Helmut Kohl, the former German chancellor who seized the chance to reunite his country after years of Cold War separation, was a colossus of contemporary European history who became celebrated as an architect of the continent’s integration. Germany’s longest-serving postwar leader, Kohl, who died on Friday at 87, was a passionate European who was also central to creating the euro, despite appearing earlier in life as an unlikely candidate to emerge as a pivotal figure.
When a 52-year-old Kohl — whose surname means “cabbage” in German — first became chancellor of West Germany in 1982, the 1.93-metre tall (six-foot-four-inches) provincial conservative with the penchant for rustic pork dishes was the butt of countless food jokes. But when the detested Berlin Wall came down in November 1989, Kohl moved to “grab the mantle of history,” as he later said, forging a political stature commensurate with his towering height.
Former protegee Angela Merkel lauded Kohl’s contribution to German and European integration in 2012, on the 30th anniversary of his becoming chancellor, declaring that Europeans were “united in our luck” thanks to Kohl’s efforts. Kohl, who served as chancellor for 16 years, considered Konrad Adenauer — West Germany’s visionary first chancellor, who allowed the nation to make a fresh start after World War II — as an ideological forefather.
“After the fall of the Berlin Wall, Kohl acted as though the spirit of Konrad Adenauer had suddenly seized him,” wrote Stanley Hoffmann, a professor of European history at Harvard University.
In 1989, after four decades of division, the capitalist and democratic West Germany was starkly different from the communist, dilapidated East Germany. Uniting the two would prove a Herculean task, with “Wessis” (Westerners) loath to sacrifice their standard of living, and “Ossis” (Easterners) keen for unity but worried of being treated as second-class citizens.
On the world stage, too, the challenges were daunting. Kohl recalled in his autobiography how he had to contend with the reticence of French president Francois Mitterrand to see Germany unified, and the even stronger resistance of Britain’s “foot stomping” premier Margaret Thatcher.
“It was suddenly very clear to me that the Iron Lady wanted to maintain the status quo… All fears boiled down to one thing — that Germany would become strong again,” he wrote. Kohl assured both leaders that Germany would respect its 1945 borders and move forward “shoulder to shoulder” with its Western allies.
The conservative Kohl and the socialist Mitterrand went on to develop a warm friendship, and their tight cooperation drove Europe towards the creation of its single currency. Kohl wrote in his memoirs that his conviction German reunification was necessary was vindicated in the fateful autumn of 1989, when protesters’ chants in the East shifted from “We are the people” to “We are one people”.
He cut short a visit to Poland on the night the Wall fell and rushed to Berlin, only to be jeered by the crowd. But less than three weeks later, he unveiled a 10-point plan that decisively set East and West on course for unification.
Kohl persuaded US president George H. W. Bush to accept a larger, reunified Germany, and convinced Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to withdraw troops from East Germany. The new country was to be the heart of an enlarged European Union — a project he believed would ensure peace –and a staunch NATO member.
Riding roughshod over the concerns of Germany’s central bank, Kohl insisted that the deutschmark and the ostmark would be given the same value. Less than 11 months after the Wall fell, on October 3, 1990, Germany was again whole. But unity came at a cost.
Facing significantly higher unemployment, the east remained poorer than the west, making many former East Germans nostalgic for the old days — frustrations that helped Social Democrat Gerhard Schroeder topple Kohl in 1998. “The political — and also economic — price of delaying unification would have been much heavier than the financial burden that we accepted with fast-track reunification,” Kohl insisted in 1996, by which time $480 billion had already flowed east.
“Even if I had seen those figures in 1990, I would not have acted differently on the main points.” Born a Catholic on April 3, 1930, in the western industrial city of Ludwigshafen, Kohl rose quickly through the ranks of the Christian Democratic Union party, his ever-smiling blonde wife Hannelore — with whom he had two sons –by his side.
Hannelore had long suffered from an excruciating sunlight allergy, however, and committed suicide in 2001. Seven years later, Kohl married Maike Richter, an economy ministry aide 35 years his junior.
Though his place in history is assured, Kohl’s reputation in Germany was marred in the twilight of his career by a party slush fund scandal. The affair helped propel a young Merkel to the helm of the party — and later the country — after she turned on her former mentor.
Kohl sniped in recent years at her handling of the eurozone debt crisis, though he left politics in 2002 and had recently been confined to a wheelchair, with his speech severely impaired after his jaw was paralysed in a fall.