Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 20 May 2019

World leaders gather at European Parliament for homage to Helmut Kohl

Kohl championed union for Germany and Europe but his last years were marked by disunity.

German soldiers carry the coffin of the  late former German Chancellor, Helmut Kohl, during of a memorial ceremony at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, July 1, 2017. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir
German soldiers carry the coffin of the late former German Chancellor, Helmut Kohl, during of a memorial ceremony at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, July 1, 2017. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir

They called him the 'Einheitskanzler' - the unity chancellor, the great unifier.

In life he was the architect of German reunification, who joined the two halves of a divided Germany together and, despite the vastly divergent paths each had taken over 28 years, stitched them back into one nation.

He was the most ardent unifying force in Europe. Whenever lips curled at the prospect of an even mightier Germany, he always countered, "If you want to contain Germany, then build and keep that European roof over us." At Verdun in 1984, he stood before the fallen of the First Wold War and clasped the hand of Francois Mitterand, president of France, the historical enemy.

And in death, he brought together leaders of the free and not-so-free world. Most were from a later era. Like Kohl, who was 87, most are gone from the world as well as the world stage. From the US, there was Bill Clinton, rather than George Bush Snr or Ronald Reagan, Mr Clinton's predecessors and Kohl's contemporaries as national leaders. The current occupant of the White House, Donald Trump, was left to tweet about it from Washington.

From the UK came Theresa May and not Britain's first woman prime minister, the late Margaret Thatcher, with whom Kohl frequently - and famously - clashed.

No Mitterand from France but instead past and current presidents, Nicolas Sarkozy and Emmanuel Macron. From Russia, not Mikhail Gorbchev, the last leader of the Soviet Union, which itself passed into history soon after East Germany, but prime minister Dmitry Medvedev; and from Israel not Yitzhak Shamir, but prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

But the homage to the late chancellor did not take place in Germany. The eulogies to this son of the Rhineland were delivered from the European parliament in the French city of Strasbourg (although it is at least France's most Germanic city).Though the two-hour ceremony was the first such memorial for a national leader at a supra-national European level, it did not take place before his family, friends and closest political allies, but before people who for the most part were little known to him.

In death, Helmut Kohl has shunned unity. He refused to allow a state funeral in Germany and his coffin was draped in the stars of the European Union. Many former colleagues and friends were not invited. Kohl was also long estranged from his two sons. Following Kohl's death on June 16, his elder son, Walter, arrived at his house with his children but was barred from entry by a police officer in a humiliating confrontation recorded on German media.

He and his brother, Peter, wanted their father's coffin to be taken first to Berlin, the city which Kohl restored to its status as capital of all Germany, and then returned to his home town, Ludwigshafen, for burial beside their mother, Hannelore, Kohl's first wife.

It was not to be. Kohl was buried yesterday in the grounds of Speyer cathedral in south-west Germany. Walter Kohl has expressed openly his devastation and described the funeral plans as "unworthy."

Kohl also fell out with Angela Merkel. Born in communist East Germany, she was for many years his protegee and he called her "Maedchen" - "girl". But he never forgave her for distancing herself when he became embroiled in a row over party funding, and referred to her thereafter as a traitor.

And in her tribute yesterday in Strasbourg, Ms Merkel was at times circumspect. She acknowledged her debt to "dear Helmut Kohl," saying: "The lives of millions of people would have been a lot different without Helmut Kohl, including my own life." Then she added: "I could tell you stories as well. But all that paled in comparison to his life's achievements."

The Russian prime minister called Kohl "the architect of the world" and said Russia would remember him "as a friend, a wise, sincere person."

Bill Clinton said Kohl's pursuit of German reunification "gave us the chance to be involved in something bigger than ourselves, bigger than our terms in office and bigger than our fleeting careers."

Soldiers bore Kohl's coffin throughout the day, to and from his final engagements. Speyer cathedral is the last resting place of many long-departed rulers of the Holy Roman Empire, the historical political entity that for centuries spanned the European continent just as the EU does today. It is perhaps a fitting final home for the man with a passionate desire to make his own country whole, but who always insisted he wanted to live under a European roof.

Updated: July 1, 2017 05:25 PM