widenews desk: Former Chancellor Helmut Kohl has died on Friday at age 87. Having led Germany for 16 years, he is remembered for reuniting the country as well as for making a huge political and economic contribution to the integration of Europe.
“We Germans have learned from history. We are a peace-loving, freedom-loving people. For us, love of our native country, love of freedom, and the spirit of being a good neighbor always belong together.” –said Chancellor Helmut Kohl on the way to reuniting the two German states.
Helmut Josef Michael Kohl was born in Ludwigshafen on April 3, 1930. He was only 17 when he joined the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and was active in the party during his studies in History, Law and Governance and Public Policy.
Kohl was elected premier of Rhineland-Palatinate in 1969. At just 39, he was the youngest person ever to hold the position. In 1976, the CDU and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), choose him as their candidate for chancellor in the parliamentary elections. He won 48.6% of the vote, but that still was not enough to keep Helmut Schmidt’s Social Democrats (SPD) from staying in power in a coalition with the free-market liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP).
It was a vote of no confidence against the Social Democrat Chancellor Schmidt that brought Kohl to power, after he succeeded in convincing FDP leader Hans-Dietrich Genscher to break with Schmidt. Kohl formed his own alliance with the FDP and became the head of the government. In a controversial move a few months later he proposed another confidence vote to hold fresh elections, which he won.
There was considerable discontent with Kohl’s government during his first years in office. He acquired the reputation for not solving domestic problems but just “sitting them out.” He responded to criticism by repeatedly reshuffling his cabinet. His visit to the cemetery in the German city Bitburg with President Ronald Reagan in 1985 sparked fierce debate, as members of the Waffen SS, a paramilitary organization of the Nazi regime, were buried there alongside German and American soldiers. On another occasion, he compared the head of the Soviet Communist Party, Mikhail Gorbachev, to Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels.
He was on a trip to Poland when the citizens of East Germany stormed the inner-German border and the East German guards let them through. Although Kohl immediately headed home, he didn’t get back in time to be the first West German politician to address the entire German people at that symbol of their division, the Brandenburg Gate. Instead, it was the words of the West German president, Richard von Weizsäcker, that people heard that night.
Kohl, however, quickly seized the initiative and launched a 10-point plan with the aim of reuniting the two German states as quickly as possible. He tried to defuse fears in other countries about a reunited Germany becoming too powerful or too nationalistic.
Kohl had reached the zenith of his political career in 1989 and 1990. He was celebrated as a star in East Germany. His promise to its citizens included the often-quoted “green pastures.”
But despite the introduction of the solidarity tax to contribute to the development of the former East Germany, reunification couldn’t be rushed, and Kohl didn’t succeed in raising the living standard in the eastern states to that of the former West. Many East Germans who had lost their jobs failed to find new employment and moved to the West after reunification and development in the five new German states continued to be slow, and as people became frustrated Kohl saw his popularity plummet.
News in 1999 that “his CDU” was involved in accepting illegal donations through a number of secret bank accounts would tarnish his reputation. At first, Kohl denied any involvement in the scandal and said his conduct was beyond reproach. Despite his reassurances, the CDU eventually revoked his honorary party membership and at a special party convention Kohl was asked to give up his seat in parliament as well. He later admitted to having received millions of deutschmarks worth of illegal contributions, without ever disclosing the donors’ names. Court charges against him were dropped in return for paying a fine, and the ex-chancellor largely left the German political stage.
In July 2001, Kohl’s wife, Hannelore, committed suicide taking an overdose of sleeping pills. She had suffered from photodermatitis, a form of sun allergy.
As the CDU’s finance scandal faded into history, Kohl once again received recognition from his party, including current chancellor and former Kohl protégé Angela Merkel, as well as the international community.
At the age of 78, Kohl married Maike Richter. Former companions went on record as saying that Kohl’s new wife kept an overly watchful eye on him, assuming control over his social life. The relationship to Kohl’s sons from his first marriage and, most recently, collaboration with his long-time ghostwriter Heribert Schwan were affected in similar ways.
As an elder statesman, Kohl continued to receive recognition. In May 2011, he was awarded the Henry Kissinger Prize for exceptional contributions to transatlantic relations. Former president Bill Clinton called him “the most important European statesman since the Second World War.”
Shortly before his death, Kohl received yet another notable tribute when the Federal Republic of Germany issued a special stamp in his honor. It shows Kohl’s face, spread across 12 square centimeters and captioned “Chancellor of reunification- honorary citizen of Europe.”
Helmut Kohl would not have called himself the perfect politicians- and neither would his Christian Democratic colleagues, but he will go down in history as chancellor of reunification and major promoter of a united Europe.