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Helmut Kohl’s Vision and Legacy

HAMBURG – With Helmut Kohl’s death, “the largest figure on the continent of Europe for decades,” as Bill Clinton described the former German chancellor, has left us. Kohl possessed most of the talents of a successful politician: ambition, ruthlessness, tenacity, tactical skills, and a sense for the minds of ordinary people. In contrast to his two predecessors, Willy Brandt and Helmut Schmidt, he had no charisma (which Brandt had in abundance) or gift for words. What he did have, in contrast to his successors, was a clear vision for the future of his country. It was this that enabled Kohl to achieve the previously unimaginable: Germany’s reunification within a united Europe.

Many, particularly in Germany, who recall those extraordinary months of late 1989 and early 1990, when Soviet control over Eastern Europe slipped away, still seem surprised that this supposedly provincial and boringly normal man could have grasped the chance to unite his divided country and deftly outmaneuvered opponents. Kohl, they seem to think, was lucky to be in the right place at the right time.

But lucky outcomes in diplomacy are rarely a matter of chance; luck must be earned. In the summer of 1989, Kohl was just as surprised by the speed of events as everybody else. But he had used his time since becoming chancellor in 1982 to prepare should history beckon.

Domestic policy issues inevitably demanded Kohl’s attention and skills; had it been otherwise, he scarcely would have been the dominant figure in his party and country for longer than any German chancellor since Otto von Bismarck. But what remained uppermost in his thoughts, and brought forth his greatest gifts, was the goal of ensuring Germany’s future within a peaceful Europe. As a journalist at the German weekly Die Zeit at the time, I had frequent personal exchanges with him in his Bonn office. “Foreign policy,” he used to tell me, “is more important than domestic policy, because mistakes can be very costly.”

Kohl’s chief method to avoid mistakes was to build trust with all powers, big and small, that were relevant to Germany’s wellbeing. Moreover, Germany would need external support for any degree of national reintegration should the opportunity present itself. While for Schmidt the key strategic tool was the assurance of calculability, for Kohl it was the creation of trust. And he set out to strengthen and build it.

With the country’s major and indispensable ally, the United States, Kohl sought the closest possible relationship from the start of his tenure. After Schmidt’s government fell in 1982 over massive popular opposition to the stationing of US medium-range nuclear missiles, Kohl stood firm, recognizing that bowing to public pressure and reneging on Germany’s commitment would be a blow both to the respect and trust of the US and his credibility in Moscow.

Years later, when the walls in Europe began to crack, Kohl had established a unique relationship of trust in Washington. DC. And he found in President George H.W. Bush a firm and decisive supporter of reunification who would ensure that the Germany that emerged from the process remained firmly anchored in the West.

In the meantime, although the Soviet Union’s aging and infirm Communist leadership offered little prospect for progress, Kohl stuck to the détente policies of Brandt and Schmidt, which his own party had bitterly opposed. When Mikhail Gorbachev took over, Kohl initially dismissed the new Soviet leader’s bold arms-reduction proposals as mere propaganda à la Joseph Goebbels.

But as Kohl recognized Gorbachev’s seriousness, he hurriedly applied his trust-building strategy and established a close personal relationship with the man without whom no peaceful change of Europe’s Cold War map would have been possible. When that opportunity presented itself, the agreements that followed, remarkable given the political climate, were possible only because of Kohl had kept his eyes on the prize.

For Kohl, a closely united Europe was a deeply emotional matter, as well as the key condition for Europe’s peace and Germany’s wellbeing. He succeeded in winning the trust of French President François Mitterrand and the friendship of Jacques Delors, then the president of the European Commission and the architect of Europe’s single market.

Equally significant, Kohl wove a network of contacts in all the countries surrounding Germany. He was well-read on these countries’ history and had a knack for understanding how it shaped their attitudes toward Germany. He was convinced that, as Europe’s largest economy, Germany had to be the most constructive, if not the most generous, member of the European club.

Kohl once asked me, to my surprise, if his big bulk – he was 6 feet 4 inches (193 centimeters) tall, and weighed more than 300 pounds (136 kilograms) during his leadership years – might not confirm fears of an overbearing Germany. I had no difficulty reassuring him. And when, in 1989, German reunification approached, the trust Kohl had built up over the years paid off, allaying concerns in enough European quarters that he was able to gain the necessary support.

Today, Kohl’s strategy of building trust still echoes in official German rhetoric, though it has been more erratic in practice. It is futile to speculate how he would have reacted to Russia’s estrangement from the West at a time when it might still have been averted; or whether, unlike Chancellor Angela Merkel, he would have reacted with immediate solidarity, and more immediate effect, to the Greek debt crisis of 2010. Would Kohl have responded to President Donald Trump’s behavior by publicly distancing himself from the United States? Or would he have tried instead to strengthen the underpinnings of transatlantic ties?

One thing seems clear: Kohl would not have sought only short-term or domestically popular solutions. Instead, he would have understood these challenges in terms of their impact on the European order of which Germany was (and remains) a major beneficiary. And he would have integrated any policy response into his long-term vision for the future of Germany and Europe.

It is for this indispensable quality of statesmanship, not only for having helped bring about German reunification, that Kohl deserves to be remembered and mourned.