The powerhouse chancellor who reunited Germany
Helmut Kohl 1930–2017
Helmut Kohl was far from the archetypal statesman. Nicknamed “die birne” (the pear) because of his expansive waistline, the 6-foot-4, 400-pound German chancellor was often mocked for his uninspiring oratory, strong regional accent, and clumsy, provincial manners. He served stuffed pig’s stomach to visiting foreign dignitaries—much to their horror— and had little time for art, music, or literature. But Kohl was a very canny political operator. Supported by a carefully fostered network of loyal allies, he became the longest-serving chancellor since Otto von Bismarck. During his 16-year tenure, he engineered the reunification of West Germany with the Communist East and helped lay the groundwork for the European Union. “I have been underestimated for decades,” he said. “I have done very well that way.”
Kohl was born into a conservative Catholic family in the southwestern city of Ludwigshafen, said BBC.com. He was too young to bear the “taints of Nazism,” but as a teenager during World War II, he helped pull bodies from the rubble after Allied bombing raids—a grim task that shaped his desire for a united, peaceful Europe. After studying politics and law in college, Kohl quickly ascended the ranks of West Germany’s Christian Democratic Union party. He was elected premier of his home state of Rhineland- Palatinate in 1967 and became West Germany’s chancellor in 1982. Kohl’s “early years in office were marked by gaffes and minor scandals,” said The Wall Street Journal. Most notably, he took President Reagan on a tour of a German war cemetery where 48 members of the Waffen-SS were buried. But he transformed his reputation with his push for reunification. To allay fears that a unified Germany would be too powerful, he pledged to integrate more closely with the precursor to the EU, and even to “surrender the mighty deutsche mark.” In 1990, a year after the Berlin Wall came down, the country reunited.
Kohl resigned from the chancellorship in 1998, said The Washington Post, when voters rejected his party in the election, “citing the high unemployment rate and other major problems he was unable to solve.” He soon became “entangled in a financial scandal involving several million dollars of illegal donations to the CDU.” The damage to his reputation hurt Kohl, who wanted to be remembered for bringing Germany together. “We Germans have learned from history,” he said. “We are a peace-loving, freedom-loving people.”