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Germans Reflect On Legacy Of Former Chancellor Helmut Kohl

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The German chancellor who was known as the father of reunification has died. Helmut Kohl was 87. He led Germany for 16 years during the 1980s and '90s. He presided over the fall of the Berlin Wall when East and West Germany merged to form a single country. Josef Joffe is editor of the German newspaper Die Zeit and joins us now via Skype. Welcome.

JOSEF JOFFE: Hello, welcome.

SHAPIRO: It seems that in many ways Kohl is responsible for the Germany that we know today not only by unifying the country, but also by embracing the euro currency and bringing Germany closer to the European Union.

JOFFE: Yes, absolutely. You know, he had a lot on his plate back in 1989 when the wall fell, especially the suspicion and the fears of his closest neighbors - the Italians, the Brits and the French. The way he managed to juggle all of this and unify Germany, satisfying, dispelling the worries of the other Europeans, and keeping unified Germany in NATO was quite a feat which assures him a place in the history books.

SHAPIRO: Do you think he became such a consequential leader largely because of the times in which he lived or more because of his unique abilities?

JOFFE: Oh, well, that's the oldest question in the world.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

JOFFE: How do we know whether Churchill would have been Churchill without World War II or Charles de Gaulle would not have - would been the de Gaulle Charles, as they called him, without World War Two and his leading France out of defeat? So, you know, historians will debate this forever and ever. I don't really care. I mean, he was in the right place at the right time, and he grabbed the mantle of history. And I thought he did extremely well given the difficulties he faced pulling it off.

SHAPIRO: Paint a picture of him for us. In his prime he was an imposing figure physically, but maybe not the most charismatic leader.

JOFFE: Was he ever. I mean, he weighed about 300 pounds and he towered over the rest at 6.4 feet. Apparently, for greatness you need size and, in his case, weight. He was, you know, kind of roly-poly, a kind of gentle giant who hid his, you know, kind of core of steel and sense of power behind his friendly, jocular demeanor. And it helped him well, by the way, in convincing leaders of Europe and the United States and helped him well in maintaining power.

SHAPIRO: He oversaw a period of borders and walls coming down. Alliances grew stronger during his leadership. We now live in a period when the opposite is happening. The European Union is weakening. How did he assess this moment in world history?

JOFFE: That's a very good question. But the problem is we don't really have an answer because he has been basically out of the game, in and out of comas. He was very frail. He was jealously protected from journalists and others by his second wife. And so I honestly cannot tell you what he was thinking and what he would be saying. But obviously, if he was in a way the high point of European integration, the high point of the Atlantic U.S.-European alliance, then obviously, if I had to speculate, I would say he would be mighty flustered and saddened by what you've just described.

SHAPIRO: Josef Joffe of Die Zeit newspaper speaking with us from Hamburg, Germany, about the death of Helmut Kohl. Thanks very much.

JOFFE: It was a pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF RAC SONG, "NEW THEORY - RAC MIX" Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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