Updated at 2:25 p.m. ET
Former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, who for more than a decade and a half helmed a country through historic upheaval, died Friday at age 87. The German leader’s political party, the Christian Democratic Union, confirmed Kohl’s death on Twitter.
“We are in sorrow,” the party tweeted.
In a statement, former U.S. President George H.W. Bush mourned the death of his colleague and close ally, who first led West Germany and then oversaw its reunification with Communist East Germany.
“Working closely with my very good friend to help achieve a peaceful end to the Cold War and the unification of Germany within NATO will remain one of the great joys of my life,” Bush said in a statement Friday. “Throughout our endeavors, Helmut was a rock — both steady and strong.”
Understated and often underestimated, Kohl took power in West Germany in 1982. He was “a Gerald Ford figure, an undeniably decent man … who had never been expected to make it to the top job,” The New York Times reported at the time.
Still, he quickly went to work cultivating the confidence of allies both personal and on the world stage, projecting an unassuming personality all the while.
“For 70 percent of the time that he was in office he looked like he was semi-asleep,” John Kornblum, U.S. ambassador to Germany during Kohl’s final years in power, told NPR’s Eric Westervelt. “He wasn’t one of these people out ordering people around. He spent much more time talking with people on the phone and getting a feel for what was going on. He schmoozed all the time.”
Kornblum added: “But when it came time to do something, he did something.”
And no time demanded action of Kohl more than the tumultuous months around the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. For decades a barrier between the democratic and communist halves of the erstwhile German state, the wall brought much of those divisions down with it.
As East Germans poured into the West — seeking an escape from a land where hundreds of thousands of Soviet troops were still stationed — the center-right politician quickly angled for a solution. Within weeks of the wall’s fall, Kohl surprised European allies and even some members of his own cabinet with a speech laying out a 10-point plan for reunification.
The plan to make Germany whole again, a prospect that alarmed British and French leaders with lingering memories of Nazi Germany, nevertheless eventually earned the support of the U.S. and the Soviet Union.