Helmut Kohl, the West German political leader 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.
After succeeding the worldly Helmut Schmidt as chancellor in 1982, Mr. Kohl was sometimes perceived as a clumsy politician with an uninspiring speaking style and a penchant for public-relations gaffes, such as his insistence that President Ronald Reagan visit the German military cemetery in Bitburg, where members of the Waffen-SS were buried.
Mr. Kohl’s legacy seemed to change overnight with the collapse of the Berlin Wall on Nov. 9, 1989. For 28 years, the wall had stood as one of the most visible symbols of separation between Western Europe and the communist bloc of Eastern European countries. Mr. Kohl seized the opportunity to transform himself into a leader of international stature.
Many Germans on both sides of the wall that divided the nation during the Cold War found Mr. Kohl’s shambling, diffident manner a comforting relief from the country’s charismatic style of politician during Adolf Hitler’s reign, although it had become nearly taboo in the post-Hitler period.
When Mr. Kohl made a dramatic appearance before 50,000 East Germans in Dresden just six weeks after the fall of the Berlin Wall, he was greeted with tears and chants of “our chancellor.” He drew roaring approval from East German residents by saying, “When the historic moment allows it, let us have the unity of our country.”
He added, “We won’t leave our countrymen in the lurch.”
Mr. Kohl made good on that promise by welcoming East Germans into the West with an expensive but powerful gift — agreeing to let East Germans exchange their virtually worthless communist marks for West Germany’s valuable Deutsche marks on a one-to-one basis. Economists argued that he was risking his country’s most cherished asset, but the bet paid off in political calm and stability. Mr. Kohl was elected chancellor four times and held Germany’s top political office until 1998.
He was careful to position his country’s expansion and reunification in the postwar structures of the European Union and NATO, devoting much of his energy to reassuring France, Britain, the United States and the Soviet Union that Germany still knew its place.
“We are not a world power, and I consider it foolish to dream world-power dreams,” he said immediately after Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev gave his surprise endorsement of German unity in 1990.
During the Cold War, a divided Germany had played host to the most destructive weapons and most concentrated collection of forces on the planet. The new Germany, Mr. Kohl told his partners, would be a successful merchant with a modest diplomatic front, a limited military and a deep fear of getting involved in international conflicts.
Mr. Kohl repeatedly promised that the new nation would be a European Germany, without any ambition of creating a German Europe.
His greatest moment, according to Harvard University historian Charles S. Maier, came in a speech to the West German Parliament on Nov. 28, 1989, in which Mr. Kohl outlined a plan for unification.
In drafting his speech, he consulted no foreign leaders except President George H.W. Bush. The French and British, suspicious that Germany might try to dominate Europe, pushed the United States to disavow Mr. Kohl’s plan, but the Bush administration embraced it wholeheartedly.
Unification was completed by October 1990 in part because Mr. Kohl initiated payments of billions of Deutsche marks to the Soviet Union to withdraw troops from East Germany.
He allayed the fears of his Western European allies by committing a unified Germany to NATO and other European institutions. He called German reunification and the European Union “two sides of one coin” and successfully promoted the euro as a common European currency.
In reality, German reunification proved extremely expensive. Residents of the former East Germany struggled with high unemployment rates and neo-Nazi violence. Psychological and sociological differences continued to divide the country.
As East and West Germany came together to create a new country, united for the first time since the fall of the Third Reich, political support in Western Europe and the United States was tempered by concern over the depth of change in a society that spawned the Holocaust.
Mr. Kohl had through most of his political career been visibly discomfited by discussions of Germany’s decimated Jewish heritage. He often spoke of the need to normalize German culture and emerge finally from decades of self-doubt and blame. But during the reunification period, Mr. Kohl reached for a more balanced tone as he searched for a way forward.
“I can understand the anxieties people have,” he said. “We have our history, the crimes committed by the Nazis in the name of the German people, dark periods. But in the last 40 years we have proved ourselves. We would like to be a normal country in Europe. Talk of the Fourth Reich is talk of things that will not happen again.”
