Current and past world leaders gathered Saturday to bid farewell to the late Helmut Kohl, recalling the former German chancellor as a man who was instrumental in uniting Europe and bringing about reconciliation between former adversaries on the continent.
Kohl, who died June 16 at the age of 87, was the first person to be honored with an official memorial event by the European Union in the French city of Strasbourg.
EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said the ceremony at the European Parliament’s seat, close to the border with Germany, was Kohl’s own choice, describing him as “a German patriot and at the same time a European patriot.”
During his 16-year term as Germany’s leader, stretching from 1982 to 1998, Kohl spearheaded his country’s reunification and the creation of Europe’s common currency, the euro.
“Helmut Kohl gave us the chance to be involved in something bigger than ourselves,” said former U.S. President Bill Clinton, citing Kohl’s willingness to put international cooperation before national interests at key moments in history.
Kohl was widely regarded as having skillfully overcome the fears of Germany’s neighbors when an end to the country’s decades-long division into a communist east and a democratic west first became a realistic possibility in the late 1990s.
Drawing on his friendships with several world leaders, often forged over hearty meals, Kohl assured the Allied nations that had beaten Nazi Germany in World War II that his country no longer aspired to dominate others.
His successor, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, said Kohl’s vision and persistence had paid a historic dividend.
“Without Helmut Kohl the lives of millions of people who lived behind the (Berlin) Wall until 1990 would have taken a completely different course, including mine,” said Merkel, who grew up in communist East Germany. “Thank you for the opportunities you gave me.”
EU Parliament President Antonio Tajani said Kohl deserved “a place of honor in the European pantheon” for unhesitatingly extending the hand of friendship to fledgling democracies in Eastern Europe following the fall of the Iron Curtain.
French President Emmanuel Macron noted that it was his predecessor, Francois Mitterrand, and Kohl, two men who had experienced the suffering of war on opposing sides, who were able to “overcome the terrible memories of their generation.”
Several speakers recalled the poignant gesture of reconciliation in 1984, when Mitterrand and Kohl held hands during a ceremony at a World War I cemetery in Verdun, France.
Following the memorial event in Strasbourg, which was attended by over 800 dignitaries, Kohl’s coffin draped with the flag of the European Union was taken to the German city of Speyer for a requiem Mass and military honors.
He will be buried in a private ceremony at a cemetery in the city.