Helmut Kohl, the statesman who helped unite East and West Germany, dies at 87
Helmut Kohl, the West German politician who became an unlikely international statesman when he helped unite Communist East Germany with the West after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and served as chancellor of a unified Germany for much of the 1990s, died June 16 at his home in Ludwigshafen. He was 87.
Mr. Kohl’s party, the Christian Democratic Union, confirmed the death in a tweet but did not provide other information.
Mr. Kohl did not attract many superlatives during his years as West German chancellor in the 1980s. His uninspiring public speaking style and a sometimes clumsy political manner often worked to undermine his efforts at achieving what he called normalization, a greater respect for Germany in the international community nearly half a century after World War II.
His insistence in 1985 that President Reagan visit the German military cemetery in Bitburg, where members of the Waffen-SS were buried, did little in the United States to build confidence in his leadership. Neither did his likening the next year of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s public relations skills to those of the former Nazi propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels. Mr. Kohl later said he regretted his comments but at the time they set off a furor in the Soviet Union, which was working on relaxing tensions between the free and Communist worlds.
Mr. Kohl’s public relations gaffes made his opponents in politics and the media present him as a buffoon or a mediocrity. Succeeding the worldly Helmut Schmidt as chancellor in 1982 only threw Mr. Kohl’s perception problem into sharper relief. Although the left and West German elites made fun of Mr. Kohl’s middle-class appeal, many Germans found him refreshingly unassuming and thought of him as one of their own.
In his early years at the helm, Mr. Kohl seemed to fulfill the expectations of his opponents and critics. He followed a centrist path with moderate cuts in government spending and supported his country’s long-standing commitments to NATO. Most controversially, he defended, despite opposition of peace activists, his government’s decision to allow U.S. nuclear missiles to be stationed on West German soil.
Mr. Kohl’s legacy seemed to change overnight with the collapse of the Berlin Wall on Nov. 9, 1989, which for 28 years had stood as one of the most visible symbols of separation between Western Europe and the Communist bloc of eastern European countries. Visiting Warsaw at the time, Mr. Kohl was taken by surprise at the protests in East Germany that led to the wall being torn down, a period when the Cold War itself was coming to an end because of the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
Severely weakened politically and facing intraparty opponents trying to topple him, Mr. Kohl seized the opportunity to transform himself into a leader of international stature and thereby strengthen his position in his own country.
When Mr. Kohl visited cities in East Germany in the months after the wall fell, thousands of people greeted him with chants — unusual for Germany where even the most charismatic of speakers seldom face enthusiastic mass rallies. But Mr. Kohl told them what they wanted to hear: Unite the country.
The Washington Post reported in December 1989: “Kohl — near tears as he stood before hundreds of fluttering West German flags, many of them created from East German tricolors — drew roars of agreement with these words: ‘When the historic moment allows it, let us have the unity of our country.’ Kohl seemed to relish every moment of the day. Again and again he clasped his hands over his head like a victorious boxer, a gesture that won the cheers of the crowd and an experience Kohl rarely finds at home, where he is often booed.”