BERLIN - Helmut Kohl, the former German chancellor credited with forging the reunification of East and West Germany in 1990, has died at age 87.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Friday, "A life has ended and he who lived it will go down in history. ... It will take some time before we realize what we have truly lost."
Former U.S. President George H.W. Bush, who backed Kohl's effort to push through a speedy reunification when the opportunity presented itself, said Friday that Kohl was "a true friend of freedom, and the man I consider one of the greatest leaders in postwar Europe."
Former U.S. President Bill Clinton, who served during Kohl's final years in office, called the tall, burly, lifelong politician "the most important European statesman since the second World War."
Kohl served 16 years as German chancellor, presiding over West Germany from 1982 to 1990 and serving as the first chancellor of the reunified Germany from 1990 to 1998.
Born in Bavaria in 1930, Kohl's father and older brother served in World War II; his brother died in the war while still a teenager. Kohl joined the Hitler Youth at age 15, like most German boys his age, and was briefly put to work unearthing bodies after Allied bombing raids.
Shortly after the end of the war, Kohl joined the newly formed Christian Democratic Union, helped found the party's youth organization, and thus began a life of public service.
He rose to Germany's highest office through a series of local positions, championing domestic policies such as education reform and transportation.
Elected chancellor in 1982, he lost no time in reaching out to repair Germany's diplomatic relationships strained by the two world wars and their aftermath.
In 1984, he and then-French President Francois Mitterand shook hands at an emotional remembrance ceremony of the Battle of Verdun, a long, brutal struggle between French and German forces in northeastern France during World War I. The meeting cemented a close political relationship between the two men even as it symbolized reconciliation between the two nations.
Kohl used the same gesture to make amends with the United States two years later, meeting with U.S. President Ronald Reagan at a G-7 summit in Bonn in 1985.
The visit was not universally praised, however, as the two leaders paid a joint visit to a German military cemetery where a number of Nazi officers were buried alongside German soldiers. The two also visited the site of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp together, paying tribute to the Jewish victims of Germany's ugly past.
As the crescendo of reconciliation continued to rise, Kohl met in 1987 with East German leader Erich Honecker, the first time the leaders of East and West Germany sat down together since the country was split between democracy and communism at the end of World War II. The stage was set for the pinnacle of Kohl's career and a turning point in German history.
When an East German official announced in November 1989 that all East Germans could travel freely to the West, Kohl lost no time in pushing forward with his reunification proposals. He met with Soviet Union President Mikhail Gorbachev in February 1990 to gain approval for his plan, and by October of that year, both halves of Germany had voted to become one again.
Kohl's popularity was at a high. But over his next two terms, the difficult reality of merging the communist east with the capitalist west had taken their toll on the economy and e unemployment rate. Kohl was voted out in 1998.
The years following were not so rosy. The Christian Democratic Union was damaged by revelations that it had accepted illegal campaign donations. Kohl first denied taking any illicit funds, but later admitted to receiving millions of deutschmarks in illegal donations and declined to name the donors of the funds.
In 2001, Kohl's wife, Hannelore, the East German he married in 1960, committed suicide. Some said her long battle with photosensitivity was to blame; others said it was her husband's financial scandal.
Seven years later, Kohl suffered a debilitating stroke and soon thereafter married his female companion, Maike Richter, who was 35 years his junior. His health continued to suffer.
Kohl's relationships with his political successors began to suffer, too, as he began speaking out against their policies toward the end of his life.
Even Merkel, once his protégée, was not spared his barbs. After airing his grievances in a book titled "Out of Concern For Europe," Kohl was quoted in the press saying, "That woman is destroying my Europe!"
Yet, at the end, Kohl was hailed not just as the man who helped Germany heal, but also one of the architects of European integration. He had a long list of awards for his work, including the Vision for Europe award for his reunification achievements, the Charlemagne Prize with Francois Mitterand for their contribution to Franco-German relations, and the Henry Kissinger Prize for exceptional contributions to transatlantic relations.
Kohl was also named Honorary Citizen of Europe by the European heads of state for his work on European integration.
European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker ordered flags at EC headquarters in Brussels to fly at half-staff after news Friday of Kohl's death. He called Kohl "my mentor, my friend, the very essence of Europe."
Kohl's political party, the Christian Democratic Union, tweeted: "We mourn. #RIP #Helmut Kohl."