Former Chancellor Helmut Kohl, the architect of Germany’s 1990 reunification and mentor to Angela Merkel, has died at age 87, his Christian Democratic Union party (CDU) said on Friday.
The mass-selling newspaper Bild reported that Kohl died on Friday morning in his home in Ludwigshafen, in western Germany.
“A life has ended and the person who lived it will go down in history” said German Chancellor Angela Merkel, speaking from Rome. “It will take some time, however, until we can truly judge what we have lost in him. Helmut Kohl was a great German and a great European.”
Germany’s longest serving post-war chancellor from 1982 to 1998, Kohl was a driving force behind the introduction of the euro currency, convincing sceptical Germans to give up their cherished deutschemark.
An imposing figure who formed a close relationship with French President Francois Mitterrand in pushing for closer European integration, Kohl had been frail and wheelchair-bound since suffering a bad fall in 2008.
Tributes quickly flowed in from around the world.
Former U.S. President George H.W. Bush said he and his wife Barbara “mourn the loss of a true friend of freedom, and the man I consider one of the greatest leaders in post-war Europe.”
“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 in a statement. “Helmut was a rock.”
Helmut Kohl’s visionary leadership prepared Germany and all of Europe for the 21st century. https://t.co/ltdamqIgt5
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Gerhard Schroeder, Kohl’s successor as chancellor, called him a “great patriot and European … The unification of our country and our continent will be linked to his name for all time.”
In Brussels, European flags were lowered to half mast in tribute. European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, who served as Luxembourg’s prime minister while Kohl was in office, tweeted: “Helmut’s death hurts me deeply. My mentor, my friend, the very essence of Europe, he will be greatly, greatly missed.”
At home, Kohl is celebrated above all as the father of German reunification, which he achieved after the November 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall despite resistance from partners such as British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.
He won voters in bleak communist East Germany by promising them “flourishing landscapes.”
“When a new spirit began to sweep through Eastern Europe in the 1980s, when freedom was won in Poland, when brave people in Leipzig, East Berlin and elsewhere in East Germany staged a peaceful revolution, Helmut Kohl was the right person at the right time,” said Merkel. “He held fast to the dream and goal of a united Germany, even as others wavered.”
Shortly after leaving office, Kohl’s reputation was tarnished by a financing scandal in his centre-right CDU, now led by Merkel. Kohl mentored Merkel early in her career, appointing her to her first ministerial post. Until his death, Kohl refused to identify the donors, saying he had given them his word.
European leaders said the EU must build on his legacy.
Italian EU affairs minister Sandro Gozi tweeted: “We have lost a great leader, above all a European with vision and courage. We missed him and we will miss him. We must follow his example to relaunch the EU.”