'Thank you for the opportunities': Helmut Kohl funeral draws hundreds

Germany bid farewell Saturday to Helmut Kohl, the former chancellor who steered his country toward reunification in 1990 and whose tireless efforts to ensure peace and stability in Europe shape the continent to this day.

Hundreds of dignitaries attended a requiem Mass at Speyer Cathedral in Kohl’s home region of Rhineland-Palatinate in southwest Germany.

Earlier in the day, past and present leaders from around the world paid tribute to Kohl at the European Parliament’s seat in the French city of Strasbourg.

Kohl, who died June 16 at age 87, is the first person to be honoured with an official memorial event by the European Union.

EU Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker said the ceremony in Strasbourg, close to the border with Germany, was Kohl’s own choice.

‘A European patriot’

“Helmut Kohl was a German patriot but at the same time a European patriot,” said Juncker, recalling how Kohl had wept tears of joy when the bloc agreed in December 1997 to begin accepting members from the formerly Communist countries in Eastern Europe.

During his 16-year term as Germany’s leader, stretching from 1982 to 1998, not only did Kohl oversee his country’s reunification but also spearheaded the creation of the euro currency, which is now used by 19 nations.

“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 co-operation before national interests at key moments in history.

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Former U.S. president Bill Clinton, Maike Kohl-Richter and European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker attend a pontifical requiem mass for Kohl in the cathedral in Speyer, Germany. (Marijan Murat/Reuters)

Kohl is widely regarded as having skillfully overcome the fears of Germany’s neighbours 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 1980s.

Drawing on his friendships with several world leaders, often forged over hearty meals, Kohl assured the Allied nations that had beaten Nazi Germany in the Second World War that his country no longer aspired to dominate others.

Fall of Berlin Wall changed course of lives

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.”

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German soldiers transport Kohl’s casket after the funeral service at the Speyer Cathedral. (Frank Rumpenhorst/Reuters)

EU Parliament president Antonio Tajani said Kohl deserved “a place of honour 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 one of his predecessors, François Mitterrand, and Kohl — two men who had experienced the suffering of  the Second World War on opposing sides — who were able to “overcome the terrible memories of their generation.” Macron pledged to continue their work in forging a united Europe, working together with Merkel.

Mitterand and Kohl

Several speakers recalled the poignant gesture of reconciliation in 1984, when Mitterrand and Kohl held hands during a ceremony at a First World War cemetery in Verdun, France.

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German Chancellor Angela Merkel said: ‘Without Helmut Kohl, the lives of millions of people who lived behind the Wall until 1990 would have taken a completely different course, including mine.’ (Arnd Wiegmann/Reuters)

Following Saturday’s ceremony in Strasbourg, Kohl’s coffin was transported by helicopter to Germany and then taken down the Rhine river to Speyer, with thousands of people lining the roads and riverbanks to bid their farewell.

The requiem Mass in Speyer ended with a rare funeral toll from the Cathedral’s Emperor Bell — named after the eight Holy Roman Emperors buried in the city — after which his flag-draped coffin was carried out into the open for military honours.

Kohl was to be laid to rest in a private ceremony at a cemetery in Speyer.

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