Helmut Kohl, a towering postwar figure, who reunified Germany after 45 years of Cold War antagonism, propelled a deeply held vision of Europe’s integration, and earned plaudits from Moscow and Washington for his deft handling of the fall of the Berlin Wall, died Friday at his home in Ludwigshafen, Germany, the Rhine port city where he was born. He was 87.
“We mourn,” his party, the Christian Democratic Union, said on Twitter in announcing his death.
A physically imposing man — he stood 6 feet 4 inches and weighed well over 300 pounds in his leadership years — Kohl pursued his and his country’s political interests as Germany’s chancellor with persistent, even stubborn, determination. He overcame European opposition to unification the same way he handled political opposition at home: by the force of a jovial yet dominating personality.
Germany in particular faced the challenge of engaging with a formerly dictatorial, Soviet-backed East — one that had been held in place by the dreaded secret police — and welding it to a prosperous West that drew its support from Washington and its Western allies.
Unlike many Germans, Kohl never shied from expressing pride in what he often called “this, our Fatherland,” even when the phrase unsettled many who had suffered at his country’s hands in World War II. In dealing with the legacy of Germany’s Nazi past, Kohl, who was a 15-year-old member of the Hitler Youth when the war ended, invoked what he called “the absolution of late birth” so often as to offend some listeners.
A politician most of his adult life, Kohl was chancellor for 16 years starting in 1982, longer than any German leader since Bismarck. He ruled the Christian Democratic Union as if it were a personal domain.
But his political career ended with defeat, in elections in 1998, and his legacy was later clouded by disgrace over an opaque party fundraising scandal.
But that was not the image that emerged in many eulogies.
“We feel that a life has ended and he who lived it will go down in history,” Chancellor Angela Merkel said Friday, her voice shaking with emotion. “In this moment, I am thinking with great respect and great gratitude on that life and work.”
French President Emmanuel Macron praised Kohl for the role he played both in unifying Germany and solidifying the Franco-German friendship. “With Helmut Kohl we lose a great European,” he said in a tweet written in German.
And Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, ordered the flags at the European Union to be lowered to half-staff in Kohl’s honor.
In later years Kohl was seen as a diminished figure, infirm and in a wheelchair after a fall resulted in a head injury in 2008. Far from focusing on his achievements as one of Europe’s dominant statesmen, critics raked over the hidden inner workings of his private life. His first wife, Hannelore Kohl, killed herself in 2001, ostensibly because of a rare allergy to light, which had forced her into a nocturnal existence.
In 2008, shortly after his fall, Kohl announced his intention to marry a newer companion, Maike Richter, 35 years his junior and a former economic adviser in the chancellery. She was later accused of limiting access to him and his archives.
After the war, he spent his entire political life in the new Christian Democratic Union of Konrad Adenauer and Ludwig Erhard. Like them, he made his overriding goal the rebuilding of Germany within a united Europe.
Aware that Germany could be reunified only with the support of both the United States and the Soviet Union, Kohl developed close relationships with President George H.W. Bush and President Mikhail Gorbachev. He was also a friend of President François Mitterrand of France, who helped him overcome the fears of other European leaders, like Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher of Britain.
After being elevated to the chancellor’s office in 1982, Kohl won four successive elections — two of them as chancellor of West Germany, and two more after it absorbed the communist German Democratic Republic. But he lost the fifth, in 1998, when the Social Democrats returned to power under Gerhard Schröder.