Fall of Berlin Wall saw him gain international stature

Mr Helmut Kohl at an electoral rally in Erfurt for the first free elections in East Germany in this February 1990 file photo. He was elected chancellor four times and held Germany's top political office until 1998.
Mr Helmut Kohl at an electoral rally in Erfurt for the first free elections in East Germany in this February 1990 file photo. He was elected chancellor four times and held Germany's top political office until 1998.PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON • Mr Helmut Kohl 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 was chancellor of a unified Germany for most of the 1990s.

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 then President Ronald Reagan visit the German military cemetery in Bitburg, where members of the Nazi 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.

When he 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. We won't leave our countrymen in the lurch."

He made good on that promise by welcoming East Germans into the West with an expensive but powerful gift - agreeing to let them 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. He 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 post-war structures of the European Union and Nato, devoting much of his energy to reassuring France, Britain, the United States and 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.

Mr Kohl repeatedly promised that the new nation would be a European Germany.

Mr Kohl was born to conservative Catholic parents on April 3, 1930, in Ludwigshafen, a small city on the Rhine River in then Western Germany. His father worked for the local tax and revenue office and also fought in both world wars.

His early life was shaped by the bombing raids of Allied planes during World War II. In 1956, he graduated from the University of Heidelberg to become the first member of his family to receive a college degree. He received a doctorate in political science in 1958.

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" .

WASHINGTON POST

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on June 18, 2017, with the headline 'Fall of Berlin Wall saw him gain international stature'. Print Edition | Subscribe