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Kohl turns 80

April 3, 2010

Helmut Kohl is considered the architect of German reunification and a driving force behind European integration. Yet after 16 years in power his reputation was tainted by links to slush funds and party donations.

Helmut Kohl with wife Hannelore
Celebrating German unity on October 3, 1990 is what Helmut Kohl is 'most proud of'Image: picture-alliance/dpa

There's little doubt that Helmut Kohl will go down in history as the chancellor of German reunification. On November 10, 1989 - after the night the Berlin Wall fell, the then West German chancellor spoke from the balcony of the city hall - giving his vision of a future of European unity.

"This is about unity, about justice and freedom," he said, quoting the opening line of the West German national anthem. "Long live a free German fatherland, long live a free and united Europe."

Calling for a free and united Germany was a provocation to many back then who did not want a large and powerful Germany to dominate the map of Europe ever again. The fall of the Berlin Wall raised concerns in neighboring countries. France's Francois Mitterand was hesitant, Britain's Margaret Thatcher fully against reunification.

The man behind German reunification

Helmut Kohl Mikhail Gobachev during talks in Moscow
In 1990 Kohl repeatedly traveled to Moscow to win Gorbachev's supportImage: picture-alliance/ dpa

But in the end it came down to convincing Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to agree to reunification - and Helmut Kohl did the trick. Less than one year after the Iron Curtain in Berlin started to disintegrate, Germany celebrated its reunification on October 3, 1990.

"After the events in 1989, Germany needed the trust and the confidence of the people around her that she would go all right into the future and not become the great behemoth again that she was once feared for," political analyst Thomas Kielinger told Deutsche Welle.

"And in order to achieve that, Kohl used that unique ability of his to be close to the people and to the main players, to get across his genuine belief that Germany is here for the good and she will be deeply enmeshed in Europe and there's nothing to fear about her."

Helmut Kohl seized the opportunity that history gave him. But his ambitions went further than Germany. He saw his country as an integral element of a united Europe. With the 1992 Maastricht treaty, he and Francois Mitterand mapped out the future of the EU and laid the groundwork for the euro, the bloc's single currency.

Der frühre sowjetische Präsident Michail Gorbatschow, Ex-US-Präsident George Bush und Altbundeskanzler Helmut Kohl (CDU, l-r) stehen am Freitag (17.06.2005) in Geisa an der hessisch-thüringischen Grenze lachend nebeneinander. Kurz zuvor waren sie mit dem erstmals vergebenen Point-Alpha-Preis ausgezeichnet worden. Das "Kuratorium Deutsche Einheit" hat den drei Staatsmännern den Preis für Verdienste um die Einheit Deutschlands zuerkannt. Die Auszeichnung ist mit je 50.000 Euro aus Privatspenden dotiert. Foto: Martin Schutt/lth +++(c) dpa - Report+++
Soviet leader Gorbachev, US President Bush and Germany's Kohl were the three heads of state behind German reunification. In November 2009 they met again to celebrate 20 years of the fall of the WallImage: dpa

The pull of power

Kohl's other lifelong ambition was to gain power. Born in 1930, he entered professional politics at the age of 29 in his home state of Rhineland-Palatinate. Kohl quickly rose through the ranks of Germany's conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) until, in 1973, he became the leader of the party - but that wasn't enough.

"I want to be chancellor; I want to win the elections and become chancellor," he said, leaving no room for doubt about his ambitions.

He first stood in an election for chancellor in 1976 but lost against Social Democrat Helmut Schmidt. In 1982 the Schmidt government collapsed after a failed vote of confidence and Kohl stepped in. He formed a new coalition with the Liberal Free Democrats and became chancellor. His policy was one of more freedom for the individual and less intervention by the state.

"We are convinced that the free initiative and achievements of the individual are better for everyone than state control," he said. "We trust people to take their future into their own hands."

After initial success, however, Kohl's policies failed to deal with growing unemployment. His popularity dropped and his chances of surviving the 80s in a position of power were considered slim.

"But then came the caesura: The collapse of the post-war world order and the fall of the Wall," said Thomas Kielinger.

"And Helmut Kohl went with glory, he seized the moment and pushed aside all the doubters - and there were many in Germany who didn't quite think the country could cope with this moment and I think this is the view and the abiding image that people and historians have about him."

Slush funds and allegations of corruption

It was thanks to the drive for reunification that Kohl won the elections in 1990. But as much as he had worked for a united Germany, he drastically underestimated the costs that would follow. The financial burden seemed too much to deal with and unemployment continued to climb dramatically. In 1998 Kohl was defeated at the polls by Social Democrat Gerhard Schroeder, and also stepped down as the leader of the German conservatives.

Helmut Kohl
Kohl's standing in Germany suffered significantly after the slush funds scandalImage: picture-alliance/ dpa

It was then that his star seemed to hit rock bottom. Kohl found himself embroiled in one of the worst slush fund scandals of post-war German politics. It emerged that he had fed party coffers with over 2 million marks (1 million euros, $1.3 million) in secret donations.

Kohl refused to name any of the secret party donors, which threw the Christian Democrats into a state of severe crisis. In the subsequent fallout Kohl even had to resign from his post as honorary chairman of the party in 2000. It was Angela Merkel, the current German chancellor, a protege of Kohl's, who then took over at the helm of the CDU.

In 2001 Kohl lost his wife Hannelore who committed suicide after suffering for years from photodermatitis, a severe form of sensitivity to light. Kohl married Maike Richter in 2005.

At the age of 80 he is no longer physically able to attend any elaborate birthday celebrations and will spend the day at home in private. An official reception is scheduled for May 5, with around 1,000 guests expected in his hometown of Ludwigshafen.

Author: Andreas Illmer
Editor: Susan Houlton