Helmut Kohl, 1930-2017


Last Friday Germany’s longest-serving chancellor, Helmut Kohl, died at the age of 87. He came to power in 1982—during the height of the Cold War—and presided over the reunification of East and West Germany.

Born in Ludwigshafen in 1930, Kohl had what he called the "grace of a late birth"—he was 15 when the war ended. (His older brother served in the Wehrmacht and was killed by debris from an Allied bomber that had been shot down.) He joined the Christian Democrats in his home state of Rhineland-Palatinate and eventually became its minister president. In 1982 he and his party triumphed over the Social Democrats, thanks in part to the business-friendly Free Democrats who decided to switch coalition partners.

Kohl made decisions that were at the time highly criticized: He supported the U.S. deployment of Pershing missiles on German soil to counter the growing Soviet threat of SS-20s. Looking back on this, Kohl remarked:

It is my conviction that we would not have achieved German unification if we had not in 1983 started to deploy the middle-range missiles on German soil. Mikhail Gorbachev himself once told me that the steadfastness of NATO in this decision substantially contributed to the new thinking in the Kremlin. The Soviet leadership had to acknowledge that they had no chance of driving a wedge between Europeans and Americans, between Germany and the United States.

While Kohl pushed for reunification, many in the West were against it. (British prime minister Margaret Thatcher was famously opposed. French president Francois Mitterand feared the return of the "bad" German. And Italian prime minister Giulio Andreotti said he loved Germany so much he wanted two of them.) Fortunately the Germans counted President George H.W. Bush on their side. And Kohl certainly pleased the Americans by insisting a reunified Germany would fall under NATO, something even some of his fellow Germans scoffed at.

But perhaps most controversial, Kohl insisted on a 1-1 exchange rate for the East and West German Mark. This did, in fact, impact the economy (unemployment in the East soared to 35 percent), but looking back, what else could be done? As Kohl’s biographer Henrik Bering explained, "The decision on the Mark exchange rate was an essential part of Kohl's strategy on unification—to prevent easterners from moving west."

"Helmut Kohl was a great German and a great European," said Chancellor Angela Merkel, herself a Kohl protégé. He was also a man of great appetites, which shouldn’t surprise anyone who has ever seen him—Kohl was six-foot-four and weighed some 300 pounds. Once, when asked what keeps him up at night, the chancellor quipped, "When I get up at night, I'm not thinking about history, but about plundering the refrigerator."

Kohl finally met his match with President Bill Clinton (also a man of many appetites). The two leaders formed a bond over pasta. During a joint press conference in 1993, Kohl made a confession of sorts:

"You know, every time I come here, I usually arrive in the evening, so I go to the Filomena," said Kohl. "Yesterday, for example, we left at 4:00 in Germany, German time, and we arrived here at around 7:00 in the evening. And I always try to have a nap on the plane, and then I find it difficult to go to bed here immediately. That is why I usually go to the Filomena and do something I should not do, actually, or I shouldn't do that much. I eat something and then I come back to the hotel and I find it easy to fall asleep. This is what I usually do when I come to the United States."

"And last night you did that?" asked Clinton. "Yes, of course," said Kohl. Clinton added, "That’s a very good place."

A year later, Kohl and Clinton were at Filomena for a "working lunch." As Ron Fournier reported at the time for the Associated Press, "Kohl and Clinton started out with a plate of hot and cold antipasto with mixed vegetables, and some squid. Clinton had Tuscan soup with white beans and spinach. For an entree, the pair had the ravioli stuffed with veal, spinach and cheese. Mixed berries were dessert. They both drank red wine with the meal. Both ordered a huge chocolate cake—to go."

If you go to Filomena Ristorante today, you can still see a framed photo of the two men in their eating prime. Kohl is smiling at Clinton. And Clinton is gazing at the menu.