The Last Act A Raging Battle over Kohl's Legacy
For years, Helmut Kohl's second wife held a tight grip over his legacy. With his passing now, she is pushing for an EU state funeral rather than a national one -- and even considered not inviting any German leaders to speak. A major dispute is expected over the estate of one of Europe's most distinguished politicians.
Angela Merkel was unprepared when the information reached her. Last Friday, at 5:17 p.m., news broke that Helmut Kohl had died, but no one had informed the German chancellor in advance of the first wire stories. She turned to her staff and said, "First, we need to get confirmation."
Merkel's motorcade had just arrived at the Vatican and she retreated with confidantes to the Santa Maria della Pietà church at the Campo Santo Teutonico cemetery, where she called Maike Kohl-Richter, to offer her condolences to the widow. But the conversation also touched on the immediate future, such as the funeral during which Germany could bid farewell to the chancellor responsible for German reunification. Kohl-Richter told Merkel of the idea to have an EU state funeral. The chancellor got the impression that Kohl's widow had already spoken to European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker about the plan and that the decision had already been made.
Germany has an established tradition when it comes to bidding farewell to distinguished statesmen. No chancellor in postwar German history has been buried without the current chancellor providing dignified words at the funeral.
Kohl-Richter, though, had a completely different vision for the memorial service. Merkel could understand the idea of having a European funeral in Strasbourg rather than a German ceremony -- Kohl, after all, had been one of only three Honorary Citizens of Europe, and no other person carried that honor with greater pride than the former German chancellor.
But the fact that the list of speakers that Kohl-Richter originally had in mind didn't include a single German, instead giving a speaking slot to Hungarian autocrat Viktor Orbán, was a unique challenge, even for this crisis-tested chancellor.
What to do? A government spokesperson refused to provide comment on Merkel's talks with Kohl-Richter. Government sources say that Merkel did not request a speaking slot in Strasbourg, not wanting to bend quite that low. She did, however, point out how unusual it would be if, at a funeral for a German chancellor, not a single German politician spoke.
Unusual? It's more than that. An unparalleled drama is currently playing out behind the scenes in Berlin -- and it has already become clear that the battle over Kohl's legacy didn't end with the former chancellor's death. Rather, it is continuing with grim ferocity. On the one side is the widow, who views herself as the guardian of Kohl's legacy and considers any criticism of him to be betrayal. On the other side stands Kohl's political party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and Chancellor Merkel, who finally want to make their peace with their former leader.
The Writing of History as a Weapon
The battle isn't just over how Helmut Kohl is remembered. It also has to do with one of the most important chapters in German history. It's a question of how Germany views itself. And very important insights may be slumbering in Kohl's files. Who, though, should be the one to evaluate them? Historians or Kohl's widow?
The writing of history can always be used as a weapon. And in Kohl's eyes, Merkel had been an unknown politician who he had elevated to prominence -- only to see her stab him in the back in the dark hours of a party donor scandal. In recent years, Kohl and his second wife Maike had frequently been open about how dissatisfied they were with Merkel's political policies.
In fall 2014, for example, Kohl published a small book, "Out of Concern for Europe." When Orbán visited Kohl at his home in Ludwigshafen in early 2016 and was given a warm welcome by the former chancellor, the act could be understood as a gesture of protest against Merkel's refugee policies.
Now, the funeral at European Parliament in Strasbourg appears to have been politicized. Even the guest list is a minefield. The government can make whatever suggestions it wants but, at the end of the day, tradition holds that the family's wishes are respected. In recent years, Kohl and his wife have broken ties with almost all of Kohl's political contemporaries. Among those who have been cast off are former German labor minister Norbert Blüm, Heiner Geissler, long a senior leadership figure in the CDU, and former German President Christian Wulff. The two have also long been estranged from both of Kohl's sons. Unpleasant scenes reportedly resulted last Friday night when Walter Kohl tried to see his deceased father. Nevertheless, it is expected that both sons will be invited to the funeral.
Like Kohl himself, his wife also divides the world into friends and enemies. In her eyes, anyone who has committed a wrongdoing becomes a permanent traitor. At the Kohl home in Ludwigshafen, it has still not been forgotten that current German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier commissioned a special investigator in 2000 in an effort to prove suspicions that files had been deliberately destroyed during the final days of the Kohl era. The former chancellor considered the allegations to be sheer villainy and, in fact, they have never been proven.
