Helmut Kohl, Chancellor Who Reunited a Divided Germany, Dies at 87


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Helmut Kohl in 2001. As chancellor, he reunited Germany 45 years after it was divided by World War II.

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Tobias Schwarz/Reuters

Helmut Kohl, who reunified Germany after 45 years of Cold War division and promoted grand visions of European integration, but ended his political career in disgrace over an opaque party fund-raising scandal, died on Friday at his home in Ludwigshafen, Germany, the Rhine port city where he was born. He was 87.

“We are in sorrow,” his Christian Democratic Union Party said on Twitter in announcing his death.

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Mr. Kohl addressing Parliament in Bonn, Germany, in 1982.

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Helmut Lohmann/Associated Press

A physically imposing man — he stood 6 feet 4 inches and weighed well over 300 pounds in his leadership years — Mr. Kohl pursued his and his country’s political interests as Germany’s chancellor with persistent, even stubborn, determination. He could be “an elephant in a china shop,” as he described himself in a memoir, and overcame European opposition to unification the same way he handled political opposition at home: by the force of a jovial yet dominating personality.

After his reluctant retreat from high office, Mr. Kohl was seen as a diminished figure, infirm and wheelchair-bound from a fall and head injury in 2008. Far from focusing on his achievements as one of Europe’s most towering statesmen, critics raked over the hidden inner workings of his private life. His first wife, Hannelore Kohl, committed suicide in 2001, ostensibly because of a rare allergy to light, which had forced her into a nocturnal existence.

In 2008, shortly after his fall, Mr. Kohl announced his intention to marry a newer companion, Maike Richter, 35 years his junior and a former economic adviser in the chancellery. She was later accused of limiting access to him and his archives.

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Mr. Kohl as a child in 1936 or 1937.

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Ullstein Bild, via Getty Images

A politician most of his adult life, Mr. Kohl was chancellor of the German Federal Republic for 16 years, from 1982 to 1998, longer than any German leader since Bismarck. He ruled his Christian Democratic party as if it were a personal domain.

Unlike many Germans, Mr. Kohl never shied from expressing pride in what he often called “this, our Fatherland,” even when the phrase unsettled many who had suffered at his country’s hands in World War II. In dealing with the legacy of Germany’s Nazi past, Mr. Kohl, who was a 15-year-old member of the Hitler Youth when the war ended, invoked what he called “the absolution of late birth” so often as to offend some listeners.

After the war, he spent his entire political life in the new Christian Democratic party of Konrad Adenauer and Ludwig Erhard. Like them, he made his overriding goal the rebuilding of Germany within a united Europe.

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