Former German chancellor Helmut Kohl, a colossus of contemporary European history who was celebrated as the father of German reunification and an architect of European integration, died Friday at the age of 87.
Germany’s longest serving post-war leader died in his house in Ludwigshafen, in the western state of Rhineland-Palatinate, reported Bild newspaper, whose management had close ties with the conservative politician.
Kohl’s Christian Democratic Union Party posted on Twitter: “We are in sorrow. #RIP #HelmutKohl.”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu released a statement Friday evening expressing “great sorrow” at the late leader’s passing, calling him “one of the greatest friends of Israel who was completely committed to its security.”
“His admiration for Israel and Zionism found expression in my many meetings with him and in his resolute stand in favor of Israel, which he constantly presented in Europe and in international forums,” Netanyahu said.
“I send my condolences to his family and to the German people,” he added.
Kohl’s 16-year tenure as chancellor stretched from 1982 to 1998.
He combined a dogged pursuit of European unity with a keen instinct for history following the November 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall. Kohl spearheaded, less than a year later, the end of Germany’s division at the front line of the Cold War.
Former US President Bill Clinton once described Kohl as “the most important European statesman since World War II,” adding that Kohl answered the big questions of his time “correctly for Germany, correctly for Europe, correctly for the United States, correctly for the future of the world.”
“The 21st century in Europe really began on his watch,” Clinton said in 2011, describing Kohl as “a man who was big in more than physical stature.”
Famed for a massive girth on his 6-foot-4 (1.93-meter) frame, Kohl still moved nimbly in domestic politics and among rivals in his conservative Christian Democratic Union, holding power for 16 years until his defeat by center-left rival Gerhard Schroeder in 1998.
That was followed by the eruption of a party financing scandal which threatened to tarnish his legacy and for a time plunged the CDU into crisis.
For foreigners, the bulky conservative with a fondness for heavy local food and white wine came to symbolize a benign, steady — even dull — Germany.
Kohl’s legacy includes the common euro currency that bound Europe more closely together than ever before. Kohl lobbied heavily for the euro, introduced in 1999, as a pillar of peace — and when it hit trouble more than a decade later, he insisted there was no alternative to Germany helping out debt-strapped countries like Greece.
Once viewed as a provincial bumbler, Kohl combined an understanding of the worries of ordinary Germans with a hunger for power, getting elected four times.
Kohl served longer than Konrad Adenauer, West Germany’s first post-World War II chancellor and his political idol. Only Otto von Bismarck, who first unified Germany in the 1870s, was chancellor longer, for 19 years.
“Voters do not like Kohl, but they trust him,” Rita Suessmuth, a former speaker of parliament, once said.
Often harsh and thin-skinned, Kohl also could display a quick wit and jovial earthiness that served him well in building up German clout. He ate pasta with Clinton and took saunas with Russia’s Boris Yeltsin.
Kohl linked his dedication to a united Europe to his roots in a part of Germany close to France and his memories of a wartime boyhood. He celebrated the European Union’s eastward expansion in 2004 with a speech declaring that “the most important rule of the new Europe is: There must never again be violence in Europe.”
Still, the “blooming landscapes” that Kohl promised East German voters during reunification were slow to come after the collapse of its communist economy, and massive aid to the east pushed up German government debt. He also drew criticism for failing to embark on economic reforms.