Grand German, true European
Former Chancellor Helmut Kohl, who united the country in 1990, died at the age of 87
23 June, 2017
He would be remembered as the Unification Chancellor and as the leader without whom the EU in its current form would be impossible. Helmut Kohl, who died on 16 June at the age of 87, was no doubt great German, but even greater European, although he was far from flawless. Chancellor from 1982 to 1998, in a way he was remarkably lucky as his tenure at Germany's highest office coincided with US President Ronald Reagan’s plan to reverse the post-war division of Europe and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's Perestroika, which led to the dissolution of the East European communist bloc.
Already in his second term as a chancellor, Kohl was fast to ride the wave and start working tirelessly for the unification of Germany, which until the late 1980s seemed unthinkable. Fearing British and French opposition to the German unification, he simply skipped over Francois Mitterrand and Margaret Thatcher and went directly to Washington for support.
His even greater achievement, however, was later in winning Mitterrand and Thatcher on his side by agreeing to a further round of European integration and binding Germany's fate irrevocably to that of a united Europe. Together with Mitterrand, Kohl was the architect of the Maastricht Treaty, which established the EU. He agreed to give up the strong Deutsche Mark and replace it with a common currency, the euro, which subsequently transformed the continent and secured Kohl a place among his country's greatest statesmen of all time. “Germany is our fatherland, Europe is our future,” he used to say in his speeches.
Kohl's role for shaping the EU was recognised already in his lifetime and in 1998 he was named Honorary Citizen of Europe, alongside the Union's founding father, Jean Monnet. Later on, former Commission President Jacques Delors entered the company. As such, Kohl deserves a special commemoration by all Member States leaders and it is to be organised in the coming days, Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said last Sunday. “Even before his passing, Helmut Kohl had been awarded an honorary citizenship for his extraordinary services,” Juncker said. “That is why we owe Kohl a European state ceremony.” Such a commemoration would be the first of its kind. Kohl was described as “the greatest European leader of the second half of the 20th century” by US Presidents George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton. He was also awarded the Charlemagne Prize in 1988 together with Francois Mitterrand.
Born in 1930 in Ludwigshafen, he joined the Christian Democratic Union in 1946 at the age of 16. He earned a PhD in history in 1958 and worked as a business executive before becoming a full-time politician. He was elected as the youngest member of the Parliament of Rhineland-Palatinate in 1959 and became Minister-President of his home state in 1969. In 1973, he was elected chairman of the party. In 1982, Kohl was elected Chancellor after the liberal Free Democratic Party switched sides to support the CDU.
He spent 16 tumultuous years in the Chancellery, becoming the longest-serving leader of Germany after the WWII so far. In 1998, Kohl lost an unprecedented bid for a fifth term to Gerhard Schroeder, the leader of the centre-left Social Democrats, and expectedly ceded the CDU leadership. Kohl remained a member of the Bundestag until 2002, when he decided not to run for re-election and to quit politics. Meanwhile he was mentoring the current German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who became CDU leader in 1998 after Kohl's retirement. In the 1990s, she was widely named as “Kohl's girl”.
As Kohl left public life, his reputation was somehow tarnished by a string of party scandals over an existing “black cash box”. Separately, Germans from both sides of the former border were angered by his promises in the 1990s that East Germany's landscapes, ravaged by mining and pesticides, would soon be transformed into “flowering meadows“ at no cost to the German taxpayer. The actual bill for unification has been estimated at 2 trillion to 3 trillion euros. But it has been worth every cent.