Helmut Kohl, father of German unification, dies aged 87

Country’s longest-serving postwar chancellor was driving force behind the euro

Angela Merkel has led tributes to Helmut Kohl, the former chancellor and her political mentor, as a "stroke of luck" for both German and European unity.

The ex-chancellor, who ruled Germany from 1982 to 1998, died on Friday morning at home in Ludwigshafen aged 87 following a decade of ill health.

As neighbours lay flowers outside his home, and flags were lowered to half-mast in Berlin, Dr Merkel said Helmut Kohl would go into the history books as a "great European and the chancellor of German unity".

“We can all be thankful for what Helmut Kohl, in long years of service, did for us Germans and our country,” she said in Rome.


Her voice shaking with emotion, Dr Merkel, who grew up in East Germany, said she was “personally very thankful” to Dr Kohl, who plucked her from obscurity to sit at his German unity cabinet table in 1990.

Three weeks after the Berlin Wall was breached in November 1989, Dr Kohl presented a 10-point plan that lead to German unification the following October, after winning around doubtful leaders in Europe, the US and the Soviet Union.

Surviving former colleagues who worked to end the cold war led international tributes on Friday. Former US president George HW Bush, a crucial partner in Germany’s road to unification, described Dr Kohl as a “rock – both steady and strong” and a “great friend in my life”. The ex-German leader “hated war, but he detested totalitarianism even more”, and devoted his life to strengthening German democracy.

“Working closely with my very good friend to help achieve a peaceful end to the cold war and the unification of Germany within Nato will remain one of the great joys of my life,” he added.

Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev said it was "right" to call him the chancellor of German unity.

Across German party lines, tributes poured in for the longest-serving German chancellor of the post-war era.

The centre-right Christian Democratic Union, which he joined as a 16-year-old and lead for a record 25 years, announced the news of his death on Friday afternoon, saying via Twitter: "We are in mourning."

Mr Gerhard Schröder, who ended the Kohl era in 1998, said German unity “will be forever linked with his name”. Russian president Vladimir Putin said he “admired his wisdom and ability to make far-reaching decisions even in the most difficult situations”.

Higgins tribute

President Michael D Higgins conveyed the sympathies of the Irish people to Dr Kohl’s family and the people of Germany.

“His deep commitment to the European project was unshakable, referring as he often did to the common European House, in the construction of which everyone would have a role,” he said.

French president Emmanuel Macron, whose predecessor Francois Mitterrand had a close relationship with Dr Kohl, described the late German leader as a "visionary and a unifier".

Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu said his death had robbed Israel of one of its “greatest friends”.

European Council president Jean-Claude Juncker tweeted: “Helmut’s death hurts me deeply. My mentor, my friend, the very essence of Europe, he will be greatly, greatly missed.”

Dr Kohl retired from active politics in 2002, his reputation damaged by a scandal over undeclared political donations that soured relations with Angela Merkel.

Rehabilitated as his health declined following a fall in 2008, Dr Kohl made regular contributions to the European debate in recent years – often skewering Dr Merkel, though never by name.

During the euro crisis he said it was unforgivable that European partners were unsure of what Germany wanted. Last year he criticised Dr Merkel’s unilateral decision in 2015 to open borders to over one million asylum seekers.

"Solitary decisions, no matter how well-founded they may appear to individuals, must belong to the past – along with national, unilateralist action," wrote Dr Kohl in the Bild tabloid.

In his final public remarks, Dr Kohl warned European leaders against “unnecessary severity and haste” after Britain’s vote to leave the EU in 2016.

Helmut Kohl remarried in 2008, seven years after his first wife, Hannelore, took her own life after suffering from a rare allergy to daylight. He is survived by his second wife, Maike, and two sons.

Derek Scally

Derek Scally

Derek Scally is an Irish Times journalist based in Berlin