Once, at the end of a long hike in the Bavarian Alps, former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl had to carry his heavy hiking companion on his back. Franz Josef Strauss, the head of Bavaria's conservative Christian Social Union (CSU) at the time, wasn't in the best of shape. As Strauss and Kohl were preparing for the hike, his wife Marianne made sure he had a decent lunch and a package of tissues in his backpack. Strauss perspired a lot.
When the two men encountered a thunderstorm during their hike, the path became slippery and narrow. In the end, Strauss no longer felt secure on his feet.
"So I carried him on my back for the last 50 meters (165 feet). It wasn't until later that I thought about what would have happened if he had fallen off. No one would have believed me. Everyone would have written that I had thrown him down on purpose."
There are many stories about Kohl and Strauss, whose rivalry has been examined by historians of recent German history. An unforgettable moment is Strauss' speech at the Munich conference center owned by the Wienerwald roast chicken chain in November 1976, when he declared that the young Kohl, who was about to become his party's parliamentary leader, lacked all aptitude to become chancellor. "He is completely incapable. He lacks the character, and he lacks the intellectual and political qualifications. He lacks everything."
Later, in the 1980s, when Kohl was chancellor, he gloated over the CSU leader's waning influence in faraway Munich. "When the Bavarian lion roars, the only thing he spreads nowadays is bad breath," Kohl said. Neither man saw a need to back down.
But Kohl also told Heribert Schwan, a journalist with the West German Broadcasting Corporation (WDR), that there was a different and almost tender side to the political friendship between the two men. Strauss and Kohl shared a common bond, in that they both came from humble beginnings. Kohl was the son of a tax official and Strauss was from a family of butchers. Kohl admired the Bavarian politician for his eloquence and his courage in political combat. "He was an original thinker, and he wasn't a copycat. He stood on his own two feet and had his own stature," the former chancellor said during an interview with Schwan in the basement recreation room of his house in Oggersheim, near Frankfurt.
A Valuable Treasure
Schwan recorded more than 600 hours of interviews with Kohl in a total of 105 conversations between March 12, 2001 and October 27, 2002. Even during his tenure in office, Kohl had ruminated over his place in history. He sees himself on a level with former German Chancellors Otto von Bismarck, Konrad Adenauer and Willy Brandt. He is probably justified in doing so.
In the Schwan conversations, Kohl's objective was to document his own view of the Kohl era -- they are an extremely valuable treasure for historians. And the tapes served as the basis for Kohl's three-volume memoirs, which were ghost-written by Schwan. The relationship between the two, however, has soured of late, with Kohl having sued Schwan for possession of the tapes, a spat which is likely to worsen with the release this week of Schwan's book about the interviews.
The interviews contain, at least in part, Kohl's "historic legacy," according to the December 2013 ruling of a Cologne court on the ownership of the tapes. And they add new facets to Kohl's image. They reveal him to be a man who views both his rivals and the world at large through the lens of a calculating machtpolitiker (power politician).
German unity is the achievement for which Kohl wants to be remembered. In his public speeches, Kohl always spoke very warmly about the revolutionaries on the streets of Berlin and Leipzig. But in the Schwan interviews, the former chancellor takes a much more pragmatic view. He said that the Eastern Bloc owed its collapse to economic weakness and not the chants of the citizens' movements. "It's completely erroneous to act as if the Holy Ghost had suddenly descended onto the squares in Leipzig and changed the world," Kohl said. The notion that the revolutionaries in East Germany were the main impetus behind the collapse of the regime was the product of "Thierse's community college brain."
Wolfgang Thierse, a former president of Germany parliament, was a favorite target for Kohl's barbs. For one, Thierse is a Social Democrat, and thus fair game for a Christian Democrat like Kohl. For another, however, Thierse had been sharply critical of Kohl during the scandal over political donations that overshadowed Kohl's legacy after he left the chancellery.
Kohl attributed the collapse of the East German government to Moscow's weaknesses. "Gorbachev looked at the books and had to realize that he was in deep trouble, and that he couldn't sustain the regime," Kohl said. "And if he wanted to preserve communism, he had to reform it, which led him to the idea of perestroika."
Kohl has often praised Gorbachev's important contributions to German unity. If Gorbachev hadn't backed down at the famous Caucasus meeting in July 1990, German reunification would not have happened. In retrospect, however, Kohl's assessment of the man he had so often described as his friend was surprisingly stark.
