Helmut Josef Michael Kohl was born on 3 April 1930 into a conservative, Catholic family. Helmut Kohl (CDU) was Federal Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany for 16 years. Many people remember him as the “Chancellor of Unity” because it was during his term in office that West and East Germany were reunified. Helmut Kohl came to power in 1982 following a constructive vote of no confidence. The FDP/SPD coalition had fallen apart and the FDP Members of the Bundestag plus the CDU and CSU Members of the Bundestag voted him in as Chancellor. It was the first change in government and chancellor in the history of West Germany that did not come about as the result of elections.
During the early elections to the Bundestag in March 1983, voters confirmed the coalition comprising the CDU/CSU and the FDP in office. Since those elections the Green Party has also been represented in the Bundestag. In its first years in government, Helmut Kohl’s coalition introduced tax reforms to ensure that the people of Germany had more money in their pockets.
The new Secretary-General of the Communist Party in the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, introduced a policy of reform in his country. It will always be associated with two terms: “Glasnost” (openness) and “Perestroika” (renewal). It was not long before people in East Germany were also organising mass demonstrations and calling for more freedoms. They even continued after the East German leadership opened the country’s borders after 28 years on 9 November 1989.
Calls for German reunification got louder and louder. This led to the historic opportunity to reinstate Germany’s unity. And Helmut Kohl grasped the opportunity. He put forward a 10-point plan in the Bundestag whose ultimate goal was Germany’s reunification.
Germany’s neighbours had mixed reactions to its upcoming rapid unification. But Kohl made it clear that in his eyes a unified Germany could only be firmly embedded within the European Union. For him German unity and European unity were inextricably linked. Helmut Kohl put all his efforts within the group of Western allies and in dealings with the then Soviet Union into bringing about rapid reunification. In July 1990 he met Mikhail Gorbachev for what would be crucial talks. Kohl’s policies also ensured than smaller neighbours in the East such as Poland and the Czech Republic gained trust in a German state that was growing together and thus getting larger.
The two parts of Germany were reunited on 3 October 1990. Monetary, economic and social union meant that people living in the former East Germany were able to share in the success of the social market economy model. Through the “solidarity pact” the people of Germany have since been providing the funding to ensure that living conditions in the eastern German federal states are brought more and more into line with those in the western federal states.
Throughout his political career – from the back-rooms in his home state of Rhineland-Palatinate to the stages of Bonn and Berlin – Kohl was admired and feared equally as a politician who loved power, knew how to use it, but kept that well hidden behind a jovial, avuncular persona.
It was on account of the fact that Germany was able to reunite after 40 years of division with the consent of all its foreign policy partners and allies in peace and freedom that Helmut Kohl has become known as the “Chancellor of Unity”. In the 1990s Helmut Kohl worked hard to ensure the European Union expanded and deepened. His services to Europe and his role as one of the “fathers” of the euro, Europe’s common currency, led to him being made a “Freeman of Europe”.
Helmut Josef Michael Kohl Full Biography and Profile
Helmut Josef Michael Kohl was born in Ludwigshafen on April 3, 1930. He was only 17 when he joined the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and was active in the party during his studies in history, law and governance and public policy. Kohl was elected premier of Rhineland-Palatinate in 1969. At just 39, he was the youngest person ever to hold the position.
In 1976, the CDU and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), choose him as their candidate for chancellor in the parliamentary elections. He won 48.6 percent of the vote, but that still was not enough to keep Helmut Schmidt’s Social Democrats (SPD) from staying in power in a coalition with the free-market liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP).
It wasn’t until six years later, on October 1, 1982, that Kohl finally reached his goal. The leader of the opposition, which also had the largest number of seats in the German parliament, was voted in as chancellor. It was a vote of no confidence against the Social Democrat Chancellor Schmidt that brought Kohl to power, after he succeeded in convincing FDP leader Hans-Dietrich Genscher to break with Schmidt. Kohl formed his own alliance with the FDP and became the head of the government. In a controversial move a few months later, he proposed another confidence vote to hold fresh elections, which he won.
For most of his political career, Helmut Kohl was easy to underestimate. Yet political enemies did so at their peril. Ridiculed as a big, fat provincial with a suspiciously lightweight doctoral thesis, few clear ideals, and a ponderous speaking style, Kohl was nicknamed “the pear.” He was a political insider who cultivated tight personal relationships and accumulated bitter enemies, clambering slowly up the greasy pole of German politics with few achievements of true distinction. On reaching the top, in the early 1980s, he turned in a mediocre first term as chancellor. That all changed when the Soviet Union began to collapse.
Kohl focused on reunifying Germany, strengthening the EU, and establishing a diplomatic agreement with Moscow. In this mammoth biography, destined to become the standard work on Kohl for some time to come, Schwarz portrays him as shrewd in politics but a bit naive on substantive matters. This combination still has relevance for contemporary European politics. For example, Kohl supported the establishment of the euro but did not fully consider its potential long-term effects. Europe is still living with the consequences.
As his status grew, so too his stature: 1.93 metres tall and weighing, at his peak, about 16 stone. His status as a political heavyweight was sealed, unexpectedly, in October 1982, with a vote of no-confidence in then Social Democrat chancellor Helmut Schmidt. In a daring move, Kohl wooed the junior Free Democrats (FDP) to cross the Bundestag floor, promising them greater leeway to implement their neoliberal reform policies in a CDU-FDP coalition.
The smaller party’s allegiance switch remained controversial for many years, but the CDU-FDP alliance would last longer – 16 years – thanks largely to the close relationship between Kohl and FDP leader and long-time foreign minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher.
