1930–2017 Helmut Kohl

Helmut Kohl (behind the microphones) during the opening of the Brandenburg Gate on December 22, 1989 in Berlin
Helmut Kohl (behind the microphones) during the opening of the Brandenburg Gate on December 22, 1989 in Berlin | Photo (detail): public domain

Germany mourns the loss of its former chancellor, the architect of German reunification and a great European. He died on Friday at the age of 87. Leaders around the world have now paid tribute to the man and his life’s work.

Helmut Kohl is dead. The former German chancellor died Friday morning (16 June 2017) at the age of 87 in his house in Ludwigshafen, as his lawyer announced. Kohl was chancellor of Germany for 16 years, longer than anyone else so far. He also chaired the CDU (Christian Democratic Union) for 25 years. During his term in office, the Berlin Wall came down and his government succeeded in reunifying a nation that had been divided for decades.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel (CDU), who was on a visit to Rome on Friday, praised the late ex-chancellor. The determination with which he and his team seized the opportunity for German reunification will long be admired, she said. “That was a demonstration of great statesmanship in the service of the people and of peace.” “Helmut Kohl radically changed my own life, too,” she added on a personal note. Federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier highlighted Kohl’s commitment to reconciliation and integration in Europe. Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, said, “Helmut Kohl was a great European and a very good friend.” In remembrance of Kohl, he had the European institutions fly their EU flags at half-mast. Ex-Chancellor Gerhard Schröder (SPD, Social Democrats) praised Kohl as a great patriot: “The unification of our country and our continent will be linked to his name for all time.” Former US President George Bush Senior said, “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.” The former head of state of the Soviet Union and Nobel Peace Prize winner Mikhail Gorbachev called Kohl an outstanding politician who has left a lasting mark on world history. Gorbachev shares one of Kohl’s central ideas: “The countries of the West together with Russia and the Ukraine must make sure what we once accomplished is never lost.”

For years Kohl had been ill and hardly ever appeared in public. His last appearance as a politician was in April 2016, when he invited Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán to his home – which prompted widespread surmise that he was taking a stand against his successor, Angela Merkel. She and Orbán have fallen out over refugee policy. But Merkel says she kept in touch with Kohl until the end.

Kohl governed from 1982 to 1998. He was the only chancellor to come to power through a constructive vote of no confidence, when in 1982 the FDP (Free Democrats, free-market liberals) pulled out of its governing coalition with the SPD (Social Democrats) and joined forces with the CDU/CSU (centre right), thereby forming a new majority in the Bundestag. Furthermore, Kohl is the only German chancellor ever to be confirmed four times as head of government: he and his “black-and yellow” (CDU/CSU and FDP) alliance won the parliamentary elections in 1983, 1987, 1990 and 1994. After losing the election in 1998, he was succeeded by Gerhard Schröder (SPD) at the head of a “red-and-green” coalition government. Kohl was the chairman of the CDU party from 1973 to 1998, likewise longer than anyone before or after him.

But above all Helmut Kohl was the chancellor who succeeded in reunifying Germany and co-founded the European Monetary Union, which eventually led to the adoption of a single currency in the eurozone. Not even 11 months elapsed between the fall of the Wall on 9 November 1989 and East Germany’s accession to the Federal Republic on 3 October 1990. Friends, critics and historians agree that, although Kohl did not create the situation in which the division of Germany could be overcome, he did understand that German reunification had to be achieved quickly or not at all. And in order to link German unification with European unification, Kohl pushed for the expansion of the European Community (EC) into the European Union (EU). To this end, the Maastricht Treaty took effect in November 1993. In one of his last published statements, Kohl discussed the current state of the EU in a contribution to a book of essays that came out in the spring of 2016. In reference to Merkel’s refugee policy, he wrote: “Go-it-alone decisions, as justifiable as they may seem to the individual, and national unilateralism must be consigned to the past.”

Helmut Kohl’s health had been declining for about nine years. In 2008 he fell in his house in Ludwigshafen and suffered a stroke. He was nursed by his partner Maike Richter, who then married him that year. In May 2015 he had to return to hospital for a hip replacement, which was followed by intestinal surgery and further complications. After visiting Kohl at his home in April 2016, Viktor Orbán said, “His mind and attention are still there” – only his state of health did not allow him to express all his thoughts. Kohl’s first wife, Hannelore Kohl, had committed suicide in 2001 after suffering for many years from an allergy to light.

Although the strained relationship between Helmut Kohl and the CDU had relaxed in recent years, it never again became what it had been before 1999, when it emerged that Kohl had received secret donations to the party. To the last, he refused to comply with Germany’s Political Parties Act and name the donors. His rapport with former cabinet members like Wolfgang Schäuble, Rita Süssmuth and Norbert Blüm remained shattered.

In April 2017 Kohl made legal history. The Regional Court of Cologne awarded him damages of €1 million, the biggest compensation ever awarded in Germany for a violation of privacy rights. Kohl had sued the ghost writer of his memoirs, who’d written a book of his own about him and included some derogatory taped comments about other politicians which Kohl had allegedly made to him. However, the ruling is not final yet.