June 16 (UPI) -- Helmut Kohl, Germany's longest-serving chancellor of the 20th century who oversaw reunification of East and West after the fall of the Berlin Wall, died Friday. He was 87.
The cause of death was not reported, but Kohl died at his home in the western state of Rhineland-Palatinate, according to German media reports confirmed by his biographer.
Kohl, leader of the center-right Christian Democrats, served as chancellor for 16 years, from 1982-98. His term coincided with the fall of Soviet Russia, marked most dramatically by the joyous destruction of the Berlin Wall in 1989.
Though Germans both East and West celebrated the wall's destruction, the process of bringing together two nations that existed in icy silence after the wall's construction in 1961 was a political and economic challenge that took more than a year to complete, to mixed results.
When East German leaders first threw open the gates restoring unfettered travel between the two countries on Nov. 9, 1989, Kohl was on a state trip to Poland -- ironically, on the other side of what Winston Churchill famously dubbed the Iron Curtain. Kohl quickly embraced the surprising detente and vowed to oversee an orderly restoration of travel between both sides of the divided capital.
"This is a historic day for Germany," Kohl said, as tens of thousands of East Germans flooded through the famous Checkpoint Charlie gate.
In fact, just a few days later, joyous Berliners -- some of whom had not seen family on the other side in nearly 30 years -- toppled the 12-foot concrete barbed-wire behemoth. It was a moment that would come to symbolize more than any other the end of the Cold War and the fall of the Soviet Union.
In reality, though the East Germans allowed the gates to finally open it was a booming West German economy, overseen by Kohl, that laid the groundwork for the fall. While East Germans languished in the drab confines of a restrictive communist regime, a democratic Berlin in the West had regained its pre-World War II reputation as one of Europe's most economically vibrant, culturally cosmopolitan capital cities.
Kohl's first task in reunification was to convince Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev to withdraw from East Germany. With the Soviet empire crumbling, a weakened Gorbachev agreed and recalled 350,000 Russian troops from East Germany, allowing a unified nation to remain a linchpin member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO.
Kohl's next task was to convince Western allies a unified Germany would not evolve into the kind of threat it was under Nazi rule a mere 40 years prior. While Kohl's vision was met with skepticism -- and at times outright hostility -- by former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, he found an ally in former U.S. President George H.W. Bush, who encouraged wary allies to embrace a unified, democratic Germany.
Kohl would later call Bush "the most important ally on the road to German unity."
If Bush was Kohl's great ally, Thatcher was his great foe. In his 2005 autobiography, Kohl let out her seething retort after being persuaded to sign a document supporting German unification: "I will never forget Margaret Thatcher's angry observation: 'We have beaten the Germans twice. Now they're back,' " he wrote.
More than bringing together the two German states, Kohl also embraced the vision of a federal Europe. Born of a generation bearing the scars from Nazism, Kohl saw a culturally and economically unified European continent as the best possible safeguard against future hostilities.
Together with his close ally, French President Francois Mitterand, Kohl undertook complex negotiations that paved the way for the creation of the larger European Union, a political hierarchy that many thought impossible less than a half-century removed from the destruction of two world wars.
Kohl and Mitterand also laid the groundwork for the continent's common currency, the euro -- a force perhaps more relevant than any that now ties together the diverse nations in the EU.
Though Kohl's vision for a united Europe has been tested, it is his political protege, Angela Merkel, the present-day leader of Kohl's Christian Democrats, who has taken the mantle of European unifier -- one of the most prominent signs his legacy remains a vital part of Europe in the 21st century.