STRASBOURG, France, (Reuters) – Leaders from the United States, Russia and across Europe paid tribute to Helmut Kohl as the architect of German reunification and a driving force for European integration on Saturday.
The former German Chancellor, who died on June 16 at 87, was remembered at a memorial ceremony at the European Parliament as a dedicated European who abhorred war by ex U.S. President Bill Clinton, Russia Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and others.
“Helmut Kohl gave us the chance to be involved in something bigger than ourselves, bigger than our terms in office and bigger than our fleeting careers,” Clinton said of the man who was German chancellor from 1982 to 1998 and oversaw German reunification in 1990.
The two-hour memorial, in a city that has often changed hands and now lies in France symbolised the role Kohl played in reconciling the two erstwhile enemies France and Germany while driving European integration forward.
“He was the architect of the world order,” said Medvedev of Kohl, who skilfully negotiated reunification with communist East Germany with former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. “In Russia, we’ll remember him as our friend — a wise and sincere person.”
Afterwards, Kohl’s casket was flown by helicopter across the Rhine to his hometown of Ludwigshafen, where his body was later carried in procession before being transported by riverboat to his final place of rest in Speyer.
The resting place of many rulers of the Holy Roman Empire, itself a Europe-spanning polity, Speyer Cathedral was seen by Kohl as a symbol of European unity — a place he showed to contemporary leaders including Gorbachev and Britain’s Margaret Thatcher.
“Helmut Kohl was a German patriot and a European patriot,” said Juncker, a former Luxembourg prime minister and close friend of Kohl who switched between German and French in his tribute. “We’ve lost a giant of the post-war era.”
Chancellor Angela Merkel, who served as a minister under Kohl in the 1990s but later had a falling out over his role in receiving $1 million in illegal campaign cash donations, remembered Kohl as an at-times controversial figure with numerous enemies.
“I could tell you stories as well,” she said. “But all that paled in comparison to his life’s achievements.”
Merkel said Kohl had changed the lives of millions across all of Europe.
“The lives of millions of people would have been a lot different without Helmut Kohl — including my own life,” the former East German said. “Dear Helmut Kohl, thanks to you I’m standing here today. Thanks for the chance that you made possible for me and many others.”
The ceremony concluded with the German national anthem and excerpts from Beethoven’s 9th symphony “Ode to Joy”, used as the anthem of the European Union.
The proposal to hold a European ceremony was enthusiastically advocated by Juncker, and by Kohl’s second wife Maike Kohl-Richter, who survives him.
His sons, however, will boycott the Cathedral’s funeral mass, since their father will not be laid to rest alongside Hannelore Kohl, his wife of decades.