German conservative centre-right politician, leader of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) 1976–98, West German chancellor (prime minister) 1982–90, and German chancellor from 1990–98. He oversaw the reunification of East and West Germany 1989–90 and in 1990 won a resounding victory to become the first chancellor of a reunited Germany. His miscalculation of the true costs of reunification and their subsequent effects on the German economy led to a dramatic fall in his popularity, but as the economy recovered, so did his public esteem, enabling him to achieve a historic fourth electoral victory in 1994. He was defeated by Gerhard Schroeder of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) in the elections of September 1998, a year in which unemployment reached record levels. In December 1999, Kohl admitted to receiving secret and therefore illegal payments on behalf of his party when he was chancellor, and he was fined 300,000 marks/US$143,000 in January 2001 (having resigned his position as honorary CDU leader in the meantime). He did not stand for re-election to parliament in 2002 and retreated from politics.
Kohl was born in Ludwigshafen on the Rhine. He studied law and secured a PhD in history at Heidelberg University before entering the chemical industry. He joined the CDU at the age of 16. Elected to the Rhineland-Palatinate Land (state) parliament in 1959, he became state premier in 1969. After the 1976 Bundestag (federal parliament) elections Kohl led the CDU in opposition. He became federal chancellor in 1982, when the Free Democratic Party (FDP) withdrew support from the socialist Schmidt government, and was elected at the head of a new coalition that included the FDP. His close working relationship with President Mitterrand of France was the foundation for accelerating progress towards closer European integration, and Kohl was a strong backer of the idea of a single European currency.
From 1984 Kohl was implicated in the Flick bribes scandal over the illegal business funding of political parties, but he was cleared of all charges in 1986. However, his reputation was badly damaged when it was discovered in 1999 that the CDU had received and maintained illegal party funding under his leadership.