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Helmut Kohl’s Vision and Legacy

In his memoirs, US President Bill Clinton called former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl “the largest figure on the continent of Europe in decades.” What made Kohl special was a clear vision for the future of his country, and the ambition and tenacity to realize it.

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.

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