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 was the king here, and now he's being celebrated by the Konrad Adenauer Foundation. Former president Roman Herzog holds the laudation. Seated next to Kohl is his wife Maike Kohl-Richter, 48, wearing a beige suit. Sometimes she leans towards her husband to say something, and he nods. She puts her hand on his and strokes the back of it. When the speaker mentions her, Kohl claps and she smiles and tries to stop him.
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.
Maike Richter hails from Siegen in western Germany. She was a member of the CDU's youth arm and is a member of the CDU. She studied economics in Munich, then earned a PhD. From 1994 until 1998 she worked in the economics department of Kohl's Chancellery. In 2005 Kohl presented her as his new "life partner."
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.
A Slient, Shuttered Life
But people in Kohl's inner circle say Kohl-Richter is doing a very good job nursing him, and that he would no longer be alive if it weren't for her. Kohl himself has said so.
She had the house rebuilt for him. An elevator attached to the side of the building leads from the first floor, where Kohl sleeps, down to the basement where he has his office. The swimming pool has been altered so that he can use it without assistance.
Kohl swims every day. He spends much of his time sitting in his office or living room, having his wife read to him or writing letters together with her. The recipients wonder who really wrote them -- was it more Kohl or more Kohl-Richter? The signature is a bit scrawly. Kohl? Kohl-Richter? Probably Kohl, people say.
It is a silent, shuttered life in a house where Kohl lived for decades with his first wife Hannelore. She committed suicide in this building. Maike Kohl-Richter has to live with her ghost.
Sometimes visitors come to the house. But Maike Kohl-Richter has caused outrage by being strict about who can and can't get in. At the moment, the list of people she lets the drawbridge down for are the editor-in-chief of mass circulation daily Bild, Kai Diekmann, the chairman of the CDU's youth arm, Philipp Missfelder, and Kohl's former foreign policy advisor, Horst Teltschik. There are others, including his lawyer, and former Foreign Minister Klaus Kinkel also recently paid Kohl a visit.
The people who aren't allowed in are Kohl's two estranged sons Peter and Walter, as well as his former driver and housekeeper, Eckhard and Hilde Seeber, and Kohl's former office manager and confidante, Juliane Weber.
Chauffeur Fired After 46 Years of Service
Eckhard Seeber was Kohl's chauffeur and a sort of personal servant for 46 years. He mowed Kohl's lawn, made small repairs, accompanied the chancellor to the sauna where he was in charge of pouring on the water to give more steam. On plane journeys, he would tuck his boss in at night when he had kicked off his blanket. He was a part of Kohl. That was never a problem for Hannelore Kohl, but his young wife Maike evidently didn't like it.
Three weeks after Kohl's fall in 2008, Seeber visited him in hospital. "Maike Richter told me -- not in the presence of Helmut Kohl, but outside in the car park -- that I should put the car in the garage and leave the keys in the house. I did so and that was it," Eckhard Seeber told celebrity magazine Bunte, in an article headlined: "Does She Want Him All to Herself?"
She definitely wants to be alone with her husband more. She soon found out that there's a market for information about the Kohl household. There's gossip and tittle-tattle and some of it ends up in newspaper articles and books. That created paranoia, a fear of being pursued for the purpose of obtaining sellable information.
This paranoia is not unjustified, and it led Maike to refrain from hiring nurses to help her care for her husband. She's afraid that they might talk about the state of his health in Oggersheim pubs at night. So Kohl-Richter does most of the nursing, but it's too much for her when Kohl falls out of his wheelchair, which once happened.
Is Kohl Still Writing His Own Statements?
As Kohl doesn't say much, a lot of attention is paid to what he writes. But is he really writing it? In the last 18 months, Kohl has given statements to the press five times, including a guest editorial in Bild defending nuclear power generation after the Fukushima accident and a guest editorial on the future of Europe for the same newspaper.
One of his statements criticized a book written by his son Walter about the trials of growing up in the Kohl family. The bestselling book had exceeded the "limits of taste and decency," Kohl said. His son said in a television interview two days later: "There is only one person who could have worked over that press statement, and that is Maike."
