Helmut Kohl, the German chancellor who oversaw his country’s 1990 reunification after the Cold War, helped forge Europe’s economic and monetary union and gave incumbent Angela Merkel her first cabinet post, has died. He was 87.
Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, which Kohl led for a quarter century, confirmed his death. Bild newspaper, which was first to report the news, said the former chancellor died at his home in the western German city of Ludwigshafen. Kohl had been ailing since suffering a fall at his home in 2008.
According to the bloomberg.com news report, the Germany’s longest-serving chancellor since 19th century leader Otto von Bismarck, Kohl began his tenure in 1982 when the Soviet Union had an iron grip over eastern Europe. He was voted out of office 16 years later, having earned the title of unity chancellor after mass protests forced East Germany’s communist regime from power, leading to national reunification 11 months later.
East Germany’s collapse paved the way to power for Merkel, an East Berlin physicist who joined the CDU and was recruited by Kohl for his post-unity cabinet. A decade later, she broke with him over a party financing scandal and soon took over his former post as CDU leader. She’s now been chancellor for almost 12 years.
“Helmut Kohl was the right man at the right time,” Merkel said Friday during a trip to Rome for a papal audience. “He held steady to the dream and the goal of a united Germany, just as others wavered.” She paid tribute to his support of her career, saying Kohl “decisively changed my path in life.”
Kohl was aided in reuniting East and West Germany by political alliances with two U.S. presidents — Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush — and then-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Kohl’s friendship with French President Francois Mitterrand helped pave the way for the European Union, its expansion to the east and the birth of the euro.
His legacy suffered after he left office, when the CDU was rocked by a finance scandal. His twilight years were shadowed by family drama. His wife, Hannelore, committed suicide in 2001 after suffering from an allergy to sunlight. One of his two sons, Walter Kohl, published a book in 2011 detailing how their father focused exclusively on politics, ignoring his family.
It was Merkel who delivered the ultimate political blow to Kohl, publicly breaking with her political mentor in 1999 as the party was engulfed in scandal. But by that time, Kohl’s position in post-World War II German history was already set.
Tributes poured in from his former colleagues across the world. Former President Bush, who was in power during reunification, called Kohl 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 in a statement. “Throughout our endeavors, Helmut was a rock — both steady and strong.”
“We are losing a very great European,” tweeted French President Emmanuel Macron, who was four years old when Kohl took office.
Kohl seized his moment on Nov. 9, 1989, when the opening of the Berlin Wall gave way to throngs of East Germans swarming to the west. With the help of West German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher, Kohl within three weeks introduced a 10-point plan laying out steps toward a single German state. Huge crowds cheered him when he traveled to East Germany.