By Noah Barkin
A towering figure of post-war European politics, Helmut Kohl pushed through German reunification and was a driving force behind the creation of the euro during a 16-year reign as German chancellor that spanned the tumultuous final decades of the 20th century.
Kohl died on Friday morning at his home in Ludwigshafen, according to German media. He was 87.
A bear of a man whose provincial accent and unvarnished folksy style led opponents to underestimate him in his early years, Kohl was a passionate advocate of European integration whose outlook was shaped by the two world wars that ravaged Europe and claimed the lives of his brother and uncle.
Together with French President Francois Mitterrand, the enigmatic socialist with whom he developed an unlikely personal bond, Kohl helped steer a peaceful course for the continent during the twilight years of the Soviet Union, when the foundations of Europe’s post-war order crumbled and had to be reset.
By committing to anchor Germany within Europe under a common currency, he overcame resistance to reunification from Mitterrand, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and Margaret Thatcher, the British prime minister who feared the return of a powerful, united Germany.
In a 2012 tribute, former U.S. President Bill Clinton described Kohl as one of post-war Europe’s defining statesmen. “His vision helped to usher the global community into the 21st century, to build bold and lasting relationships that endure to this day,” Clinton said.
For all his accomplishments as chancellor, Kohl’s life was tinged by controversy and personal tragedy after he left office in 1998 as Germany’s longest-serving leader since Bismarck.
In 2000, he was forced to resign as honorary chairman of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), the party he had led for 25 years, after admitting to receiving $1 million in illegal cash donations during his time as chancellor, which he doled out to local party organisations at his whim.
He refused to reveal where the money had come from, saying he had given the donors his “Ehrenwort”, or word of honour, not to disclose their names. The scandal made him a virtual pariah in his own party for years.
Angela Merkel, the shy physicist from communist East Germany whom Kohl had plucked from obscurity to join his cabinet after the November 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall, turned on him at a crucial moment during the scandal, ensuring his exile. Ties between the two had been frosty ever since.
A year after he was dropped by the CDU, Kohl’s first wife Hannelore, who suffered from a debilitating allergy to light, committed suicide.
SHAPED BY WAR
Kohl was born on April 3, 1930, the youngest of three children, in Ludwigshafen on the Rhine, a centre for the chemicals industry and one of the German cities most bombed during World War Two.
His father Johann, who worked in the local tax office, fought in both world wars. Returning from the front in Poland in 1940, he told his children: “If we ever get paid back for what we did there, we will never have anything to laugh about again.”
Kohl’s parents are described in Hans-Peter Schwarz’s 2012 biography as sceptical of the Nazis in the early years of the regime and quiet critics later on. As practicing Catholics, they opposed Adolf Hitler’s rejection of religion and persecution of minorities.
World War Two cast a dark shadow over Kohl’s youth. He recalled the death of his older brother Walter, killed in an aerial attack in Normandy in 1944, as a “life-changing experience” that shook the family.
Walter had been named after an uncle who died in World War One. Years later, when Kohl decided to give his first son the same name, his mother asked whether he wasn’t tempting fate.
“Mother, I promise you that he will not die in a war between European states,” Kohl recalled telling her. He often described his push for a united Europe as his way of delivering on this pledge.
Just 15 when the war ended, Kohl was drafted into the army and served briefly in a military training camp near Berchtesgaden but never saw combat.
He returned to devastated Ludwigshafen and began history and law studies. In 1959 he was elected to the regional assembly in Rhineland-Palatinate and a decade later, at the age of 39, he became premier of the state.
In 1973, Kohl was elected chairman of the CDU, Germany’s largest conservative party, and, after narrowly losing in his first attempt in 1976, he became chancellor of West Germany in 1982 when the ruling coalition of Social Democrats (SPD) and Free Democrats (FDP) underHelmut Schmidt collapsed.
At first, Kohl was ridiculed as a country bumpkin lacking the sophistication of predecessors such as Schmidt and Willy Brandt. Cartoonists depicted him as a giant pear, giving rise to his nickname “Birne”. But Kohl soon showed himself to be a skillful tactician.
Defying the leftist German peace movement, he and his foreign minister, Hans-Dietrich Genscher, backed the deployment of U.S. intermediate-range nuclear missiles in Germany, winning friends in Washington.
Kohl became known for wearing his opponents down by ignoring them, a strategy known in German as “aussitzen”, which has been mimicked by Merkel since she became chancellor in 2005.
Kohl’s finest hour came in the months after the fall of the Berlin Wall, when he was able to overcome the hostility of Western allies to unify the communist east and capitalist west.
The breaching of the Wall on Nov. 9, 1989, caught the West German political establishment and the rest of the world off-guard.
