Photo Gallery: Helmut Kohl as Absent Father

Foto: ? Reuters Photographer / Reuters/ REUTERS

'I Was Not Able to Reach My Father' Son's Tell-All Book Damages Helmut Kohl's Image

Long after his time in office, former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl still manages to be divisive. In Dresden, plans to build the first monument to the political legend have split the city. Now Kohl's son has published a tell-all book describing in moving detail his lonely childhood and the rift with his father.

Everyone has an opinion about former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl. He led the country for 16 years, becoming an institution of postwar Germany. Many young people became politicized during his tenure, in one direction or another. Today, some see him as the architect of German reunification and a great European, while others regard him as an assiduous string-puller or associate him mainly with an illegal campaign contribution scandal  that tarnished his reputation and that of his party, the conservative Christian Democratic Union.

Even as an 80-year-old, Kohl still manages to divide public opinion. In Dresden, the local chapters of the CDU and the business-friendly Free Democrats (FDP) want the city to become the first in Germany to erect a monument to Kohl. It would pay tribute to a speech the then-chancellor made in December 1989, a month after the fall of the Berlin Wall, in front of hundreds of thousands of citizens of what was still East Germany. A plaque or a stele is being discussed as a possible monument, but the center-left Social Democrats (SPD), the Left Party and the Greens are against it. Local SPD politician Peter Lames says his party doesn't want Dresden to be the first German city with a Kohl monument.

Kohl might brush that off as petty local politics. He has overcome worse things in his career, after all.

What is likely more troublesome for the former chancellor is what his son Walter has recently come up with: a book about their complicated father-son relationship. His book portrays a man who was almost always absent. His story is admittedly not unique: For the German generation of Walter Kohl, who was born in 1963, the absent father was the rule, not the exception.

But Kohl was not the man next door. He was a CDU politician from the western state of Rhineland-Palatinate who was determined to make it to the top. He always carefully orchestrated his family image. Vacation photos from the Wolfgangsee lake in Austria showed him with his then-wife Hannelore and sons Walter and Peter in perfect harmony. They were photos of an ostensibly intact, conservative middle-class world.

The Absent Father

But it is just that image that Walter, the first-born, has dented with his new book, with its intimate revelations. What's more, Walter Kohl has published it while the father is still alive -- unlike Lars Brandt, the son of former chancellor Willy Brandt, who waited until after his father's death to write a book about their difficult relationship. That book was highly acclaimed by the critics.

Walter Kohl did not wait. Accordingly, his book, which is titled "Live Your Life or Be Lived: First Steps on the Path to Reconciliation," appears to have two messages: one aimed at the public, and one at the absent father. Walter's book, excerpts of which appear this week in the German magazine Focus, contains remarkable and moving passages that strip away the sentimental image that Kohl once cultivated about his family.

"For my father, politics was, and is, his true home," Walter Kohl writes. "His real family had the name CDU, not Kohl. He considered himself, in an archaic sense, the head of a tribe called the CDU. Somewhere along the way, in his internal perception, he and the party fused into one." Those would be difficult words for any father to hear.

Depressing Childhood

The son experienced a father who was rarely there, who was extremely busy and who usually excused himself after meals in the family home in Oggersheim, a suburb of the German city of Ludwigshafen, to go work in his office. He had little time to devote to his children.

"Every boy dreams of a father with whom he can explore the world, who would go camping with him or play soccer. Every boy hopes to have a father who is also there for him. I was not able to reach my father," he writes.

There are depressing descriptions of a childhood surrounded by high security, shielded from reality during an era when the Red Army Faction, a far-left terrorist group, was threatening top politicians and business leaders. Walter Kohl, like so many adolescents, only wanted one thing: to become independent at some point. The fact that he couldn't, led to many arguments.

"My father often told me that I did not understand what advantages I had because of my background," Walter Kohl writes. "But I didn't want any advantages. I just wanted to be allowed to be like the others of my age."

Sitting Out Problems

Walter Kohl's book also documents an estrangement that continued to grow over the years. Walter learned about the 2001 suicide of his mother -- who suffered from an incurable light allergy -- not from his father, but from his father's office manager, Juliane Weber.

"My father was never particularly good at delivering family news," he writes in another context, this time about Helmut's current wife, Maike. He was only told about her through a telegram. The wedding took place without him; he learned about it from Germany's largest tabloid newspaper. In the book, the son describes how Helmut Kohl preferred to sit out problems in his private life. In that respect, he resembles the public figure who often postponed dealing with problems in his coalition.

Walter Kohl's book is also a book about the slow disintegration of a family after the death of a mother, who, like in many German families, was at its core. He is unsparingly open in his description of his subsequent depression and his plans to take his own life. The responsibility for his own young son was what stopped him in the end.

Helmut Kohl disappointed a lot of people during his life. Recently, German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble, who was once Kohl's anointed successor in the CDU, described how he broke with him over the illegal donations scandal. Last year, at a CDU event, Kohl offered Schäuble conciliatory words. But in a program to be broadcast on German television this week, Schäuble says: "I don't want to have anything else to do with him."

'Do You Want a Split?'

But Walter Kohl is no party acolyte who can easily discard Helmut Kohl. He has made his peace with him, he writes. It almost sounds as if he is trying to reassure himself. The relationship between them isn't good; they have no contact with each other. The final break came after Helmut's second marriage.

"I asked him directly: 'Do you want a split?' He answered me with a curt: 'Yes.' After that, for me, all further interpretations had to be ruled out," Walter writes.

Walter Kohl had given interviews before his book was published in which he made the difficult relationship to his father known. Helmut Kohl won't forgive him for that, he writes. "He probably thought, and thinks, that I betrayed him by speaking publicly."

Helmut Kohl has not commented on his son's book -- yet. He clearly wants to sit it out. In that respect, he remains, once again, true to himself.

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