Helmut Kohl, Chancellor Who Reunited Germany, Dies at 87
Helmut Kohl, who served as Chancellor of West Germany from 1982 to 1989 and then presided over the reunification with East Germany, has died at age 87:
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 on 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.
With his diplomacy, resolve and readiness to commit huge sums to ending his country’s division, Mr. Kohl was remembered by many as a giant of epochal times that remade Europe’s political architecture, dismantled the minefields and watchtowers of the Iron Curtain and replaced the eyeball-to-eyeball armed confrontation between East and West with an enduring, if often challenged, coexistence between former sworn foes.
A physically imposing man — he stood 6 feet 4 inches and weighed well over 300 pounds in his leadership years — Mr. Kohl pursued his and his country’s political interests as Germany’s chancellor with persistent, even stubborn, determination. He could be “an elephant in a china shop,” as he described himself, and 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 and welding it to a prosperous West that drew its support from Western allies. Between the two lay a gulf of mistrust.
Unlike many Germans, Mr. 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, Mr. 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, Mr. 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 his fief.
His political career ended with defeat, however, in elections in 1998, and his legacy was later clouded by disgrace over a party fund-raising scandal.
Even so, that was not the image that emerged in the many tributes offered on Friday.
“We feel that a life has ended and he who lived it will go down in history,” Chancellor Angela Merkel said, her voice shaking. “In this moment, I am thinking with great respect and great gratitude on that life and work.”
She added, “It will take some time before we realize what we have truly lost.”
President Emmanuel Macron of France praised Mr. Kohl for his role both in unifying Germany and in solidifying Franco-German friendship. “We lose a great European,” he said in a message in German on Twitter. And Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, ordered flags at the European Union to be lowered to half-staff in Mr. Kohl’s honor.
In his later years Mr. Kohl was seen as a diminished figure, infirm and in a wheelchair after a fall resulted in a head injury in 2008 that made speech difficult for him. Far from focusing on his achievements as one of Europe’s dominant statesmen, critics raked over his private life. His first wife, Hannelore Kohl, committed suicide in 2001, ostensibly because of a rare allergy to light, which had forced her into a nocturnal existence.
In 2008, shortly after his fall, Mr. Kohl announced his intention to marry a 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, Mr. Kohl formed close ties with the elder President George Bush and President Mikhail S. Gorbachev. He also befriended President François Mitterrand of France, who helped him overcome the apprehensions of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher of Britain.
In a memoir, Mr. Kohl quoted Mrs. Thatcher as saying just after the Berlin Wall fell in 1989: “Twice we defeated the Germans! Now they’re back again.”
In 1985, to mark the 40th anniversary of the Nazis’ defeat, Mr. Kohl insisted that President Ronald Reagan visit a German military cemetery in Bitburg, even after it was discovered that members of the Waffen-SS, the Nazi paramilitary force that carried out the Holocaust, had been buried there alongside ordinary German soldiers.
American officials sounded out Mr. Kohl about letting the president off the hook, to no avail, according to former Secretary of State George P. Shultz.
“President Reagan was deeply affected by the strength and vehemence of Kohl’s views,” Mr. Shultz wrote in his memoirs. “Kohl was adamant. He had a choice, Kohl said: President Reagan could go to Bitburg, or he could cancel and see the Kohl government fall.”
The president went to the former Nazi concentration camp in Bergen-Belsen and then, without regrets, to Bitburg. But Mr. Shultz observed, “Kohl’s unbending iron will did seem to demonstrate a massive insensitivity, on the one hand, to the troubles he was causing Ronald Reagan and, on the other, to the trauma this episode caused in the Jewish community around the world and, beyond the Jewish community, to all who remembered the Holocaust and its horrors.”
Helmut Joseph Michael Kohl was born in Ludwigshafen on April 3, 1930, the third and last child of Cäcilie E. and Hans Kohl, a civil servant and tax expert who had been a soldier in World War I.
