BERLIN — Helmut Kohl, one of the towering figures of European politics whose greatest achievement is considered the skillful reunification of a divided Germany, has died at 87.
Kohl, who was chancellor first of West Germany and then of a united Germany from 1982 to 1998, combined a dogged pursuit of the European idea of unity with a keen instinct for history.
Less than a year after the November 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall, he spearheaded the end of Germany’s decades-long division into East and West, ushering in a new era in European politics.
The close bond that Kohl built up with other world leaders helped him persuade both anti-communist Western allies and the leaders of the collapsing Soviet Union that a strong, united Germany could finally live at peace with its neighbors.
“Helmut Kohl was the most important European statesman since World War II,” former U.S. President Bill Clinton said in 2011, adding that Kohl answered the big questions of his time “correctly for Germany, correctly for Europe, correctly for the United States, correctly for the future of the world.”
Former U.S. President George H.W. Bush said the world had lost “a true friend of freedom.”
“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,” Bush said.
While physically imposing, Kohl moved nimbly in domestic politics and among rivals in his conservative Christian Democratic Union, holding power for 16 years until his defeat by center-left rival Gerhard Schroeder in 1998.
That was followed by the eruption of a party financing scandal which threatened to tarnish his legacy.
Born on April 3, 1930, in Ludwigshafen, a western industrial city on the Rhine, Kohl joined the Hitler Youth but missed service in the Nazi army. As a 15-year-old, he was about to be pressed into service in a German anti-aircraft gun unit when World War II ended. His oldest brother, Walter, was killed in action a few months earlier.
A Roman Catholic, Kohl joined the CDU shortly after its postwar founding. He became governor of the western state of Rhineland-Palatinate in 1969.
Kohl’s first attempt to unseat Social Democratic Chancellor Helmut Schmidt failed in 1976, but Kohl seized his chance six years later, taking power on Oct. 1, 1982 when a junior coalition party switched sides.
Once viewed as a provincial bumbler, Kohl combined an understanding of the worries of ordinary Germans with a hunger for power, getting elected four times. Only Otto von Bismarck, who first unified Germany in the 1870s, was chancellor longer, for 19 years.
Kohl was helped in securing German unity by his friendships with French President Francois Mitterrand and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, who approved NATO membership for a united Germany and agreed to pull Soviet troops out of East Germany.
“It was real luck that, at that difficult time, leading nations were headed by statesmen with a sense of responsibility, adamant about defending the interests of their countries but also able to consider the interests of others, able to overcome the barrier of prevailing suspicion about partnership and mutual trust,” Gorbachev said Friday in a message of condolences released by his foundation.
In a poignant gesture of reconciliation in 1984, Kohl held hands with Mitterrand during a ceremony at a World War I cemetery in Verdun, France.
Chancellor Angela Merkel, once Kohl’s protegee, said Germans could be grateful for the trust her predecessor established with other nations’ leaders, “from Washington to Moscow, from Paris to Warsaw.”
Speaking from Rome, Merkel said Kohl’s decision to take advantage of the pro-democracy protests sweeping through the Eastern bloc in the 1980s demonstrated his acute political instincts.
“He held fast to the dream and goal of a united Germany, even as others wavered,” she said.
“Like millions of others, I was able to go from a life under a dictatorship to a life of freedom,” Merkel added. “He will continue to live in our memories as a great European and as the chancellor of reunification.”
Kohl’s legacy includes the common euro currency that bound Europe more closely together than ever before. Kohl lobbied heavily for the euro, introduced in 1999, as a pillar of peace — and when it hit trouble more than a decade later, he insisted there was no alternative to Germany helping out debt-strapped countries like Greece.
Kohl linked his dedication to a united Europe to his roots in a part of Germany close to France and his boyhood memories of wartime. He celebrated the European Union’s eastward expansion in 2004 with a speech declaring that “the most important rule of the new Europe is: There must never again be violence in Europe.”
Still, the “blooming landscapes” that Kohl promised East German voters during reunification were slow to come after the collapse of its communist economy, and massive aid to the east pushed up German government debt. He also drew criticism for failing to embark on economic reforms.
Kohl was married for 41 years to Hannelore Renner, an interpreter of English and French who stood firmly but discreetly by his side. They had two sons, Peter and Walter.
In July 2001, Hannelore killed herself at 68 in despair over an incurable allergy to light. In 2008, Kohl married Maike Richter, an economist some 35 years his junior.
Frank Jordans contributed to this report.
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