Helmut Kohl Biography

President (non-U.S.) (1930–2017)
Helmut Kohl served as Chancellor of Germany from 1982 to 1998, during which time he oversaw the reunification of East and West Germany.


Born in Ludwigshafen am Rhein, Germany (previously part of Bavaria), on April 3, 1930, Helmut Kohl became a prominent leader in the process of the integration of East and West Germany thereafter becoming the first chancellor of a unified Germany in 1990. The merger was difficult and an economic slump didn’t help. After 16 years in office, voters showed their discontent and Kohl was defeated. In 2001, he was charged with accepting illegal contributions and fined. He spent his remaining years in ill health and died on June 16, 2017, at the age of 87.

Early Life

Helmut Josef Michael Kohl was born April 3, 1930, in Ludwigshafen am Rhein, Germany, the third child of Hans and Cäcilieca Kohl. He grew up in a conservative Roman Catholic family that remained faithful to the Catholic Centre Party long after the Nazi takeover in 1933. Both Helmut and his older brother, Walter, were drafted as teenagers into the Nazi Army. The war ended before Helmut was deployed. His brother wasn’t so lucky and died during the war.

Helmut Kohl became interested in politics at an early age joining the Christian Democratic Union youth organization in 1947. He continued to be involved in politics through college where he earned a doctorate degree in political science from the University of Heidelberg in 1958. A year later, he was elected to the Rhineland Palatinate state legislature. In 1960, he married long-time friend Hannelore Renner. The couple had two sons.

Reunification of Germany

In 1969, Helmut Kohl was elected prime minister of the Rhineland state and in 1973, elected chair of the Christian Democratic Party (CDU), earning a reputation as a capable administrator. In 1976, Kohl entered national politics as a candidate for chancellor of Germany but lost to Social Democratic Party leader Helmut Schmidt. Schmidt fell out of favor in 1982 allowing Kohl to form a coalition government and become chancellor in 1983. Kohl’s government followed a centrist policy that included modest cuts to government spending and strong support for West Germany’s commitments to NATO.

In 1984, Helmut Kohl met with French president François Mitterrand at a commemoration for lives lost in both world wars. The two leaders hammered out an historic reconciliation agreement paving the way for developing a close political relationship that proved vital to their mutual economic development. The next year, Kohl traveled to the United States to meet with President Ronald Reagan as part of the 40th anniversary of V-E Day in a symbolic show of friendship between two former foes. This set the stage for President Reagan’s famous speech in 1987 at the Brandenburg Gate where he challenged Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall!”

The Reunification of East and West Germany

About this same time, Helmut Kohl began making inroads for the unification of East and West Germany, inviting East German leader Erich Honecker to visit. The gesture earned Kohl strong criticism from his own party, but set in motion the integration of the two Germanys. As the Soviet Union abandoned control over Eastern Europe in 1989-90, Kohl led the drive for unification. In 1990, Kohl received verbal support from Gorbachev for peaceful reunification of Germany. Later that year, Kohl concluded a treaty with East Germany and by December, Kohl became the first chancellor of a reunified Germany.

Absorbing the economically depressed East Germany proved expensive and Kohl’s government had to raise taxes and cut government spending. Voter discontent and a severe recession in 1992-93 caused Kohl’s party to lose much of his majority in the legislature. Continuing high unemployment enabled rival Social Democratic Party, led by Gerhardt Schröder, to form a coalition government and push the CDU out of power in 1998. Helmut Kohl quickly resigned as his party’s leader.

Later Years & Death 

In the years after his defeat, Helmut Kohl’s life took several adverse turns. In 2001, his life was consumed by a scandal arising from illegal campaign contributions received by the CDU during Kohl’s leadership. That same year his wife died and he retired from politics. Kohl married Maike Richter in 2008. In his later years, he suffered a series of illnesses ranging from a stroke to an inflamed gall bladder. In 2012, he underwent open heart surgery and later intestinal surgery. Though in frail health, he criticized Chancellor Angela Merkel’s austerity policies during the European debt crisis. In 2016, he issued a joint-press release with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban expressing doubt that Europe could absorb refugees indefinitely. 

Kohl died on June 16, 2017, at his home in Ludwigshafen, Germany. He was 87.

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