Iconic leader Helmut Kohl passes away


Helmut Josef Michael Kohl, ‘father of German reunification’ passed away on Friday in his home in Oggersheim, near Ludwigshafen in Germany, aged 87 years.

Helmut Kohl (HK hereafter) served as Chancellor for 16 years from 1982 till 1998, eight years as Chancellor of West Germany and eight years as Chancellor of reunified Germany. He is the longest serving German Chancellor to date, since Iron Chancellor Otto von Bismarck.

Born in 1930 to a conservative Roman Catholic family, HK was obliged to join the Hitler Youth. Drafted for military service in 1945, he was not involved in combat. He later referred to it as the "mercy of late birth". After the war, having tried law, he graduated in History and Political Science from the University of Heidelberg. In 1958, having written his thesis, "The Political Developments in the Palatinate and the Reconstruction of Political Parties after 1945", he received his doctorate before entering business.

Having joined the Christian Democratic Union party (CDU) in 1946 in the state of Rhineland – Palatinate (Pfalz), HK took over as state party chairman in 1963. The CDU was the major Centre-right party in Germany, together with the Bavarian Christian Social Union (CSU). He was elected Minister-President (equivalent of Chief Minister in Sri Lanka) in 1969. Two of the controversial yet far reaching reforms introduced during his term as Minister-President was the abolition of corporal punishment and the parochial schools (private primary or secondary schools affiliated with a religious organization and includes religion besides secular subjects in its curriculum).

Retiring as Minister-President in 1976 to assume leadership of the CDU/CSU alliance in the German Bundestag (Federal Parliament), HK took over the role of Leader of Opposition in 1980, and became Chancellor on October 01, 1982 after the ruling SPD lost a vote of no confidence. His party won the 1983 federal election together with its new coalition partner FDP, capturing 55.8% of the popular vote. HK and his party won subsequent elections held in 1987, 1990 and 1994. His party was defeated in 1998 elections.

West Germany underwent major social welfare reforms under HK’s chancellorship. Older claimants were granted extended unemployment benefits. At the same time, unemployment benefits were granted for those from age 21. An early retirement scheme was introduced offering incentives to employers to replace elderly workers with applicants off the unemployment register. A Mother and Child Fund was established, providing discretionary grants to discourage abortions on grounds of material hardship. Families of single salary earners were granted a child rearing allowance. Informal carers were granted an attendance allowance with tax incentives up to a maximum of 25 hours per month, supplemented by four weeks of annual holidays. A partial retirement plan was introduced under which elderly employees could work half-time and receive 70% of their former salary "and be credited with 90 per cent of the full social insurance entitlement."

Some of the tougher policies adopted during his chancellorship were: Student aid was made recoverable by the state. The 1989 Health Care Reform Act changed the existing system by requiring patients to pay up front and obtain reimbursement of medical expenses besides increasing patient share for hospitalization, spa visits, dental prostheses, and prescription drugs.

Despite his faith in Ostpolitik, HK was not averse in taking a tough stand when necessary. Against many objections from the peace movement on the basis of escalation, he permitted stationing of nuclear armed US aircraft in Germany. He justified his decision based on nuclear armed Soviet aircraft being stationed in neighbouring East Germany. He worked towards achieving his dream of a unified Germany, amidst strong opposition from British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev. After the East German Socialist Unity Party was toppled and shortly after the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989, HK travelled to Moscow and obtained a guarantee from Mikhail Gorbachev that the USSR would allow German reunification to proceed and a reunified Germany would be free to decide if it would join the western alliance NATO and the European Community or Soviet backed Warsaw Pact and COMECON. He was instrumental in the signing of an economic union treaty with East Germany which stipulated reunification would take place under the provisions of Article 23 of the Basic Law, enabling all states to adhere to the Basic Law by a simple majority vote and thus avoiding the tedious process of drafting a new constitution for a unified Germany. He overruled the Bundesbank’s (Federal Bank) objections and permitted a 1:1 exchange rate for wages, interest and rent between West and East German Marks immediately after reunification.

A new page was turned in Franco-German relations when HK met French President François Mitterrand at Verdun on September 22, 1984, location of the Battle of Verdun between the two countries during WWI. The minutes long hand shake between the two leaders was seen as a significant step to closer cooperation between the two countries, which became the catalyst for future vital projects such as the Treaty of Maastricht which established the European Union and the Euro currency.

HK married Hannelore (born Johanna Klara Eleonore Renner) in 1960. They had two sons, Walter and Peter. She visited Sri Lanka in 1981 with a lady friend, shortly after HK became Leader of Opposition. Having booked her holiday through a small and exclusive tour operator, Air Tours Germany, she spent one week at the Pegasus Reef Hotel. In view of my past connections and affinity to Germany, I invited Hennelore and her friend for a seafood dinner which she thoroughly enjoyed and appreciated. She apologized profusely when a string of Germans kept stopping at our table to shake her hand. She good humoredly remarked, "the first thing one loses upon becoming a politician’s wife is privacy". She took a very keen interest in Sri Lankan history. When she took her leave, she told me to contact her in case I visited Germany. We exchanged Christmas cards thereafter. In 1985, my father was appointed Ambassador to Germany. I sent Hennelore a letter informing her of my father’s appointment and arrival of my parents in Germany. My parents were invited to a private dinner at the Chancellery by Hennelore and HK, an invaluable opening for any ambassador in Bonn. When I contacted her during a visit to Bonn, she wanted to invite me for dinner, but was not successful due their very busy social calendar. We eventually agreed to meet for what the Germans refer as ‘Kafe und Kuchen’ (coffee & cake) at the Chancellery. This was shortly after the Indian food drop (in Sri Lanka). Hennelore pumped me for details of July 1983 and subsequent developments. In the middle of my narration, HK dropped in to thank me for the hospitality and courtesies extended to his wife during her stay in Sri Lanka. When Hennelore told him of what I had been explaining, he sat down and made me start all over again. He spent nearly 30 minutes listening to developments in Sri Lanka before taking his leave. I was stunned by the charm, simplicity and gracefulness of the Kohls. We lost touch after a few years. I subsequently came to know, Hannelore had committed suicide in 2001, because of a very rare allergy to light which forced her to live in darkness. HK remarried in 2008.

After losing the 1998 federal elections, HK resigned from the chairmanship of the CDU handing over to his protégé Angela Merkel, the present Chancellor, who had been a citizen of East Germany till reunification on October 03, 1990. Upon hearing of her one-time mentor’s death, she commented "this man was great in every sense of the word". She lauded Kohl's "supreme art of statesmanship in the service of people and peace" and noted that Kohl had also changed her own life decisively. French President Emmanuel Macron called Kohl a "great European" and "an architect of united Germany and Franco-German friendship. Russian President Vladimir Putin said "I was lucky to know Helmut Kohl in person. I profoundly admired his wisdom and the ability to make well-considered, far-reaching decisions, even in the most difficult situations."

Helmut Kohl was a patriot, an astute politician and a visionary leader with humane and exemplary qualities, so rarely found today. Germany has lost one of its greatest sons and a beloved leader. He will remain in the hearts and minds of future generations as the father of reunified Germany.

Rajeewa Jayaweera

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