to meet new challenges to our security, with allies able to contribute to the effort; an alliance open to new democracies making the right choices; an alliance that continues to work with Russia despite tensions that arise when we disagree.

As Helmut understood so well, our vision of a Europe whole and free will not succeed unless it embraces a partnership with democratic Russia. And it will not succeed unless it is embraced by Russia. That is the kind of alliance that must and will emerge from the Washington summit.

I can think of no better way to begin this week of allied solidarity than by honoring Helmut Kohl. When I was elected President, Helmut had been Chancellor for a decade. Seven years later, I find myself the senior leader of the G-8. In countless ways, I learned from him. In Bonn, I once told an audience that my opinion on most issues could be summed up in four words: I agree with Helmut. (Laughter.) Those words have never failed me.

After our first meeting in 1993, he summed it up when he said "the chemistry is right." Well, the chemistry was right every time we met. Right when we planned NATO enlargement. Right when we discussed our shared hopes for Russia. Right when we talked about multilateral issues over a multicourse dinner at Helmut's favorite Washington restaurant, Filomena's. (Laughter.) Even right when he made me eat Saumagen. (Laughter.) And in spite of that -- (laughter) -- I hope our dinners continue far into the new century.

With the 21st century breaking over the horizon, we can look back on the 20th century, with its grave threats to our common humanity and its great leaders -- Churchill, Roosevelt, de Gaulle -- for unifying Germany and Europe, for strengthening the Western alliance and extending the hand of friendship to Russia, Helmut Kohl ranks with them. His place in history is unassailable. And he has been a true friend of the United States.

In 1989, the year of Germany's rebirth, we heard Beethoven's "9th Symphony" as if for the first time, with Schiller's "Ode To Joy" capturing the feeling of a world coming together. In that same poem, ironically written just after the American Revolution, Schiller wrote that the circle of universal freedom begins very simply with the friendship linking two people.

Helmut, President Kennedy stirred the world at the Berlin Wall when he said, along with freedom-loving people everywhere, "Ich bin ein Berliner." Today, a grateful United States says to you, "Du bist ein Americaner." (Applause.)

In countless ways you have been an American. It is my honor to award you the Medal of Freedom.

Commander, read the citation.

(The citation is read.) (Applause.)

CHANCELLOR KOHL: Mr. President -- let me wait for a few minutes, until everyone has his and her headsets on.

Mr. President, excellencies, ladies and gentlemen, this is indeed a very moving moment. I am very deeply touched to be with you here today -- to be with the President of the United States, with all of you in the audience, and to be together last, and not least, with my friend, Bill Clinton, here in the White House.

Bill, you were so kind as to describe my way through life, as it were, in very moving, very touching words, and I believe it's the same with all of us, isn't it? If you look back into the past, back on your lifetime, again and again this brings home the different stations of your life, the different markers that you have put down. And to me, and the members of my generation -- and I think I speak here on behalf of many members of my generation -- the experience that we have made while we were children, during the barbarity of the Nazi regime, during the years of the war -- and when the war ended I was 15 years old -- this is an indelible memory.

Whoever may have lived through those years -- and you, the Americans, experienced a similar event during the Vietnam War -- knows what war actually means, and has a deeper appreciation for what peace means. And peace means more than just an absence of war. It has something to do with freedom, with justice, with being able to determine the way you wish to live, yourself, without any outside interference.

And this is why I think, Bill, it is so important that we in NATO should never forget that NATO was not founded first and foremost as a military alliance, but as an alliance of free nations, nations that wish to guarantee and uphold the peace and prosperity of those nations.

What is necessary in order to do that is the military and soldiers. And nobody should believe or be deluded as to the world having changed in the meantime. It is quite true that, a few years ago, we may have believed that war was a thing of the past. But now, every evening when we watch television and we see the news, we see images of refugees, of people who were displaced from their homes, people who have been slaughtered, women who have been raped, lives that have been crushed, and we are aware, yet again, of the fact that freedom and all the power and strength that it entails is so important, and needs to be upheld and guaranteed by the nations that feel committed to it.

And this is why I am so deeply honored by this great award that you bestowed upon me today. For me, all of my meetings here in the White House with all of the Presidents that were my counterparts during my term of office -- Ronald Reagan, George Bush and Bill Clinton -- it was always great to meet with them. You know very well that these were very different men, with very different personalities. And I, just this morning, met members of the Senate on the Hill, and you feel the undercurrents that are currently going on during the election campaign. You hear all kinds of noises, and you know that I have been in so many election campaigns I have a deeper appreciation for that. But it has always been absolutely crucial to me that these United States, this great nation that, obviously, again and again had its own problems to contend with, was a refuge, sanctuary for freedom.

And the fact that in this house here, particularly ever since the end of the second world war, we always had Presidents, but also members of their staff, who, in a most unusual way proved that they had learned the lessons of history. Harry S. Truman and George Marshall offered a helping hand to us, the people that had been devastated at the end of the Nazi era. And this, against all -- or even in spite of Auschwitz -- they offered a helping hand to the Germans, because they thought that one would have to prevent, at all costs, the terrible events unfolding after the first world war to happen again. And this is why we have stood fast throughout all of these decades.