Schwan, the author, is also convinced that Kohl no longer knows what statements are issued in his name -- or is unable to prevent them if he does know. For example, he says, the editorial in Bild on nuclear energy did not reflect Kohl's position. He suspects it came from Maike and believes she is bent on claiming the right to speak for her husband. The frailer Kohl appears in public, the more demonic their marriage seems to some of his former friends and allies.
People who are allowed to visit Kohl agree that Maike Kohl-Richter wants influence and power and is motivated by a mixture of ambition and the desire to care for her husband. They say she was too harsh with Eckhard Seeber, the driver, and one of them says she is "clumsy in dealing with people." But, they add, she's good for Kohl.
630 Hours of Sound Recordings
Schwan is the last person who has spoken extensively to Kohl about his life as chancellor. He has 630 hours of sound recordings of interviews he conducted while working as a ghost writer on the first three volumes of Kohl's memoirs. That's a trove that could make Schwan rich and famous. "I spent 105 days talking to Helmut Kohl, five to six hours a day," says Schwan. "The knowledge I have on him, no one else in the world has it."
He spent months in the basement of the house in Oggersheim reading confidential papers: accounts of Kohl's telephone conversations with world leaders, personal letters written to and by the chancellor, even 13 volumes of Stasi files that Kohl had barred from public access in a long legal battle. Kohl had copies of the Stasi documents brought to his home.
"I sacrificed eight years for the memoirs," says Schwan. He thinks he's entitled to get some payback now. He's not quite sure what he's going to do with his treasure trove of information. His publishing company is urging him to show the "true Kohl". But he doesn't know yet when to go ahead with it.
Schwan had written three volumes of Kohl's autobiography and had presented the first 300 pages of the fourth volume, covering his departure from office and Kohl's dramatic fall from grace in the party donations scandal. That is what Kohl and the Droemer publishing house had agreed.
But then came a dispute with Maike Kohl-Richter about the use of some Kohl quotes for an anthology, and that marked the end of the ghost writer's links with the Kohl household. He received a letter from a lawyer stating that Kohl considered their working relationship to be terminated.
Schwan believes he was the first victim in a long line of cleansings carried out by Kohl's wife in order to strengthen her position.
Meanwhile, historian Hans-Peter Schwarz has just published a biography of the chancellor that gives new insight into how carelessly Kohl prepared the monetary union. Looking back from today's point of view, the passages on the Treaty of Maastricht read like a debacle of German policymaking. Kohl didn't insist on securing the single currency via a political union. He agreed with French President Francois Mitterrand that the path to the euro should at a certain point become "irreversible." That took the pressure off countries to meet the economic convergence criteria. Those two flaws in the Treaty are part of the reason why the euro is wobbling today.
Drawbridge May be Opening
Kohl was feted as one of the fathers of the euro, but now he's also the father of the currency's problems. History is fluid, it develops with events and with historical research. That makes the fight for who gets to interpret it so interesting. Now Maike Kohl-Richter has access to all the files. She's always by his side, and Kohl is probably telling her his views of this fluid history. After his death she'll be able to do what she wants with that information. She could even sell her own views as his. Kohl's former aides, the people who shaped history with him, are worried that she could finish the fourth volume of his memoirs and maybe write her own books about him.
But there's movement in the castle at Oggersheim. Maike Kohl-Richter is evidently unsure about whether she can continue restricting access to her husband so strictly. She was alarmed at the interview Kohl's driver Eckhard Seeber gave Bunte. Nothing makes her look worse than the complaint of a man who devoted his entire life to Kohl and is now no longer even allowed to visit his boss. Kohl-Richter is sick of looking like a monster.
The worst thing for her is that Bild editor Kai Diekmann has moved to America. He has been like a son to Kohl and an adviser to Kohl-Richter in how to deal with the press. She often telephoned with him and discussed public statements with the editor. Now he's no longer available, and the Kohls' access to Bild newspaper is not as strong.
For all these reasons Kohl-Richter wants to do something. She is considering a reconciliation with some of her husband's old companions. One person with access says there's activity behind the drawbridge. It's being let down now and again.