Helmut Kohl (1930-2017) was a German politician who served as the chancellor of West Germany and, from 1990, a reunited Germany. He had an important role in ending the Cold War in Europe and managing the reunification of Germany.
Kohl was born in south-western Germany, the son of a tax collector and former soldier who had experienced the horrors of World War I. Like most children of his generation, Kohl was obliged to join Nazi youth groups. He was too young to see combat in World War II, though an older brother was killed in action.
After the war, Kohl attended university in Frankfurt and Heidelberg, graduating in 1956 with majors in history and politics. He completed a history doctorate in 1958. Kohl also became involved in politics as a teenager, joining the liberal-conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU). By 1959 he was the CDU chairman in his district and an elected member of the provincial Landtag (assembly). Kohl continued to ascend through party ranks in the 1960s, earning a reputation as a skilful but cautious reformer.
Kohl became chancellor of West Germany in 1982, after an unsuccessful campaign six years earlier. His government implemented notable domestic reforms, including the extension of welfare measures and pensions, improvements to health care and the adoption of student loans. Kohl’s foreign policy invited some controversy. He visited Washington after taking office and forged close ties with Ronald Reagan.
In 1982, Kohl allowed NATO to install new Pershing nuclear missiles on West German soil, a decision that angered Moscow and the German peace movement. Like Reagan, Kohl talked tough on communism and was generally sceptical about Soviet policies, declaring Gorbachev‘s perestroika reforms a “publicity stunt”.
Kohl’s great attribute, however, was a willingness to listen and negotiate. He did much to heal the lingering wounds of World War II, attending a French memorial service at Verdun (where Kohl’s father had fought) and, more controversially, at an SS cemetery in Bitburg. Kohl also defied many in his own party by maintaining his own version of Ostpolitik. In 1987 Kohl played host to Erich Honecker, the first visit by an East German leader. He also improved relations with the Soviet Union, holding several meetings with Gorbachev.
While Kohl was not directly responsible for the collapse of the Berlin Wall in November 1989, he responded with an immediate push to reunite Germany. Within three weeks, Kohl had proposed a ten-point plan for reunification – without the endorsement of either his party or his NATO allies.
Reunification was successfully completed in August 1990 and, in December, Kohl was comfortably elected as chancellor of the reformed German nation. He remained chancellor until 1998 when economic downturn and rising unemployment led to his defeat at the polls. Kohl went into retirement and died in June 2017, aged 87.