SPEYER, Germany (Reuters) - Leaders from the United States, Russia and across Europe paid tribute on Saturday to former German chancellor Helmut Kohl as the architect of German reunification and a driving force for European integration.
Kohl, who died on June 16 at 87, was lauded at a ceremony at the European Parliament as a dedicated European who abhorred war by former U.S. President Bill Clinton, Russia Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and other figures.
A funeral service was held later on Saturday with 900 invited guests at Speyer Cathedral, where as a teenager Kohl found shelter from World War Two aerial bombings.
His casket was flown by helicopter from Strasbourg to his hometown Ludwigshafen before being carried by boat up the Rhine to Speyer, one of Germany’s oldest towns where Kohl took former world leaders including Clinton, George H.W. Bush, Mikail Gorbachev, Boris Yeltsin and Margaret Thatcher for private meetings.
“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 in Strasbourg of the man who was German chancellor from 1982 to 1998 and oversaw German reunification in 1990.
The two-hour memorial in Strasbourg, a city that has often changed hands and now lies in France, symbolized the role Kohl played in reconciling the two erstwhile enemies France and Germany while driving European integration forward.
A blue European Union flag was draped over Kohl’s casket in Strasbourg. A German flag later covered the coffin in Germany, where thousands watched from the streets as his coffin moved through Ludwigshafen and later from the banks of the Rhine.
“He was the architect of the world order,” said Medvedev of Kohl, who skillfully negotiated reunification with communist East Germany with then-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. “In Russia, we’ll remember him as our friend -- a wise and sincere person.”
The resting place of many rulers of the Holy Roman Empire, itself a Europe-spanning polity, Speyer Cathedral was seen by Kohl as a symbol of European unity.
“Helmut Kohl was a German patriot and a European patriot,” said Juncker, a former Luxembourg prime minister and close friend of Kohl who switched between German and French in his tribute. “We’ve lost a giant of the post-war era.”
Chancellor Angela Merkel, who served as a minister under Kohl in the 1990s but later had a falling out over his role in receiving $1 million in illegal campaign cash donations, remembered Kohl as an at-times controversial figure with numerous enemies.
“I could tell you stories as well,” she said. “But all that paled in comparison to his life’s achievements.”
Merkel said Kohl had changed the lives of millions across all of Europe.
The ceremony concluded with the German national anthem and excerpts from Beethoven’s 9th symphony “Ode to Joy”, used as the anthem of the European Union.
The proposal to hold a European ceremony was enthusiastically advocated by Juncker, and by Kohl’s second wife Maike Kohl-Richter, who survives him.
His sons, however, boycotted the Cathedral’s funeral mass, because their father will not be laid to rest alongside Hannelore Kohl, his wife of decades.
Reporting by Erik Kirschbaum and Thomas Escritt in Berlin; Editing by Jeremy Gaunt and Helen Popper