In the entire Europe there is no battlefield more blood-stained than Verdun, where in 1916 nearly 800,000 French and German soldiers were killed or wounded in an inconclusive fight over a few square miles of territory. On 22 September 1984, German Chancellor Helmut Kohl met the French president François Mitterrand at the Douaumont cemetery in Verdun. In front of the charnel house in which the remains of 150,000 French soldiers rest, two leaders stood in rain. Mitterrand extended a hand to Kohl, which the latter held in minutes-long gesture which became a symbolic gesture of reconciliation as much as Willy Brandt’s Warsaw Kneefall.
The German Press described the scene as, “A picture that will go down in history”. It was made more powerful by the fact that Kohl’s father during WWI and Mitterrand himself during WWII had fought in the surrounding hills. As Europe’s leading statesmen during the 80s, Mitterrand and Kohl forged close personal ties despite their political differences — there were even allegations that Mitterrand supported secret donations to help finance Kohl’s re-election campaign. Together, they laid the foundations for pan-European projects, such as Eurocorps, Arte, the Maastricht Treaty and the Euro.
By 1986, the popularity Margaret Thatcher gained during the Falklands War was slowly withering away. Her ardent wave of privatization and antagonistic stance against the power of the unions didn’t make her too popular either. The Westland Scandal — whereby her government forced the helicopter manufacturer Westland to merge with an American company instead of an European one — was already unfolding in the background. She was even being accused of going soft on defense and ignoring strategic British industries (like arm industries) as she went on campaigning for an unprecedented third term.
A watershed moment for her re-election campaign came on 17th September 1986. On that day at NATO training camp at Fallingbostel, south of Hamburg, Mrs. Thatcher scored a photographic coup when she had been photographed in a Challenger Tank. [The big picture is by Jockel Fink, AP.] Although somewhat out of character, the tank and the scarf re-cemented her reputation as “the Iron Lady”. Thatcher looked like a “cross between Isadora Duncan and Lawrence of Arabia,” wrote the Daily Telegraph.
What was unreported on that September day was that the prime minister was being accompanied by West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl on her visit to the British forces stationed in Fallingbostel. Kohl also test-drove a Challenger, and both leaders fired 6-lb. practice shell 1,000 yds. directly to their marks using laser targeting.
“I loved it!” exclaimed Thatcher. Asked about whether women should be frontline soldiers, she answered: “I’m sure after today you would approve of having a woman Prime Minister, who, after all, has to make some very difficult decisions should things ever get problematic.” The tank moment surely helped Thatcher’s re-election campaign. She was re-elected and as per her electoral promises, she saved the British tank industry by ordering British-built tanks over its American rivals.