Helmut Kohl, who died today — on June 16th, 2017 — was a man as many people imagine German men. He towered above other world leaders in the many group photos taken during his 16 years as German chancellor. Fond of sow’s stomach, a simple delicacy from his home region, the Palatinate in south-western Germany, he loved to eat, and periodically atoned by fasting at an Austrian lakeside. His accent, too, was earthy and simple. If Richard von Weizsäcker, the largely ceremonial head of state during much of Mr. Kohl’s reign, embodied aristocratic elegance, Mr. Kohl personified the German common man.
But he had an uncommon ambition, a will to power that propelled him upwards within his party, the center-right Christian Democrats. When he finally seized power, in 1982, it was not as the result of an electoral triumph, but of a backroom deal with a small party, the Free Democrats, who were the kingmakers in West German politics. They abandoned their coalition with Helmut Schmidt, thus toppling him and handing the chancellery to the other Helmut.
For much of the 1980s, Mr. Kohl appeared destined to enter the history books as a rather unremarkable chancellor. That would not have been entirely fair. A historian by training, Mr. Kohl had a keen sense of the past and the obligations it placed upon Germany. His older brother had died in World War II, and Helmut, like most boys in the Nazi years, was part of the Hitler Youth.
Especially in his Palatine homeland, the enemy had for centuries been France. All the more motivation for Mr. Kohl to treasure the European project, and in particular the new friendship with France. With Francois Mitterrand, the French president, he embodied the two countries’ reconciliation, when the two men stood for minutes, silently holding hands, at Verdun, site of one of one of the bloodiest battles between their ancestors.
Then history found Mr. Kohl, when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. Germans on both sides, Europeans and people all around the world were stunned at first, not sure about the implications. But Mr. Kohl grasped instinctively that history had opened a window that could close again. With diplomatic aplomb (and the support of America’s George H.W. Bush), Mr. Kohl reassured the three Allies who were instinctively skeptical about a reunited and huge Germany at the center of Europe — Britain, France and the Soviet Union. They had nothing to fear, he told them.
To Germans in East and West he had a different message. With subtlety he allowed them to wallow in patriotic euphoria, while simultaneously channeling these new energies away from the dreaded nationalism of the past. When Germany reunified on October 3rd, 1990 — with Mr. Kohl now chancellor of all Germans — it was as part of a peaceful European Community and a firm transatlantic alliance.
Had he retired soon after that acme of his life, his legacy would be simple and grand. But Mr. Kohl, with that old will to power, clung to office until past his time, and his story became more complex. He had long cultivated an heir apparent, Wolfgang Schäuble, who was — in his wheelchair after a madman had pumped bullets into him at a campaign event — biding his time for power. But Mr. Kohl never let go.
Worse, a party finance scandal came to light, though Mr. Kohl never totally owned up to his role in it. The country grew tired of him, and in 1998 threw him out of office. A young East German woman whom Mr. Kohl had picked out of the chaos of reunification to enter his cabinet, Angela Merkel, seized the moment and took over as boss of the Christian Democrats, with much further yet to go.
From that point on, Mr. Kohl turned into a tragic figure worthy of Sophocles or Shakespeare. His two sons revealed that they had long felt estranged. His wife committed suicide. While in his home, he fell on his head and suffered a brain trauma that left him almost mute and in a wheelchair. He married again, a much younger woman whom he had met years earlier when she worked in the chancellery, and who jealously controlled who had access to him. His sons were not invited to the wedding.
Helmut Kohl was not the first great man in history to triumph in public, while failing in private.
Andreas Kluth is Editor-in-Chief of Handelsblatt Global.