BERLIN >> Helmut Kohl, the physically imposing German chancellor whose reunification of a nation divided by the Cold War put Germany at the heart of a united Europe, died today at his home in Ludwigshafen. He was 87.
“A life has ended and the person who lived it will go down in history” said German Chancellor Angela Merkel, speaking from Rome. “It will take some time, however, until we can truly judge what we have lost in him. Helmut Kohl was a great German and a great European.”
During his 16 years at the country’s helm from 1982 to 1998 — first for West Germany and then all of a united Germany — Kohl combined a dogged pursuit of European unity with a keen instinct for history. Less than a year after the November 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall, he spearheaded the end of Germany’s decades-long division into East and West, ushering in a new era in European politics.
“When a new spirit began to sweep through Eastern Europe in the 1980s, when freedom was won in Poland, when brave people in Leipzig, East Berlin and elsewhere in East Germany staged a peaceful revolution, Helmut Kohl was the right person at the right time,” said Merkel. “He held fast to the dream and goal of a united Germany, even as others wavered.”
It was the close friendships that Kohl built up with other world leaders that helped him persuade both anti-communist Western allies and the leaders of the collapsing Soviet Union that a strong, united Germany could live at peace with its neighbors.
“Helmut Kohl was the most important European statesman since World War II,” Bill Clinton, the former U.S. president, said in 2011, adding that Kohl answered the big questions of his time “correctly for Germany, correctly for Europe, correctly for the United States, correctly for the future of the world.”
Former U.S. President George H.W. Bush said the world had lost “a true friend of freedom.”
“Working closely with my very good friend to help achieve a peaceful end to the Cold War and the unification of Germany within NATO will remain one of the great joys of my life,” Bush said. “Throughout our endeavors, Helmut was a rock — both steady and strong.”
President Donald Trump said Kohl was “a friend and ally to the United States as he led the Federal Republic of Germany through 16 pivotal years. He was not only the father of German reunification, but also an advocate for Europe and the trans-Atlantic relationship.”
“The world has benefited from his vision and efforts. His legacy will live on,” he said in a statement.
Russian President Vladimir Putin credited Kohl with “playing a key role in putting an end to the Cold War and with the reunification of Germany.”
Famed for his massive girth on a 6-foot-4 frame, Kohl still moved nimbly in domestic politics and among rivals in his conservative Christian Democratic Union, holding power for 16 years until his defeat by center-left rival Gerhard Schroeder in 1998.
That was followed by the eruption of a party financing scandal which threatened to tarnish his legacy.
For foreigners, the bulky conservative with a fondness for heavy local food and white wine came to symbolize a benign, steady — even dull — Germany.
Kohl’s legacy includes the common euro currency — now used by 19 nations — that bound Europe more closely together than ever before. Kohl lobbied heavily for the euro, introduced in 1999, as a pillar of peace — and when it hit trouble more than a decade later, he insisted there was no alternative but for Germany to help out debt-strapped countries like Greece.
Born on April 3, 1930, in Ludwigshafen, a western industrial city on the Rhine, Kohl joined the Hitler Youth but missed serving in the Nazi army. As a 15-year-old, he was about to be pressed into service in a German anti-aircraft gun unit when World War II ended. His oldest brother, Walter, was killed in action a few months earlier.
A Roman Catholic, Kohl joined the CDU in his teens shortly after its postwar founding. He earned his doctorate in 1958 at the University of Heidelberg with a dissertation on the politics of Rhineland-Palatinate and became governor of that western state in 1969.
His first attempt to unseat Social Democratic Chancellor Helmut Schmidt failed in 1976, but Kohl seized his chance six years later, taking power on Oct. 1, 1982 when a junior coalition party switched sides.
He won elections in 1983 and 1987, then rode to an election triumph in 1990 on a wave of post-unity euphoria.
Kohl was reluctant to view united Germany as a major power because of its Nazi past. Still, he slowly edged his country toward greater responsibilities in the 1990s, as Germany sent troops for U.N. humanitarian missions in Cambodia, Somalia and elsewhere, and deployed peacekeepers to Bosnia.
He pursued reconciliation with Germany’s eastern neighbors, though some critics said he moved too slowly after the fall of the Iron Curtain.
Kohl was helped in securing German unity by his friendships with French President Francois Mitterrand and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, who approved NATO membership for a united Germany and agreed to pull Soviet troops out of East Germany.
“It was real luck that at that difficult time leading nations were headed by statesmen with a sense of responsibility, adamant about defending the interests of their countries but also able to consider the interests of others, able to overcome the barrier of prevailing suspicion about partnership and mutual trust,” Gorbachev said Friday in a statement released by his foundation.
Kohl’s earlier bridge-building with the U.S. also paid off. The stationing of U.S. Pershing II missiles in Germany starting in 1983, despite huge domestic protests, had established trust in Washington that was crucial to creating a single German state.
“It was a stroke of luck that there were about four to six leaders in power in the mid-80s who really trusted one another and could really make things happen,” Kohl later recalled. In his memoirs, he described George H.W. Bush as “the most important ally on the road to German unity.”
He praised former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher for her honesty, even as he recalled a confrontation with her just days after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
“I cited a 1970s-era NATO statement and said that NATO supported reunification. … Thatcher stamped her feet in anger and screamed at me, ‘That’s how you see it! That’s how you see it!’” he wrote.
In a poignant gesture of reconciliation in 1984, Kohl held hands with Mitterrand during a ceremony at a World War I cemetery in Verdun, France.
Another gesture of friendship and reconciliation the following year turned into a public relations fiasco. Kohl’s trip with then-U.S. President Ronald Reagan to a war cemetery in Bitburg where SS troops were buried alongside ordinary German soldiers generated international indignation.
The former chancellor was married for 41 years to Hannelore Renner, an interpreter of English and French who stood firmly but discreetly by his side. They had two sons, Peter and Walter.
In July 2001, Hannelore killed herself at age 68 in despair over an incurable allergy to light. In 2005, Kohl introduced his new partner Maike Richter, an economist some 35 years his junior. The couple married in May 2008.