. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

United Europe Kohl's Claim To 'Greatness'

My political opponents consistently underestimate me. I've been making a good living out of this for years," German Chancellor Helmut Kohl once said. Today, however, as he overtakes Konrad Adenauer to become Germany's longest-serving chancellor since World War II, surely there are very few Germans, or other Europeans, who still make the mistake of underestimating him. Kohl dominates Europe's political stage now in a way that no previous postwar German leader ever succeeded in doing, or perhaps even wanted to do.

All Kohl's chief European partners or rivals during his 14 years and one month in office have departed the scene: Margaret Thatcher, Mikhail Gorbachev, Jacques Delors and Fran?ois Mitterrand. Kohl stands out there alone, a colossus in political as well as physical terms.

Nevertheless the question still arises: Can he be ranked as one of the century's greatest European statesmen?

In some important ways, the question is premature. It will not be possible to judge Kohl once and for all until we know whether he succeeds in the most ambitious endeavor of his career: The creation of a politically united Europe with a single currency at its core.

If he is returned to office in Germany's 1998 general elections and stays around long enough to oversee the full implementation of European monetary union, which is due to be completed by summer 2002, then he will deserve the label "great."

Yet even if Kohl were to go into early retirement, he would still have enormous achievements to his credit. The most obvious is Germany's unification, but the real point here is that he united Germany while keeping his country a stable democracy anchored firmly in the Western world. In so doing, he kept fears in other countries of the new Germany to a tolerable minimum.

Unlike many of his fellow-Germans, Kohl was never one to be tempted by pacifism or neutralism during the Cold War. Even though it was German territory -- east and west -- that was most at risk in the event of a NATO-Warsaw Pact confrontation, he insisted on maintaining the pro-American, pro-Western policies that had proved so important to the Federal Republic's economic success and political rehabilitation after the atrocities and shame of the Nazi era.

These days, he sometimes expresses his fear that he may turn out to be Germany's last pro-European chancellor. This is surely an exaggeration, and it is a remark that does not square easily with the exuberant self-confidence which normally characterizes him. Yet it goes to show the importance that he attaches to "putting Germany under a European roof" rather than, as earlier German rulers did, trying to put a German roof over Europe.

If Kohl were not leading from the front in the drive for a politically and economically united Europe, one could easily imagine circumstances in which the project would disintegrate, with potentially catastrophic consequences for Europe.

Kohl could be faulted for mismanaging some of the psychological and economic details of German unification, and for waiting too long before reforming western Germany's high-cost business practices and welfare system. On the great European issues of our times, however, he has been resoundingly right.