When Hitler invaded Poland in 1939, Mr. Kohl’s father answered the call to arms and did not return home until 1945. His elder brother, Walter, also volunteered and was killed in action in 1944. By then, Ludwigshafen was under almost daily attack from Allied bombers, and young Helmut, who, like most boys his age, had become a member of the Hitler Youth, was pressed into service to dig charred corpses from the ashes. Later, he fed ammunition to antiaircraft guns in the Bavarian Alps.
In the spring of 1945, after surviving a heavy Allied bombing of Berchtesgaden and its environs in the Bavarian Alps, where Hitler had a retreat, Mr. Kohl decided the war was over for him. With a few friends, he set off on foot for his hometown, 250 miles away.
“Still in our Hitler Youth uniforms and without papers of any kind, we avoided the roads, on which truck after truck of American troops were rolling, and ran along the rail lines or over the crossties,” Mr. Kohl wrote years later.
After the Nazis capitulated in May, the group fell into the hands of Polish laborers, who gave them a beating. When he finally got home, in early June, he found Ludwigshafen three-quarters destroyed but the Kohl family home still standing.
There, as a student preparing for university studies, he met a refugee from East Germany, Hannelore Renner, whom he married in 1960.
Ms. Kohl projected a public image of traditional middle-class respectability, but after her suicide in 2001, Heribert Schwan, a journalist who had ghostwritten three volumes of Mr. Kohl’s autobiography and claimed to have had close access to his wife, depicted her as a tragic figure who had worn the trappings of a political spouse “like armor” to shield her unhappiness in the role. She had been profoundly disturbed by his refusal to identify anonymous donors in the party financing scandal that ended his political career, Mr. Schwan said.
With his second marriage, critics said Mr. Kohl appeared to be in thrall to his wife, Maike. She was credited both with tending to him assiduously in his infirmity and limiting access to him by his former associates, including Juliane Weber, his onetime office manager and confidante for three decades.
Der Spiegel, an influential newsmagazine that acknowledged a troubled relationship with Mr. Kohl, said in 2012 that the “link between political history and the physical frailty of this once-powerful man” had “turned his twilight years into a tragedy that is being closely watched in Germany.”
Besides his second wife, Mr. Kohl’s survivors include his sons, Walter and Peter. A complete list of survivors was not immediately available.
Mr. Kohl went to college in Frankfurt and later in Heidelberg. He joined the Christian Democratic Union when he was only 17. His doctoral thesis in history, submitted a decade later, was on the rebirth of political parties in his home region after the war. The next year he was elected to the legislature of the postwar federal state of Rhineland-Palatinate, and in 1967 he became the state premier.
But his ambition was to be his party’s national leader. He realized that goal in 1973, a year before Willy Brandt, the Social Democratic chancellor who had begun a hotly contested policy of gradual reconciliation with Communist East Germany and the Soviet Union, resigned after it was discovered that a Communist spy had infiltrated his office. Mr. Kohl ran against Brandt’s successor, Helmut Schmidt, in 1976, came surprisingly close to victory, and moved to Bonn to lead the opposition in the national Parliament.
Kohl became Chancellor in 1982 and presided over two significant events in Germany’s post-war history, a reconciliation with France and the reunification of a country that had been divided since the end of World War II:
Mr. Kohl saw German reconciliation with France as vital to restoring German respectability. Not invited to ceremonies in June 1984 to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Allied landings in Normandy, he went in September to Verdun, the scene of costly French-German battles in World War I, for an emotional handshake over the graves of the fallen with President Mitterrand.
After he won the 1987 elections, Mr. Kohl was host of the first visit to Bonn by an East German Communist leader, Erich Honecker, who was seeking billions of West German marks to prop up his ailing economy. His cordiality puzzled those who had long thought of Mr. Kohl as staunchly anti-Communist, and long after East Germany disappeared, he successfully resisted attempts to open secret files that Communist intelligence had maintained on his activities.
Mr. Kohl and Mr. Gorbachev had their first meeting in Moscow in October 1988. But by then communism had begun to unravel all over Eastern Europe, and it became clear that Mr. Gorbachev was not ready to use Soviet military might to keep that from happening.
