Helmut Kohl, Chancellor Who Reunited Germany, Dies at 87

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 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 fund-raising 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 on Friday, her voice shaking with emotion. “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.”

French President Emmanuel Macron praised Mr. 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-mast in Mr. Kohl’s honor.

In 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. 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, 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 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, Mr. Kohl developed close relationships with the elder President George Bush and President Mikhail S. 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.

In a memoir, he quoted Mrs. Thatcher as saying just after the Berlin Wall fell in 1989: “Twice we defeated the Germans! Now they’re back again.”


Mr. Kohl, left, and President François Mitterrand of France attending a French-German reconciliation ceremony near Verdun in Eastern France in 1984.

Michel Lipchitz/Associated Press

The two clashed on many European issues. 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 first 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.”

But this was a German leader who could identify with the young men, some buried at Bitburg, who had been swept up by the Nazi war machine, and he was proud of his provincial roots in the nearby Palatinate region, close to the French border. After being elevated to the chancellor’s office in 1982, Mr. 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.

A year later, German prosecutors discovered a network of secret bank accounts and charged Mr. Kohl with using them to hide illegal contributions to his party. Expressing regret for “mistakes,” Mr. Kohl refused to disclose the names of any donors, even after a parliamentary inquiry was begun. In early 2001, Mr. Kohl paid a fine of more than $100,000 to end a criminal case against him and left Parliament the next year.

Months earlier, though, potential successors began to circle, sensing that the financing scandal had stripped away the mantle of political invulnerability that had been his hallmark. In December 1999, Ms. Merkel, one of Mr. Kohl’s Christian Democratic Union protégés from the formerly Communist part of Germany, wrote in the daily newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung that it was time for Mr. Kohl to withdraw from politics and “make way for the successors, the younger generation.”

Ms. Merkel took over the Christian Democrats in 2000 and became chancellor herself in 2005, the first woman to hold the office.

Well into his retirement, Mr. Kohl, who had once referred to Ms. Merkel condescendingly as “das mädchen” — the girl — continued to snipe at her from the wings, questioning her handling of European politics and offering unrequested advice. In 2016, he urged her to show restraint after Britain voted in a referendum to leave the European Union. But by then, Ms. Merkel was eyeing a fourth run at the chancellery in elections in 2017 — potentially equaling or even surpassing her one-time mentor’s record in Germany’s highest office.

Helmut Joseph Michael Kohl was born in Ludwigshafen on April 3, 1930, the third and last child of Cäcilie E. and Hans Kohl, a minor 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 early 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, and who projected a public image of traditional middle-class respectability. After her suicide in 2001, though, 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 including Mr. Schwan said Mr. Kohl, who found speech difficult after his fall, appeared to be in thrall to his second wife, Maike. She was credited both with tending him assiduously in his infirmity and limiting access to him by former associates including Juliane Weber, Mr. Kohl’s onetime office manager and confidante for three decades.


Mr. Kohl as a child in 1936 or 1937.

Ullstein Bild, via Getty Images

Besides his second wife, Mr. Kohl’s survivors include his sons Walter and Peter. A complete list of survivors was not immediately available.

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.”

Mr. Kohl went to college first 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, in 1958, 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 become the undisputed national leader of his party. 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 the discovery 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.

He became chancellor in late 1982 when Mr. Schmidt’s coalition partners, the Free Democrats, switched their support to Mr. Kohl’s party. But despite having run campaigns with the slogan “Freedom or Socialism,” he left substantially unchanged the Brandt-Schmidt policy of gradual opening to the Communist east.

In office, he occupied a villa behind his Bonn office on the Rhine during the week and liked to dine at unprepossessing Italian restaurants. He commuted home to Ludwigshafen by helicopter on weekends, when he could indulge in his favorite German dish, stuffed sow’s belly, often inflicted on foreign visitors invited down for an evening at his home.

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 November 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. The cordiality of the visit 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 the secret files that Communist intelligence had maintained on his activities.

Mr. Kohl and Mr. Gorbachev had their first meeting in Moscow in October 1988. Soon Mrs. Thatcher was quarreling with Mr. Kohl openly, complaining that he could not be counted on to modernize NATO’s short-range missile defenses against Soviet attack.

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, where they were automatically entitled to citizenship. It dawned on Mr. Kohl and his aides 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 moved with agility, surprising his allies with a 10-point plan for a German confederation.

But the enthusiastic crowds he encountered in subsequent visits to East Germany convinced Mr. Kohl 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.

Though he and Mr. Gorbachev both knew the horrors of war, Mr. Kohl wrote in his memoirs, he told him: “We did not take part in the war directly, we do not have it on our conscience, 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.”

His words won the day. That Oct. 3, Mr. Kohl celebrated reunification with a huge fireworks demonstration in Berlin. It was the apogee of his career.


Helmut Kohl in 2001. As chancellor, he reunited Germany 45 years after it was divided by World War II.

Tobias Schwarz/Reuters

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 craved for so long, although 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 glorious 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 by aides. In the West, many taxpayers felt taken advantage of when government spending to rebuild eastern Germany’s shattered infrastructure sent the deficit spiraling 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 the spring of 1994, when the 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 postwar German welfare state, with its robust mark, 35-hour workweek and five-week vacations even for the newly hired, was becoming uncompetitive in the global economy. Unemployment soared above four million in early 1996, more than double what it had been when he first took office, and continued rising to nearly 4.7 million — 12.2 percent of the work force — two years later.

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 European currency would eventually bring renewed prosperity.

Long an advocate of a single European currency to replace the once all-powerful deutsche mark, Mr. Kohl was accused of ignoring what turned out to be one of the currency’s most stubborn challenges after it came into circulation: Without a political and fiscal union to buttress it, the currency 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.

Mr. Schröder was no more successful in solving the unemployment problem than his predecessor, but Ms. Merkel eventually reaped the benefits of an overhaul introduced under Mr. Schröder.

In recent years, with European unity shaken by recession and political recriminations about why the euro had become so divisive, Mr. Kohl — accused by some of not insisting on greater political unification of Europe when the euro was introduced — was outspokenly critical of his successors for “ruining my Europe.” Among other things, he faulted them for insisting on strict financial austerity in response to the global recession that began in 2007.

But he denied dismissing them as imbeciles, as he was quoted as doing in “Legacy: The Kohl Transcripts” (2014), a book by Mr. Schwan and Tilman Jens that drew on hundreds of hours of confidential interviews that Mr. Schwan said he had conducted to ghostwrite Mr. Kohl’s memoirs. One disputed quotation had him saying that Ms. Merkel “didn’t even know how to properly use a knife and fork.”

Mr. Kohl disputed the accuracy of that and 115 other quotations and sued the authors and their publisher, a subsidiary of Random House, for violation of privacy. In April 2017, a court in Cologne awarded him damages of a million euros ($1.1 million), a record. The defendants appealed.

Later in 2014, he published “With Concern for Europe,” a book written with the help of his wife. “Have we lost our minds — and our sense of responsibility, too?” he wrote.

For all the rancor surrounding him at home, however, his standing among former allies on the world stage remained largely intact.

“In more than size, he was the largest figure on the European continent in decades,” former President Bill Clinton wrote in his memoir, “My Life,” in 2004. And in a statement on Friday, the elder former President Bush called Mr. Kohl “a true friend of freedom, and the man I consider one of the greatest leaders in postwar Europe.”

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