Tuesday 20 March 2018

Kohl: big man who cast a long shadow

Helmut 'was the right person at the right time', says Merkel

Statesman: Helmut Kohl
Statesman: Helmut Kohl

Geir Moulson in Berlin

Tributes continued to pour in yesterday for Helmut Kohl - the physically imposing German chancellor under whose watch the reunification of Germany took place. Kohl died last Friday at his home in Ludwigshafen. He was 87.

"A life has ended and the person who lived it will go down in history," said German Chancellor Angela Merkel. "It will take some time, however, until we can truly judge what we have lost in him. Helmut Kohl was a great German and a great European."

During his 16 years at the country's helm from 1982 to 1998 - first for West Germany and then all of a united Germany - Kohl combined a dogged pursuit of European unity with a keen instinct for history. Less than a year after the November 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall, he spearheaded the end of Germany's decades-long division into East and West, ushering in a new era in European politics.

"When a new spirit began to sweep through Eastern Europe in the 1980s, when freedom was won in Poland, when brave people in Leipzig, East Berlin and elsewhere in East Germany staged a peaceful revolution, Helmut Kohl was the right person at the right time," said Merkel.

It was the close friendships that Kohl built up with other world leaders that helped him persuade both anti-communist Western allies and the leaders of the collapsing Soviet Union that a strong, united Germany could live at peace with its neighbours.

"Helmut Kohl was the most important European statesman since World War II," said Bill Clinton in 2011, adding that Kohl answered the big questions of his time "correctly for Germany, correctly for Europe, correctly for the US, correctly for the future of the world".

US president Donald Trump said Kohl was "a friend and ally to the US as he led the Federal Republic of Germany through 16 pivotal years. He was not only the father of German reunification, but also an advocate for Europe and the transatlantic relationship".

Russian President Vladimir Putin credited Kohl with "playing a key role in putting an end to the Cold War and with the reunification of Germany".

Famed for a huge girth on a 6ft 4in frame, Kohl moved nimbly in domestic politics and among rivals in his conservative Christian Democratic Union, holding power for 16 years until his defeat by centre-left rival Gerhard Schroeder in 1998. That was followed by a party financing scandal which threatened to tarnish his legacy.

For foreigners, the bulky conservative with a fondness for heavy local food and white wine came to symbolise a benign, steady - even dull - Germany.

Kohl's legacy includes the euro - now used by 19 nations. Kohl lobbied heavily for the euro (introduced in 1999) as a pillar of peace - and when it hit trouble insisted there was no alternative but for Germany to help out debt-strapped countries such as Greece.

Once viewed as a provincial bumbler, Kohl combined an understanding of the worries of ordinary Germans with a hunger for power, getting elected four times. He served longer than Konrad Adenauer, West Germany's first post-World War II chancellor and his political idol. Only Otto von Bismarck, who first unified Germany in the 1870s, was chancellor longer, for 19 years.

"Voters do not like Kohl, but they trust him," was an often repeated line. Often harsh and thin-skinned, Kohl also could display a quick wit and jovial earthiness. He ate pasta with Clinton and took saunas with Russia's Boris Yeltsin.

Kohl linked his dedication to a united Europe to his memories of a wartime boyhood. He celebrated the EU's eastward expansion in 2004 with a speech declaring that "the most important rule of the new Europe is: There must never again be violence in Europe".

Still, the "blooming landscapes" that Kohl promised East German voters during reunification were slow to come after the collapse of its economy, and massive aid to the east pushed up German government debt. He also drew criticism for failing to embark on economic reforms.

Born in 1930, in Ludwigshafen, an industrial city on the Rhine, Kohl joined the Hitler Youth but missed serving in the Nazi army. As a 15-year-old, he was about to be pressed into service in an anti-aircraft gun unit when the war ended. His oldest brother, Walter, was killed in action a few months earlier.

Sunday Independent

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