By the summer of 1989, tens of thousands of people were fleeing East Germany through Hungary and Czechoslovakia to West Germany, and Mr. Kohl saw that reunification might be within reach.
After Mr. Honecker was deposed and his successors opened the Berlin Wall on the night of Nov. 9, 1989, Mr. Kohl surprised his allies with a prompt 10-point plan for a German confederation.
But the enthusiastic crowds he encountered in subsequent visits to East Germany convinced him that confederation was not enough. Confident of support in Washington, he made a 52-hour visit to Moscow and a retreat in the Caucasus Mountains in July 1990 and secured Mr. Gorbachev’s acquiescence in the unification of the two German states in the Federal Republic, within NATO.
“We did not take part in the war directly, we do not have it on our conscience,” Mr. Kohl wrote of Mr. Gorbachev, “but we still remember the war in our mind’s eye, we have seen its horrors, we have experience that others do not have. And we must bring all of it to bear to advance civilization.”
That Oct. 3, Mr. Kohl celebrated reunification with a fireworks demonstration in Berlin. It was the apogee of his career.
East Germany, thought to have had the strongest economy of any European Communist country, turned out to be bankrupt. Mr. Kohl gave eastern Germans the deutsche marks they had long craved, though at a 1:1 exchange rate, which left their inefficient state-run industries unable to compete on Western economic terms. Many collapsed.
But in the first postwar all-German elections, in December 1990, he campaigned on the promise that unity would bring a flowering in the East, and won with 43.8 percent of the vote for his party.
Within a year, though, more than a million people in the East were out of work. Leftist demonstrators in Halle, in the East, spattered Mr. Kohl with eggs, calling him a “liar.” Mr. Kohl went after them with clenched fists before being restrained. In the West, taxpayers felt taken advantage of when government spending to rebuild eastern Germany’s shattered infrastructure sunk the deficit toward $400 billion. Inflation accelerated, and when the central bank pushed up interest rates, it was blamed for causing recession in much of Western Europe.
The prospects for European unity also suffered. At the end of 1991, Mr. Kohl and his fellow leaders, meeting in Maastricht, the Netherlands, had agreed to an ambitious plan for European economic, monetary and political union. But almost immediately the project became bogged down in the economic difficulties and squabbling over Europe’s failure to end the war in the Balkans. Some blamed the Kohl government for the start of the war, saying it had been hasty in recognizing Croatia, a German ally during World War II, when it broke away from Yugoslavia.
“I’ve been wrong about some things since 1990, but who hasn’t been?” Mr. Kohl said in 1994, when polls were predicting yet again that his era was ending. He won elections that year, too, but the government’s majority was razor-thin.
Mr. Kohl began warning that the German welfare state, with its robust mark, 35-hour workweek and five-week vacations, was becoming uncompetitive in the global economy. Unemployment soared to nearly 4.7 million — 12.2 percent of the work force — within two years.
Unemployment like this had been unknown in Germany since the 1930s, when it contributed to the rise of the Nazis. Mr. Kohl’s party had created the welfare state in part to prevent such horrors from ever happening again. But now, he told his compatriots, belt-tightening and budget-cutting would be the order of the day, with the hope that a united Europe with a common currency would eventually bring renewed prosperity.
Long an advocate of a single European currency, Mr. Kohl was accused of ignoring what turned out to be one of its most stubborn challenges after it came into circulation: Without a political and fiscal union to buttress it, the currency, the euro, remained prey to crises, like the turmoil that drove Greece to the brink of economic collapse in the mid-2010s.
At the close of the 20th century, Mr. Kohl had resisted pressures to turn over the party leadership to somebody younger. Instead, he decided to prove his critics wrong and run for chancellor again in 1998 against Mr. Schröder’s Social Democrats, who argued that after 16 years it was time for a change. Mr. Kohl’s party went down to defeat.
While Kohl’s time in office came to an abrupt end, his role in the most pivotal event in Germany, and Europe’s, post-war history is one unlikely to be forgotten.