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Requiem for a Heavyweight

CAMBRIDGE: After World War II, Winston Churchill suffered a resounding defeat at the polls. In the long perspective of history, that setback was an inconsequential footnote to Churchill’s reputation. Much the same will be true of Chancellor Helmut Kohl, who was just ousted in no uncertain terms by German voters.

Kohl has played an extraordinary role that will remain in the history books for centuries. The fleeting humiliation of an electoral defeat is just a footnote that was by and large inevitable. After all, no great democratic leader, it seems, can let go before he is let go of by the voters first.

Kohl accomplished two great economic/political deeds: unification and European Union. Those actions changed the face of Europe forever, and for the good. Inserting an economically dominant Germany into the EU meant heading off a quest for hegemony that, as in the past, could have gone badly wrong.

The same can be said of unification. Kohl himself often eagerly recounts a moment when, standing on a balcony in Berlin, he received an urgent message from Gorbachev. "If your tanks roll," the Kremlin leader said, "so will ours." Tanks did not roll, the undoing of communism proceeded apace and in peace, extending ultimately into Russia.