Helmut Kohl, 87, chancellor who reunified Germany

Mr. Kohl was cheered by a large crowd of East Germans prior to reunification in 1990.
MARK-OLIVIER MULTHAUP/afp/getty images/file 1990
Mr. Kohl was cheered by a large crowd of East Germans prior to reunification in 1990.

NEW YORK — Helmut Kohl, a towering postwar figure, who reunified Germany after 45 years of Cold War antagonism, propelled a deeply held vision of Europe’s integration, and earned plaudits from Moscow and Washington for his deft handling of the fall of the Berlin Wall, died Friday at his home in Ludwigshafen, Germany, the Rhine port city where he was born. He was 87.

“We mourn,” his party, the Christian Democratic Union, said on Twitter in announcing his death.

With his diplomacy, resolve, and readiness to commit huge sums to the ending of his country’s division, Mr. Kohl was remembered by many as a giant of epochal times that redrew Europe’s political architecture, dismantled the minefields and watchtowers of the Iron Curtain, and replaced the eyeball-to-eyeball armed confrontation between East and West with an enduring, if often challenged, coexistence between former sworn foes.


A physically imposing man — he stood 6 feet 4 inches and weighed well more than 300 pounds in his leadership years — Mr. Kohl pursued his and his country’s political interests as Germany’s chancellor with persistent, even stubborn, determination. He could be “an elephant in a china shop,” as he described himself in a memoir, and he overcame European opposition to unification the same way he handled political opposition at home: by the force of a jovial yet dominating personality.

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Germany in particular faced the challenge of engaging with a formerly dictatorial, Soviet-backed East and welding it to a prosperous West that drew its support from Washington and its Western allies.

Unlike many Germans, Mr. Kohl never shied from expressing pride in what he often called “this, our Fatherland,” even when the phrase unsettled many who had suffered at his country’s hands in World War II. In dealing with the legacy of Germany’s Nazi past, Mr. Kohl, who was a 15-year-old member of the Hitler Youth when the war ended, invoked what he called “the absolution of late birth” so often as to offend some listeners.

A politician most of his adult life, Mr. Kohl was chancellor for 16 years starting in 1982, longer than any German leader since Bismarck. He ruled the Christian Democratic Union as if it were a personal domain.

But his political career ended with defeat, in elections in 1998, and his legacy was later clouded by disgrace over an opaque party fund-raising scandal.


But that was not the image that emerged in many eulogies.

“We feel that a life has ended and he who lived it will go down in history,” Chancellor Angela Merkel said Friday, her voice shaking with emotion. “In this moment, I am thinking with great respect and great gratitude on that life and work.”

In later years Mr. Kohl was seen as a diminished figure, infirm and in a wheelchair after a fall resulted in a head injury in 2008. Far from focusing on his achievements as one of Europe’s dominant statesmen, critics raked over the hidden inner workings of his private life. His first wife, Hannelore Kohl, killed herself in 2001, ostensibly because of a rare allergy to light, which had forced her into a nocturnal existence.

In 2008, shortly after his fall, Mr. Kohl announced his intention to marry a newer companion, Maike Richter, 35 years his junior and a former economic adviser in the chancellery. She was later accused of limiting access to him and his archives.

After the war, he spent his entire political life in the new Christian Democratic Union of Konrad Adenauer and Ludwig Erhard. Like them, he made his overriding goal the rebuilding of Germany within a united Europe.


Aware that Germany could be reunified only with the support of both the United States and the Soviet Union, Mr. Kohl developed close relationships with President George H.W. Bush and President Mikhail Gorbachev. He was also a friend of President François Mitterrand of France, who helped him overcome the fears of other European leaders, such as Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher of Britain.

Mr. Kohl described himself as ‘an elephant in a china shop.’ He was chancellor for 16 years starting in 1982, longer than any German leader since Bismarck.

In a memoir, he quoted Thatcher as saying just after the Berlin Wall fell in 1989: “Twice we defeated the Germans! Now they’re back again.”

After being elevated to the chancellor’s office in 1982, Mr. Kohl won four successive elections — two of them as chancellor of West Germany, and two more after it absorbed the communist German Democratic Republic. But he lost the fifth, in 1998, when the Social Democrats returned to power under Gerhard Schröder.

A year later, German prosecutors discovered a network of secret bank accounts and charged Mr. Kohl with using them to hide illegal contributions to his party. Expressing regret for “mistakes,” Mr. Kohl refused to disclose the names of any donors, even after a parliamentary inquiry was begun. In early 2001, Mr. Kohl paid a fine of more than $100,000 to end a criminal case against him and left Parliament the next year.

Helmut Joseph Michael Kohl was born in Ludwigshafen on April 3, 1930, the third and last child of Cäcilie E. and Hans Kohl, a minor civil servant and tax expert who had been a soldier in World War I.

When Hitler invaded Poland in 1939, Mr. Kohl’s father answered the call to arms and did not return home until 1945. His elder brother, Walter, also volunteered and was killed in action in 1944. By then, Ludwigshafen was under almost daily attack from Allied bombers, and young Helmut, who like most boys his age had become a member of the Hitler Youth, was pressed into service to dig charred corpses from the ashes. Later, he fed ammunition to anti-aircraft guns in the Bavarian Alps.

In the spring of 1945, after surviving a heavy Allied bombing of Berchtesgaden and its environs in the Bavarian Alps, where Hitler had a retreat, Mr. Kohl decided the war was over for him. With a few friends, he set off on foot for his hometown, 250 miles away.

“Still in our Hitler Youth uniforms and without papers of any kind, we avoided the roads, on which truck after truck of American troops were rolling, and ran along the rail lines or over the crossties,” Mr. Kohl wrote years later. After the Nazis capitulated in early May, the group fell into the hands of Polish laborers, who gave them a beating. When he finally got home, in early June, he found Ludwigshafen three-quarters destroyed but the Kohl family home still standing.

There, as a student preparing for university studies, he met a refugee from East Germany, Hannelore Renner, whom he married in 1960, and who projected a public image of traditional middle-class respectability.

After she killed herself in 2001, though, Heribert Schwan, a journalist who had ghostwritten three volumes of Mr. Kohl’s autobiography and claimed to have had close access to his wife, depicted her as a tragic figure, who had worn the trappings of a political spouse “like armor” to shield her unhappiness in the role. She had been profoundly disturbed by his refusal to identify anonymous donors in the party financing scandal that ended his political career, Schwan said.

With his second marriage, critics including Schwan said Mr. Kohl, who found speech difficult after his fall, appeared to be in thrall to his second wife, Maike. She was credited both with tending him assiduously in his infirmity and limiting access to him by former associates including Juliane Weber, Mr. Kohl’s onetime office manager and confidante for three decades.

Besides his second wife, Mr. Kohl leaves his sons Walter and Peter. A complete list of survivors was not immediately available.