The architect of a reunified Germany and a staunch champion of European integration, Helmut Kohl, who died at 87, was the longest-serving German Chancellor since World War II. The steely politician, who lost his bid for a fifth consecutive term as head of his conservative Christian Democratic Union in 1998, went into political wilderness within months thereafter, following a controversy over anonymous donations to his party. Raised in an austere Roman Catholic family, Kohl first came into prominence when he was 39, becoming minister-president of Rhineland-Palatinate in 1969. He emerged as president of the CDU in the early 1970s, and held the position with a firm grip until the end of his political life. Over the decades he mentored the careers of several leaders, including two former presidents, and the incumbent Chancellor Angela Merkel in the 1990s. Kohl was catapulted to high office in 1982, when the liberal Free Democratic Party quit the ruling coalition with the Social Democrats to back the CDU. His early years as Chancellor were notable for the efforts to embed Germany in the Western alliance, improve relations with the Soviet Union and promote post-War reconciliation. His 1985 visit along with President Ronald Reagan to the site of the Bergen-Belsen SS concentration camp and the Bitburg military cemetery, marking the 40th anniversary of liberation from Nazi rule, stoked controversy both at home and in the U.S.
But it took until almost the close of the decade before Kohl would begin to play a pivotal part in the developments that culminated in the end of the Cold War. The prospect of a reunited Germany, following the momentous 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall, caused deep scepticism among both European leaders and the Soviet Union’s Mikhail Gorbachev over the potential economic dominance by what would become Europe’s largest nation. However, Kohl’s broader vision of a Germany at the heart of a federal Europe and his instinct for compromise helped overcome such apprehensions in the years that followed. His embrace of Europe’s move towards the adoption of a common currency was a French idea. François Mitterrand, his French counterpart, regarded the Deutschemark as Germany’s nuclear bomb. The euro thus emerged as a concrete, if controversial, symbol of forging a collective European economic future, above all between the union’s two locomotors, Paris and Berlin. When faced with a domestic audience reluctant to see the national currency replaced, Kohl declared that the adoption of monetary union would be a matter of war or peace in the 21st century. Indeed, the recent debt crisis in the Eurozone exposed the limits of introducing a common currency without concomitant political integration. Berlin’s commitment to closer union within the EU, despite recent setbacks to the original project, is a lasting legacy from the Kohl era.