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Obituary: Helmut Kohl, Germany's Reunifier, Dies At 87

  • Roland Eggleston

Helmut Kohl, the German chancellor who oversaw the historic reunification of Germany, has died at the age of 87.

Kohl served as chancellor of West Germany from 1982 to 1990, and of a reunited Germany to 1998, the longest-serving German chancellor since Otto von Bismarck.

Kohl overcame the doubts of Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev with pledges that NATO troops and weapons would not be deployed in East Germany and agreed to limits on the size of the army of the united Germany. He also approved large-scale financial aid for Soviet economic reforms.

Kohl played a significant role in promoting European integration and strongly advocated including the postcommunist states in both the European Union and NATO. Along with his friend, French President Francois Mitterrand, Kohl worked to make the European Union an equal partner with the United States.

Germany's reunification is the achievement which Kohl believed would keep his name alive in German history.

ALSO: Past, Present World Leaders Hail Kohl As 'Friend Of Freedom,' Unifier Of Europe

'German European and European Germans'

After the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, most German leaders proposed a federation between the two halves of the country. Kohl seized the chance to push for real reunification. After months of negotiations with Moscow and neighboring European countries, reunification finally came on October 3, 1990.

Kohl praised both Gorbachev and European leaders for their roles in enabling reunification at ceremonies marking the 10th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

"This was an [instance] of magnificent European concerted action, which was not agreed upon in the individual countries, but it was the desire for freedom which became pronounced in Europe," Kohl said.

"And for me personally, there is a dominant feeling of utter gratitude to all those who had the courage, who had the foresight...I have experienced that the visionaries are the true realists in history. This is a message to be remembered."

One of the strongest obstacles to reunification was fear both within and outside of the country that a unified Germany would someday lead to a revival of German nationalism.

Kohl promoted a view of German patriotism that stressed the country's obligations to a united Europe. At the 10th anniversary ceremonies, Kohl articulated his view of what it is to be German.

"This [unification of Germany] is not a deviation from living German patriotism." he said. "We shall not give up our identity as a nation in Europe. And Thomas Mann formulated this timelessly: we are German European and European Germans."

Leaving In Scandal And Disappointment

Reunification brought many problems. East Germany's decrepit industries were unable to compete in a capitalist economy. Millions of people in East Germany lost their jobs. The Kohl government transferred tens of billions of dollars to prop up the region and rebuild the infrastructure.

Kohl abandoned a pledge that reunification would be completed without increased taxation. He introduced a solidarity tax in western Germany to help finance recovery in the east.

Most of eastern Germany remained a blighted region as the Kohl era came to an end in 1998. Unemployment was around 17 percent compared with 10 percent in western Germany. Kohl had promised he would turn eastern Germany into a "flowering landscape." His inability to do so was a great disappointment to him.

Kohl was considered Europe's leading statesman when he lost power in 1998. His reputation was tarnished within a year by revelations he had broken the law by accepting secret campaign contributions. Kohl admitted that he had done wrong but refused to identify the secret contributors.

He was forced to resign his post as honorary chairman of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) -- which he had led for 25 years -- and paid a heavy fine to avoid prosecution.

Kohl expressed his anger and frustration in June 2000 over what the scandal had done to his reputation.

"Out of someone who is an honorary citizen of Europe -- that is a title given to me by the state and by European government leaders -- they want to make someone who is close to being a criminal," Kohl said. "And I consider that a scandal."

Catholic Upbringing

Helmut Michael Kohl was born on April 3, 1930, in the industrial city of Ludwigshafen. His father was a civil servant and he was raised in a community that stressed Roman Catholic and conservative values. He held a doctorate in history from the University of Heidelberg.

Away from politics, he had a folksy and sometimes bumbling image expressed in his love of simple food cooked at home by his wife, Hannelore, whom he married in 1960. He retired into virtual seclusion when his wife committed suicide in 2001. She suffered from a rare disease that made her sensitive to light and forced her to live in semidarkness.

World War II shaped Kohl's commitment to a united Europe bound by a common currency and common political organizations. Kohl was in a military training camp at Berchtesgaden at the end of the war and never saw conflict, but his older brother was killed in action and his home city of Ludwigshafen was bombed several times.

His political career began at the age of 16 when he joined the CDU -- a party founded in the closing days of the war by Catholics and Protestants. In 1969, he was chosen premier of the state of Rhineland-Palatinate -- at 39, the youngest leader of any German province.

Kohl's first bid to be chancellor in 1976 failed when he lost to the Social Democrats led by Helmut Schmidt. He won the job six years later in 1982.

Kohl kept his government and party on a tight rein, and those who crossed him soon found themselves in the political wilderness. His easygoing manner concealed sharp political skills that enabled him to dominate his party and his government.

Kohl remained a member of the German parliament until elections in 2002 despite the disgrace over the secret contributions to the CDU.

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