How Helmut Kohl Wanted to Be Remembered

Jun 16, 2017

In July of 1990, about a half a year after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Helmut Kohl — the German politician who has died Friday at 87, was then Chancellor and met with Mikhail Gorbachev at a resort in the Russian countryside. With the wall toppled, a thaw was in Europe’s political air, but the shape of what was to come was still hazy and unsettled. What would a world with a reunified Germany look like?

After a few days of talk, the two leaders announced that they had figured out the answer, and that it was a hopeful compromise that would allow resolution to move ahead at full speed. President George H.W. Bush was surprised by how quickly they were able to come to that agreement, but pleasantly so. Kohl's rise to power was somewhat rocky: when he became Chancellor of West Germany in 1982, TIME noted that he faced “vigorous opposition” inside his country and that his rise came out of “weeks of virtual paralysis and political infighting.” But the 1990 announcement was seen as proof that he had become one of the world’s most successful diplomatic players.

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In a story about the agreement, accompanied by a cover that called him Mr. Germany, TIME expressed optimism about how he would use that talent — and captured the leader's hope that he would one day be remembered for it:

Kohl understands the visceral suspicion of Germany among its neighbors and says, ''I cannot deny our history.'' At the same time, he insists that it is time to recognize how much Germany and the world have changed. Kohl was 15 when the war ended. He calls himself the first Chancellor of the post-Hitler generation, and he firmly believes a little patriotism without nationalism would be good for the country.

As early as 1976, when Kohl made his first run for Chancellor, he said one of his ambitions was to work with foreign leaders ''to bring about a more normal relationship with the Germans.'' On his first visit to Moscow in July 1983, he asked Kremlin leader Yuri Andropov, ''What would you say as a Soviet patriot if Moscow and the U.S.S.R. were divided?'' A return to normality has been his constant theme. ''I am strictly against having Germany singled out,'' he said in a TIME interview last month.

After Kohl came back from the Soviet Union last week, he was asked how it felt to be the man of the hour. ''When people come to write about my period of office,'' he replied, ''I would be very happy if they say that I made a contribution to finding the happy medium again for the Germans.''

He summed himself up in that one sentence. He has no driving ideology and no grand visions, other than that Germany must be unified and anchored peacefully inside Europe. He really is the German Everyman, striving for the Utopia of ordinariness. Says Robert Leicht, political commentator for the Hamburg weekly Die Zeit: ''I often disagree with Kohl, but I take it for granted he is a harmonizer. His whole life is dominated by the idea that we must fit in the framework. It makes him a man who deserves to be trusted.''

And, more than a quarter-century later, as the world remembers Kohl, his wish has largely been granted: his time in office, and his life in general, has remained largely defined by his role in uniting Germany — and thus helping to bring the Cold War to a close.

Read the full June 1990 Q&A between TIME and Helmut Kohl: Driving Toward Unity

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