The coffin of late former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl is carried to the European Parliament as current and past world leaders gather for the ceremony honoring him in Strasbourg, France, on Saturday. Kohl, widely regarded as the father of German reunification in 1990, died June 16 at his home in Ludwighshafen, Germany. Photo by Fred Marvaux/EPA
July 1 (UPI) -- Current and former world leaders gathered Saturday at European Parliament headquarters in Strasbourg, France, to memorialize Helmut Kohl as part of a compromise with the former German leader's family, who said he didn't want a state funeral.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, a one-time Kohl protege, former U.S. President Bill Clinton and French President Emmanuel Macron spoke at the ceremony two weeks after Kohl's death at age 87.
"Much of what we take for granted today we can thank him for: that Eastern and Western Europe are united, that we have a common market, that there are no border controls between EU states and that most of them share a common currency," Merkel said. "The EU in its present form -- that's for the most part a legacy of Helmut Kohl."
But Kohl's will stated that he didn't want a state funeral, nor did he want Merkel to attend or speak at the ceremony, his second wife, Maike Kohl-Richter said. Though Kohl groomed Merkel to be a leader in the Christian Democrats Party, he never forgave her for effectively forcing him to retire in 2002 after he was caught up in a party financing scandal in 1999, Deutsche Welle reported.
Instead of a state memorial, European leaders came up with a solution: something they called a European memorial to be held at European Parliament headquarters in France. His body would then be transported down the Rhine River for a funeral in Speyer.
Kohl, Germany's longest-serving chancellor, oversaw reunification of East and West Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
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 groundworkfor 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."
At the memorial service Saturday, Clinton praised Kohl for his focus on European and world unity.
"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.
"He wanted to create a world where nobody dominated over anybody else. You did well to achieve that during your lifetime and those of us who experienced it love you for it."
Eric DuVall contributed to this reported.