And let me tell you, these were not always easy times, because there were many instances where people were deeply afraid. I would just like to remind you of the deployment of the INF missiles in 1983. Part of this chapter of our history is also the fact that -- and I address myself to you, Secretary -- that American soldiers throughout these decades, far away from their hometown, far away from their home region, far away from their families in many instances, stood up for our freedom. And I know that to a lot of people over here, it seemed as if they had to go to some faraway place to do so.

And it was very much a natural kind of cooperation, together with the representatives of the German Bundeswehr. They did their duty and they were able in this way to guarantee peace and freedom for us. And we were, because of this contribution, able to regain peace and freedom for all Germans in 1990.

Well, from time to time, I feel that there are a number of people in my own country who tend to forget too easily who helped us, really. One of the greatest philosophers of our time, Romano Gardeni, once said, gratitude is the remembrance of the heart. And part of this remembrance of the heart is remembering the great contribution of the soldiers -- also, I would like to remind you, of the taxpayers, who have not always been all that happy to pay with their hard-won dollars. But they were ready to say, peace is indivisible. And the same goes for the current crisis in Kosovo.

Thank you. Thank you very much for making this possible over the years. Thank you, also, for the ongoing support that I have received on the other big issue of my generation, building the common European house.

For many people in Washington, and in the United States, this may not have been an issue that they had a ready understanding for, and many, I think, did not really believe that the Europeans finally would get their act together, would forget about old divisions, about old hostilities, overcoming them. They probably would not have believed that Germans and French -- and you, Bill, mentioned this image, this very vivid image of Verdun, where Francois Mitterrand and I held hands -- that the Germans and the French together would embark on the road towards the future.

And now, I'm gratified to note that we are repeating this exercise of what was possible with France with Poland; that not only across the Rhine, but also across the Oder, a new kind of relationship is burgeoning. Young people grow up on both sides of the border for whom one day it will be almost inconceivable that wars and hatred once divided their people. These will become, then, truly a thing of the past.

And what Wall Street had never thought possible will become a reality -- the Euro, the common European currency will be there, will be legal tender all throughout Europe, even in London -- maybe not in Downing Street, they may hold on to their pounds for a few more years, but in the city, the city of London, I think I can venture to tell you they will certainly accept the Euro as legal tender. And something new will come out of this.

And I'm saying this to the President as a representative of the American people. Our choice can never be either Europe or our partnership and friendship with the United States. Both are important. If we were only to say we're building the common European home, but we leave this transatlantic bridge to go to wreck and ruin, that would mean that we would truly not have understood the lessons of history. We need both and we will only be successful if this transatlantic bridge between Europe and the United States -- but also, in a particular sense, between Germany and the United States is further widened and broadened.

That apart from the military and security aspects and that particular lane, we add an economic, a cultural lane that we add the exchange of young people, that this becomes a matter of course -- people wishing to meet and getting to know one another. And I think that's an absolutely fantastic perspective that is opening up in front of us, ladies and gentlemen.

I think the Americans have never really imitated this particularly European kind of virtue, if we will call it that, but people seem to be culturally so pessimistic. It is something that the media in Germany have made a particular business of. (Laughter.) For somebody who is no longer in office, it is much easier to say that, that people in Germany, and in the media, particularly, love to paint the world in gloomy pictures, love to predict that the world's just about to go under once and for all, but they are obviously absolutely secure in their knowledge that this will never come about.

You are not at all familiar with this way of thinking, thank God. What is very important is -- and I think you can count the days -- is that in a very few period of time, a new century will begin and, indeed, a new millennium. And I think in spite of all of the sober assessment that is obviously also at place here, I think we will be able to enter here a new century in very much a different way than it happened at the turn of this century.

At the time, people were almost blind in believing in the great changes that technology would bring about and the great progress. I think we have gone a little bit further than that. I would like to share my experience here with you, and you know that I have been very much a champion of German-American friendship and European-American friendship. The one thing that I'm most gratified about is that this century proves that the visionaries are the true realists, and that somebody who no longer has any sort of vision, somebody who understands the sort of life and what makes this country tick only in the sense of pursuing what is actually useful in politics, that this person will not prevail.

And we have, after all, lived this. We are living testimony that after terrible destruction, after terrible hatred and enmity, a new nation, new hope arises. And now we have a new generation that almost doesn't remember what happened.

And I must tell you, we have had -- I have had my troubles in my time of office, and I know that all of you specialists here understand what I mean, but it is, I think, still, because of what I said earlier on, a gratification to be able to serve your country, to live through all the defeats and successes, and to still see something new is happening.

I would like to thank all of my friends here in the United States who helped me along the way, and the three masters of this mansion, if I may call them that, who presided over the United States during my term of office; and last but not least, you, dear Bill. Because it was not, I think, a matter of course that we would actually strike up such a great rapport, but we have been able to do so. We have been able to work on a number of projects very successfully together. And I hope that we shall be able to continue to do so -- that we both, if the good Lord gives us strength, continue this, and also our successes in office. And let me tell you, I hope that they will remember the lessons of history.

Thank you very much for this great honor. (Applause.)

THE PRESIDENT: I would like to invite all of you to join us in the State Dining Room for a reception in honor of Chancellor Kohl. Thank you very much, and we're adjourned.

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