The Tragedy of Helmut Kohl: Battle Looms over Legacy of Frail Statesman
Helmut Kohl can barely speak anymore. Now others are talking for him and claiming influence over the historical legacy of the father of German unification and one of the architects of the euro. They include his feuding family, former political allies and a journalist who possesses a treasure trove of recordings and transcripts of interviews with the former chancellor.
There he sits, still a massive figure but no longer intimidating, his head tilted to one side a little, wearing a dark suit and tie. The hall is full, people are clapping. Helmut Kohl takes it all in without moving. The camera flashguns, the hubbub is the same as when he was chancellor. A helper turns his wheelchair and pushes him up to the front row of the Bundestag parliament building, but it's the old one in Bonn, not the new one in Berlin.
He listens to the account of his great deeds. Sometimes he takes a white handkerchief from his suit pocket and dabs his mouth.
Kohl's fate is plain for everyone to see. He was German chancellor at the right moment in history, he was the father of unification and is one of the fathers of the euro. In 2008, he had a bad fall and hasn't been able to walk or speak properly since. This link between political history and the physical frailty of this once-powerful man have turned his twilight years into a tragedy that is being closely watched in Germany.
CDU Feting Chancellor of Unity
These are particularly active days. His party, the conservative Christian Democratic Union, is celebrating him in the run-up to the 30th anniversary of his becoming chancellor, on Oct. 1, Chancellor Angela Merkel will speak. Members of parliament will honor him. And the historian Hans-Peter Schwarz has presented a new Kohl biography which has already made it into the bestseller lists.
You can still achieve a lot with the name Kohl. You can earn money with it, or use it to pursue political goals. The old chancellor is in the spotlight this week, but some of the shine also falls on the people lining up to praise him. By standing next to him, they become a little more important than they already are.
Kohl has become such a grand historic monument in his lifetime that every detail of his private life has attained importance. No clear separation exists between his private and political lives. In his case this line was blurred not by the media but by the people closest to him.
Behind the scenes, there's a furious battle raging about who gets access to Kohl. Rumors and suspicions are swirling. There is wild speculation about the state of his health and his living conditions at home.
An article published in Süddeutsche Zeitung in July gave the impression that Maike Kohl-Richter, the former chancellor's second wife, was more or less locking her husband away. Heribert Schwan, a journalist and author who was once a friend of the Kohl family, even made a dramatic appeal to Kohl's old friends to get together and to "free" Kohl.
Is the old man a prisoner, locked up by his own wife?
Every day he sits in his bungalow in Oggersheim district of the southwestern city of Ludwigshafen, confined to his wheelchair and under round-the-clock guard. He and his wife live there like the inhabitants of a castle, and the drawbridge is usually up.
No Longer Able to Defend Himself
That is sad enough. But Kohl's speechlessness is even sadder. Kohl can barely talk any more. The man who shaped history with his words has practically fallen silent. He finds it difficult to speak and can scarcely engage in debate, he can't even talk about his own actions as chancellor. His euro policy has come under fierce criticism -- he is being blamed for mistakes made in the design of the single currency. Kohl isn't defending himself because he isn't able to.
But that isn't the whole tragedy. Given that Kohl can barely move or speak, he is dependent on his wife. She is the gatekeeper, the person who controls his words. Maike Kohl-Richter decides who gets in and what gets out.
Kohl is a prisoner in that sense, but especially a prisoner of his own body. That makes him almost defenseless.
Now he has to sit by and watch people in his innermost circle fight over him. Some members of his family and old friends think his new wife is wielding too much power. Emotions are running high because this is about history. There's an aura of eternity attached to Kohl. You can't say that about many German politicians. In the last 150 years it's applied to Konrad Adenauer and his policy of binding Germany into the Western alliance, to the founder of the Reich Otto von Bismarck, and to Adolf Hitler, the destroyer.
So there's a lot at stake and that's why the fight is so bitter. At the center of the battle is Maike Kohl-Richter, who suddenly forced her way into a royal household in which all the roles had already been allocated. She upset everything and is seen as a kind of Lady Macbeth of Oggersheim as a result: the evil woman controlling an important man.
His world is now divided into those with access to him, and those who are barred entry. Her biggest opponent is the journalist Heribert Schwan, who once wrote a biography of Kohl's first wife Hannelore. Now he's planning a major scoop because he has managed to get hold of a large part of Kohl's files, even the file the Stasi East German secret police kept on him. Schwan wants to use that treasure trove to tell his own story about Helmut Kohl.
When Kohl Gets Asked a Question, His Wife Answers
It's not easy for SPIEGEL to conduct research into Kohl's surroundings. He has always barred the magazine from getting close to him. He says he never read it, and he never granted it interviews. Part of the royal household continues to stick to this ban. But now SPIEGEL has succeeded in gaining access to his inner circle. Some people have spoken, in strict confidence, providing the magazine's reporters with a glimpse over the castle walls.
On Feb. 23, 2008, Kohl's driver Eckhard Seeber found him lying on the tiled kitchen floor with a pool of blood around his head. It looked as if he had fallen forward, possibly after suffering a stroke. The doctors later diagnosed a severe craniocerebral injury. Months of rehabilitation followed. Kohl didn't return home until July of that year but it quickly became evident that he would remain an invalid for the rest of his life. Then, in February of this year, he had to have a heart operation.
A close friend declared after visiting him in April that one should be prepared for the worst. The rumors swirled. There has been talk that Kohl is feeling lonely and spends days on end languishing in his wheelchair because his wife won't let nurses into the house.
What is really going on in that castle? According to reports from people who have recently spoken with Kohl, he can speak better now. They say his big silence is over, but that he's still not saying much. His wife says all the more. People who visit Kohl don't get to talk to him on his own. They say his wife is almost always by his side. He sits in his wheelchair, she next to him and when the guest asks Kohl something, Kohl-Richter answers. Or Kohl gives a short answer and she then gives a long answer as if she knows what Kohl thinks, what he means, what he wants. One visitor said she speaks forcefully and that she has clear opinions "especially about people."
On good days, Kohl has strength to talk for 10 or 15 minutes in total and even then he slurs his sentences. He often makes do with one word. He just says "sugar" when his coffee isn't sweet enough, or "cake."
Widows Wield Power
At the moment, Maike Kohl-Richter is the guardian of Kohl's thoughts. She lives with him, she knows better than anyone else what he now thinks about his life and about other people. She lives in a house packed with files from Kohl's time as chancellor. That affords her a deep insight into the past. It's not yet clear how she will use that power. It's not known what she thinks about Chancellor Angela Merkel's European policy or the CDU's shift to the left. But if she wants to, she can always refer to her husband. She will be the one who hears his last words.
That's happened before, with former Chancellor Willy Brandt. He married historian Brigitte Seebacher late in life. After his death, when she disagreed with an interpretation of her late husband's policies or thinking, she would cite conversations she had had with him. Many in Brandt's party, the center-left Social Democratic Party, doubt whether she correctly conveyed Brandt's views, but it was hard to contradict her.
People close to Kohl think the wife of their idol will do the same. A widow has considerable power.
She had probably imagined her life would turn out differently. She fell in love with a man 34 years her senior but at the time, that man was vital and powerful, and he still exuded the aura of the chancellor who unified Germany, who made history. Now she's living with an invalid. One of the people whom she has barred from the house wishes that Kohl will live another 30 years. As punishment for Kohl-Richter. That's how deep the resentments go.
- Part 1: Battle Looms over Legacy of Frail Statesman
- Part 2: A Slient, Shuttered Life
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