Kohl was getting ready to sit down for a banquet dinner in Warsaw when he was alerted to the dramatic events by his office in Bonn. He flew to Berlin the next day and, sensing the euphoria at home, soon began work on a 10-point plan for German unification that he presented to the Bundestag on Nov. 28.
The speech, typed by his wife Hannelore on a typewriter at home to prevent leaks to the media, came as a total surprise to Germany’s allies. U.S. President George H.W. Bush was supportive, but European partners seethed.
“Your friend Kohl, your partner, is a hick from the countryside!” fumed Gorbachev in a private meeting with Mitterrand in Kiev a week later.
Thatcher was also furious. “Kohl is capable of anything,” she told France’s ambassador to Britain.
Like the British leader, Mitterrand, a former prisoner of war under the Nazis, was worried about how far German ambitions might go.
Five years earlier in 1984, the French president had linked hands with Kohl on the battlefield near Verdun where Kohl’s uncle had died in the First World War and Mitterrand had been taken prisoner in the Second, creating an iconic image of European reconciliation reprinted in countless history books.
German reunification was another matter.
For decades, French policy had been guided by Nobel prize-winning author Francois Mauriac’s adage: “I love Germany so much I’m glad there are two of them.”
Nevertheless, Kohl was able to win over Mitterrand.
At a summit in Strasbourg a month after the Wall fell, described by Kohl as the most “tense and unfriendly” he had ever attended, he agreed to start serious negotiations on European monetary union, setting the stage for the creation of the euro.
Kohl’s commitment to anchor a united Germany within Europe, and his pledge months later to accept the Oder-Neisse line, the German-Polish border set after World War Two, ensured French support for unification. To convince Gorbachev, Kohl pledged billions of marks to pay for the withdrawal of Soviet troops from East Germany and the costs of resettling them at home.
“Throughout 1989 and 1990, Helmut Kohl showed uncommon vision and courage when he seized on the fall of the Berlin Wall to work for German unification,” Bush said decades later.
The fall of the Berlin Wall and the march towards unification were a political boon for Kohl, whose popularity had been slumping, forcing him to fight off a putsch attempt by CDU rivals in early 1989.
Ignoring warnings from the German Bundesbank, he rammed through a 1-to-1 conversion rate of east German wages and pensions into west German marks, and easily won re-election in 1990 as “the chancellor of unity”.
Kohl promised east Germans “flourishing landscapes” but the “Aufschwung Ost” – or eastern economic recovery – proved far slower and more painful than he had imagined. The conversion rate increased unemployment in the East, pushed up inflation in the West, and led to higher interest rates across Europe as Germany borrowed massively to finance reconstruction.
The economic hangover from unification and policy inertia in the decade that followed had, by the end of the millennium, turned Germany into the “sick man of Europe”.
Kohl tried to win a fifth term in 1998 instead of making way for his groomed successor Wolfgang Schaeuble, who polls suggested had a better chance. He lost the election to Social Democrat Gerhard Schroeder, who was forced to introduce far-reaching reforms in response to Germany’s economic woes.
A year later, the party funding scandal erupted and Kohl was pushed out as honorary chairman of the CDU. His wife’s suicide the following year exposed him to accusations of neglect, including from his eldest son Walter, who later wrote a tell-all book about the family.
Kohl suffered a bad fall in 2008 and from then on was confined to a wheelchair, and had trouble speaking. He rarely appeared in public and his second wife, Maike Kohl-Richter, was criticised in the German media for zealously shielding him from his sons and old friends.
Kohl’s biggest achievement, German reunification, looks more of a success today than it did in its first decades. Eastern Germany still lags behind the west in many economic measures, but the gap is narrowing and cities such as Leipzig and Dresden are thriving. Twenty-seven years after east and west merged, Germany is prosperous and increasingly influential on the international stage.
Kohl’s other landmark accomplishment, pushing through the euro despite widespread public reservations, was hailed as a triumph in the currency’s first decade, but now looks less glorious after years of crisis.
Some in Germany now blame Kohl for pursuing the euro without insisting first on closer political and fiscal integration – a decision Merkel has denounced publicly as an epic mistake.
In his 2014 book “Out of Concern for Europe”, Kohl blamed the single currency bloc’s woes on Schroeder’s decision to let Greece into the euro zone and his watering-down of EU budget rules.
In an appearance at the German Historical Museum in Berlin in 2012 to mark 30 years since he became chancellor, Kohl reminded his audience of why he had championed European unity and urged EU leaders to continue on the path of closer integration despite the crisis of the euro.
“Europe can never sink into war again,” he said. “We need to press ahead with the unification of Europe. Let’s make good use of the time we have.” (