A 1983 general election on a renewal platform, and a record 55 per cent support, secured Kohl’s grip on power. Key to his power was the so-called “Kohl network”. Working the phones until late into the night, no CDU official was too junior not to get a call from the chancellor bungalow. Birthdays were remembered and favours granted — all in exchange for absolute loyalty and early tips offs that allowed Kohl see off several attempts to depose him by CDU grandees and disgruntled backbenchers.
Kohl never forgot or forgave, reserving particular disdain for the hostile Hamburg “media mafia”, who questioned his intellectual capacity, mocked his rhetorical skills and dubbed him Birne – pear. Throughout his career Kohl reserved special hatred for Der Spiegel news weekly, refusing to give them any interviews in office.
With the Kohl network securing his domestic dominance, the chancellor turned his attentions to the transatlantic relationship, earning credit in Washington by backing the deployment of US intermediate-range nuclear missiles in Germany against massive domestic protest.
Though Dr Kohl’s reputation recovered in later years, his retirement was marked by personal tragedy and ill health. In 2001 his wife of 41 years, Hannelore, took her own life after battling with a rare allergy to daylight. Dr Kohl was rarely seen in public after 2008, after a severe brain trauma following a fall left him with limited speech. Three months after the fall, he married Maike Richter, a former chancellery official 34 years his junior, dragging into the open a long-running feud with his estranged sons, Walter and Peter.
In a 2012 event to mark the 30th anniversary of Kohl’s election as chancellor, former US president Bill Clinton described the ex-leader as a visionary who “helped usher the global community into the 21st century”. In what would be his last public speaking engagement, a shrunken and wheelchair-bound Helmut Kohl expressed thanks for “our greatest victories: the unity of Germany and a peaceful Europe”. His final years of ailing health were wracked by a growing fear that younger generations had forgotten the raison d’être for European unity: the brutality of war he had seen as a teenager.
German Chancellor Helmut Josef Michael Kohl Quick Facts
- Birth date: April 3, 1930
- Death date: June 16, 2017
- Birth place: Ludwigshafen am Rhine (in Rhineland-Palatinate), Germany
- Birth name: Helmut Michael Kohl
- Father: Hans Kohl, a civil servant
- Mother: Cacilie (Schnur) Kohl
- Marriages: Maike (Richter) Kohl (May 8, 2008-his death); Hannelore (Renner) Kohl (June 27, 1960-July 5, 2001, her death)
- Children: with Hannelore Renner: Peter and Walter
- Education: University of Frankfurt; University of Heidelberg, Ph.D., 1958
- Religion: Roman Catholic
Kohl worked for German reunification, campaigning in East Germany for the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party and getting NATO and the Soviet Union’s approval.
- 1947 – Begins working in the Christian Democratic Union.
- 1959-1976 – Serves in the legislature of the West German state of Rhineland-Palatinate.
- 1969-1976 – Serves as minister-president of Rhineland-Palatinate.
- June 12, 1973-September 27, 1998 – Chairman of the Christian Democratic Union.
- October 1976-October 2, 1990 – A member of the Bundestag, West Germany’s lower house of parliament.
- October 1, 1982-October 2, 1990 – Chancellor of West Germany.
- 1988 – Along with then French President Francois Mitterrand, Kohl receives the Charlemagne Award for efforts towards European unification.
- October 3, 1990 – West and East Germany are reunified.
- October 3, 1990-September 27, 1998 – Chancellor of Germany.
- October 3, 1990-September 12, 2002 – A member of Bundestag, Germany’s lower house of parliament.
- 1992 – Chairman of the Group of Seven.
- October 1998 – Is named Honorary Citizen of Europe for his work in the integration of Europe.
- April 20, 1999 – Is awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by US President Bill Clinton at the White House.
- November 30, 1999 – Admits that he accepted anonymous political donations between 1993 and 1998, totaling more than $1 million. Acceptance of such funds is a crime under German law.
- 2000 – A criminal investigation is launched about the illegal fundraising. Kohl refuses to discuss details of the funds and is harshly criticized for his role in the scandal.
- February 8, 2001 – The criminal investigation into illegal fundraising is dropped, and Kohl agrees to pay a fine of 300,000 German marks ($142,000).
- November 2004 and 2005 – Publishes memoirs, “Memories: 1930-1982” and “Memories: 1982-1990.”
- December 2004 – Kohl is in Sri Lanka on vacation when the tsunami hits and is rescued by the Sri Lankan Air Force.
- April 3, 2006 – Receives the Class One order of the Terra Mariana Cross from the government of Estonia for his support of Estonia’s bid for independence.
- February 28, 2008 – Is hospitalized after falling and fracturing a hip at his house in Ludwigshafen.
- October 31, 2009 – Meets with former Soviet Union President Mikhail Gorbachev and former US President George H.W. Bush in Berlin to mark the upcoming 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.
- March 1, 2016 – German tabloid Bild reports that Kohl is suing ghostwriter Heribert Schwan, publisher Random House and author Tilman Jens over an unauthorized biography of the former chancellor, asking for five million euros in damages and claiming breach of trust. Germany’s top court in 2015 sided with Kohl against Schwan, ruling that the biographer could not use quotes from conversations the two held for the purpose of Kohl’s official memoir and banning further print runs.
- June 16, 2017 – Kohl dies at the age of 87.
“I wish that, for our people, Europe would once again become a matter of the heart,” he wrote, “so that we can continue to build our European house.” – Helmut Josef Michael Kohl
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