By John E. Rielly, President Emeritus, Chicago Council on Global Affairs
With the death of Chancellor Helmut Kohl on June 16th, the Chicago Council on Global Affairs lost a longtime friend and admirer. I came to know Chancellor Kohl when I invited him to the first meeting of the Atlantic Conference, a Ford Foundation sponsored conference which I ran beginning in 1970, a conference which followed me to the Chicago Council in 1971. The Atlantic conference involved 50 participants from Europe, North America and South America and was designed to promote closer cooperation among the leaders of those three continents. The priority was given to involving the next generation leaders in the western world, so no one over 50 years of age was invited.
After extensive consultation I selected the young Minister President of Rheinland-Pfalz to be one of the two German participants. I called on him at his office in Mainz in June of 1970 and invited him to the conference. The 40 year old Helmut Kohl was an unknown provincial figure at that time; he had never visited the United States nor had he ever been invited to an international conference. He was delighted and came with his wife Hannelore to the meeting in Dorado Beach, Puerto Rico in November. With an all-star cast of seven United States Senators, top journalists, scholars and high-ranking government leaders, Kohl thrived in this environment and made long lasting friends. He later considered it one of the most important experiences of his early career. Kohl became committed to the Atlantic Conference, assisting me in raising financial support from European foundations and taking active interest in recommending European participants for future meetings.
Kohl was a man of popular tastes and lifestyle which was seldom appreciated by the German elite. On one of his visits to Chicago he asked me to arrange a luncheon for him, not at one of the elite Chicago venues but at a table in the public area of a popular Italian restaurant, the Como Inn.
I would continue to visit Chancellor Kohl almost every year in Bonn or Berlin both before and after he became Chancellor of Germany in October of 1982. As Chancellor, Kohl decided to continue the tradition begun by Chancellor Willy Brandt of making major grants to American universities and nonprofit institutions. One of his first grants was to the Chicago Council for five million Deutschmarks or three million dollars to expand and permanently fund the Council’s European program. Kohl spoke at the Chicago Council twice as Chancellor and once after leaving office, when in 2005 he accepted the Council's Global Leadership Award.
Why was Chancellor Kohl interested in and unfailingly loyal to the Chicago Council on Global Affairs? Clearly he appreciated the early recognition represented by the invitation to attend the first Atlantic Conference. He liked Chicago. He also understood that the Chicago Council was a more inclusive organization than the elite foreign policy organizations in New York and Washington. He noticed that the high priority he gave during his career to nurturing young people was shared at the Council. He regularly received Council young leaders’ delegations both in Bonn and Berlin.
With French President Francois Mitterrand, Kohl provided indispensable leadership for strengthening the European Union. Kohl was the most pro American European leader since the founding of the Federal Republic of Germany in 1949. He never forgot the experience of receiving American Care Packages in 1945 at age 15 when his family experienced severe hardship. That had a deep and lasting impact on his feelings for the United States.
His sixteen-year tenure (1982-1998) spanned three American presidents: Ronald Reagan, George HW Bush and Bill Clinton. He would become a close personal friend of both Bush and Clinton. He reserved his highest praise for President George HW Bush whose strong and timely support of Kohl’s initiative to unify Germany in 1990 proved to be decisive, at a time when German unification was opposed by French President Mitterrand and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
After Kohl left the Chancellery in 1998 he continued to be active until a serious fall in 2008 left him physically impaired. My wife and I were honored to spend a beautiful spring day with the Chancellor and his wife Maike at their home in Ludwigshafen in 2015. Although less robust and in wheelchair with his speech impaired, his mind was as sharp as ever and we both took great delight in reminiscing about events of our four and a half decade friendship.