"Gorbachev's legacy is that he did away with communism, somewhat against his will, but he did de facto eliminate it. Without violence. Without bloodshed. I can't think of much else to say about his legacy." One could contend that the liquidation of an entire empire isn't exactly a shabby lifetime achievement, and certainly not in the eyes of a Christian Democrat like Kohl, who had always struggled against communism. But Kohl's view allows for little interpretation: Gorbachev "failed," he said.
Kohl spoke with complete candor in the conversations with Schwan. He had never spoken as openly with a journalist before, nor has he done so since. Kohl has a reputation for being very vindictive at times. In the Schwan conversations, it becomes clear that he hasn't forgotten a single slight or derisive comment he encountered in the course of his long career. His speech is filled with wrath toward the political allies and protégés he feels betrayed him.
When the conversation turns to current Chancellor Angela Merkel, he can hardly contain his rage. "Ms. Merkel couldn't even eat properly with a knife and fork. She used to mope around at state dinners, and I often had to set her straight." In Kohl's opinion, Merkel is a woman he fished out of a sea of unknown, up-and-coming politicians -- who thanked him by turning on him in the dark hours of the campaign donation scandal. He was especially critical of her European policy, and his disapproval also extended to Friedrich Merz, the former CDU/CSU parliamentary leader. "Merkel doesn't have a clue, and the parliamentary leader is a political infant."
For Kohl, the conversations with Schwan are both therapy sessions and an opportunity to take stock of his life. He differs from former Chancellors Helmut Schmidt and Willy Brandt in that he was never a man of written words and the conversations with Schwan were his way of producing his memoirs. But the conversations also took place at precisely the time at which Kohl felt that his enemies were pushing him to the edge of an abyss. In March 2001, he was no longer the celebrated chancellor who had presided over German reunification. He was a man who had broken the law by accepting 2 million deutsche marks in anonymous donations and refusing to reveal where they had come from.
In Berlin, there were almost weekly meetings of an investigative committee dominated by the Social Democrats and the Greens, which Kohl saw as a tool to vilify his political legacy. And a few months after the interview sessions with Schwan began, his wife, Hannelore Kohl, committed suicide on July 5, 2001. The former chancellor always saw the suicide partly as a result of seeing Kohl's name being dragged through the mud in public.
Speaking with Contempt
In this sense, it is perhaps understandable that Kohl, in this gloomy phase of his life, spoke with such contempt for the people who had abandoned him. One of the targets of his invective was Peter Müller, the former head of the CDU in the southwestern state of Saarland, who had criticized Kohl for failing to send a "message of active remorse." "He behaved shabbily," Kohl ranted. "My God, he knows all too well how much of an advantage they had in the donations affair. Granted, he wasn't the chairman. It was Töpfer, who is now hanging out in African caves," Kohl said. It was only through Klaus Töpfer, the party's state chairman in Saarland from 1990 to 1995, who later went to work for the United Nations in Kenya, that he met Dieter Holzer, one of the key figures in the CDU donations scandal. Töpfer and Holzer were like a "head and an ass," Kohl said.
One reason the former chancellor spoke so candidly with Schwan is that he believed that the tapes would never be released during his lifetime. Schwan had signed an author's agreement in November 1999 with the Droemer publishing company, which was to publish the Kohl memoirs. Droemer granted Kohl the right to replace his ghostwriter at any time. Kohl also had the sole power to decide what the memoirs could ultimately contain.
Schwan initially accepted these conditions, and he began writing the memoirs after the interviews were finished. He wrote almost 3,000 pages, and in November 2007, the third -- and thus far, final -- volume of Kohl's memoirs was published. The book ended with Kohl's slim victory in the 1994 federal elections.
But the third volume also contains a subtle message for Kohl watchers. Unlike the two preceding volumes, it did not include a dedication to Kohl's wife of many years, Hannelore. The new woman at his side was Maike Richter, and she soon began to intervene in the work surrounding his memoirs. Schwan, who also had an irascible temper, put up with it at first, but only with great reluctance. But the peace was not destined to last.
The relationship quickly deteriorated when Schwan said that he wanted to publish a book to accompany a film about Kohl he had made for the WDR. When Richter tried to rewrite entire sections of the interviews Schwan had conducted, Schwan responded by writing directly to the former chancellor in Oggersheim. A short time later, he received a letter from Kohl's attorney informing him that the former chancellor would no longer require his services.