Still, Mr. Kohl was deeply worried about the idea that Germans would continue to grow up thinking of themselves as some sort of moral monsters. When plans for a Holocaust museum in Washington were being discussed in the late 1980s, Mr. Kohl looked for ways to ameliorate its message and sought to have the museum include a section on modern Germany — a proposal that got nowhere.
Helmut Michael Kohl was born to conservative Catholic parents on April 3, 1930, in Ludwigshafen, a small city on the Rhine River in western Germany. His father worked for the local tax and revenue office and also fought in both world wars.
Mr. Kohl’s early life was shaped by the bombing raids of Allied planes during World War II. He exhumed dead bodies from ruined buildings and, during the closing months of the war, was a member of the Hitler Youth. His only brother, Walter, died in 1944 at age 19 while serving in the German army.
In 1956, when he graduated from the University of Heidelberg, Mr. Kohl became the first member of his family to receive a college degree. He received a doctorate in political science in 1958.
Mr. Kohl quickly became a well-known figure in the Christian Democratic Party (CDU) and by 43 was the party’s national chairman.
He classified people as supporters or opponents and reportedly even trained his German shepherd, Igo, to wag his tail at the words “Christian Democrat.” The command “Soz” — Mr. Kohl’s word for Social Democrats and others to the left of his party — caused the dog to bare its teeth and snarl.
In 1976, Mr. Kohl lost an election as West German chancellor to Schmidt, a member of the Social Democratic Party. Six years later, as Schmidt faced a political crisis, Mr. Kohl won the chancellorship after building a coalition with the Free Democratic Party, Germany’s liberal party.
In office, Mr. Kohl seemed at times to lack the historical sensitivity required for such a high-profile job. One of his greatest stumbles was the controversy surrounding his 1985 visit with President Reagan to a German military cemetery in Bitburg.
The state visit by Reagan was intended to celebrate the normalization of relations between the United States and Germany on the 40th anniversary of the end of World War II. But a public-relations disaster ensued when it was revealed that the cemetery contained the graves of 49 members of the Waffen-SS.
Secretary of State George P. Shultz wrote years later in The Washington Post that Mr. Kohl exerted tremendous pressure on Reagan to go through with the visit. Ultimately, they visited the cemetery and the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.
Mr. Kohl told Time magazine at the time of the Bitburg protest, “If we don’t go to Bitburg, if we don’t do what we jointly planned, we will deeply offend the feelings of our people,” Mr. Kohl told Time magazine. “This has nothing to do with the glorification of the Nazis.”
For much of his career, Mr. Kohl was accompanied by his wife of 41 years, the former Hannelore Renner. She suffered from a painful and incurable skin condition that forced her for years to live in a shaded house and avoid sunlight. She committed suicide in 2001.
The relationship between Mr. Kohl’s sons, Walter and Peter, was known to be difficult, especially after their father married Maike Richter, 34 years his junior, in 2008. The sons were not invited to the wedding.
Mr. Kohl’s new wife shielded him from public view, and only a few trusted friends had access to the former chancellor during his final years.
In 1998, Mr. Kohl resigned from the chancellorship after voters rejected his party in the election, citing high unemployment and other problems.
It marked the end of an era for many younger Germans for whom he had been the only chancellor they had ever known, hence giving him the nickname the “Eternal Chancellor.”
Almost immediately after his resignation, Mr. Kohl was entangled in a financial scandal involving several million dollars in illegal donations to the CDU.
His party faced sharp penalties and lost political credibility, in part because Mr. Kohl refused to mention the names of his donors. The scandal deepened when it was revealed that many files were missing or destroyed.
Mr. Kohl at first deflected blame for the scandal, but in 2001 he agreed to pay a fine of about $143,000 and to acknowledge a “breach of trust.” In return, prosecutors dropped criminal charges.
Members of his party were tarred by their association with Mr. Kohl, but he picked a protege from the former East Germany, Angela Merkel, who echoed his views and style — governing with a stiff spine and a sure sense of what Germany’s limitations should be.
Mr. Kohl hoped to be remembered for unifying the two Germanys and ushering the united country into the international community.
“We Germans have learned from history,” he said. “We are a peace-loving, freedom-loving people. There is only one place for us in the world: at the side of the free nations.”
Marc Fisher contributed to this report.