People close to Kohl are now not trying to conceal the fact that a European state funeral also serves as posthumous revenge against Steinmeier since, as president, he would be responsible for organizing a state funeral in Germany. Holding the funeral in Strasbourg, of course, also diminishes Merkel's stature. She will be one of many speakers there and will not play the kind of central role she did at the state funeral for former Chancellor Helmut Schmidt in November 2015. Among those expected to speak at the funeral, planned for July 1, are European Commission President Juncker, former United States President Bill Clinton and likely also French President Emmanuel Macron.
The fact that Merkel will now be allowed to speak at the funeral is likely because people intervened on her behalf with Maike Kohl-Richter and warned of the scandal it would cause if the current leader of Germany were only allowed to attend the former chancellor's funeral as a silent onlooker. Meanwhile, Kai Diekmann, the former editor-in-chief of the mass circulation Bild newspaper, who had close relations with Kohl, was one of those who talked Kohl-Richter out of inviting Orbán to speak.
Fearing the Worst
But the very fact that Kohl-Richter would even toy with the idea of having Orbán speak has left many within the Christian Democrats fearing the worst in the future. Almost every obituary published has offered praise for Kohl's farsightedness and his ability to learn from the darkest chapter in Germany history, crediting him with building a Europe in which might doesn't always make right. And it would be at the funeral of this leader, of all people, that Kohl-Richter wanted to allow a man to speak who has trampled on fundamental European rights, undermined the distribution of power in his own country and accused Merkel of "moral imperialism?" That's an affront to Europe, to democracy and also to that for which Helmut Kohl stood.
For some time now, it has no longer been possible to distinguish between the will of the former chancellor and that of his wife. Kohl experienced serious complications after hip-replacement surgery in spring 2015 and he had to spend almost six months in the hospital. He came so close to death that he secured a burial plot in the nearby city of Speyer.
When he was finally able to return home, he was in bad shape. A tracheotomy, performed so that he could be connected to an artificial respiration system, had left him barely able to speak. People close to Kohl now say that the idea for a European state funeral had been the former chancellor's own wish as well, but he left nothing behind in writing indicating that desire. People who recently visited Kohl in Ludwigshafen have doubts as to whether he was still even in a state to express his will.
Juncker, in any case, discussed the details of the funeral with Kohl-Richter. And within the CDU party, hardly anyone believes that Kohl would have eschewed a German state funeral. "The idea of a European state funeral, at least during Helmut Kohl's lifetime, would not have been conceivable or plannable," says Bernd Neumann, the former head of the CDU chapter in the city-state of Bremen and a man who was close to Kohl for many years. His message is clear: This idea is being orchestrated by others.
The big question now is: What does Kohl-Richter want? She holds all the cards and has the power to determine what happens to Kohl's estate. In a 2014 interview with the Welt am Sonntag newspaper, she claimed that she of course had the "sole decision-making authority" over his estate. Even at the time, her choice of words angered many in the CDU.
Many of Kohl's old companions would like to see to it that Kohl's services are cast in a dignified light. For example, Bernhard Vogel -- who served as governor of Kohl's home state of Rhineland-Palatinate for many years and is now the honorary chairman of the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, a political foundation closely aligned with the CDU -- arranged for the first academic biography of Kohl to be written. He persuaded German historian Hans-Peter Schwarz to take on the task, a man who had never tried to hide his sympathies for the conservatives. And in 2012, his more than 1,000-page book appeared, offering a favorable assessment of the Kohl era. But because he had written a few critical passages about Kohl's European policies, Schwarz -- who likewise passed away last week, two days before Kohl -- was declared persona non-grata. Kohl-Richter is making every possible effort to ensure there are no blemishes on Kohl's legacy, demanding the kind of veneration that isn't part of an honest writing of history.
Helmut Kohl made his first public appearance with Maike Richter on April 12, 2005, on the occasion of the celebration of the ex-chancellor's 75th birthday at the German Historical Museum in Berlin. Kohl had become acquainted with Richter when she was a staffer at the Chancellery in Bonn before the government's move to Berlin. She had begun working at the Bonn Chancellery in 1994, when Kohl was still in power, and they reportedly quickly became fond of each other. Chancellery staffers at the time recall that the young economist spent a lot of time explaining files to the chancellor in the evenings.
Kohl had been prone to the attentions of young women. When he began his relationship with Richter, the power gap between the two was overwhelming. On the one hand was a man who wielded absolute power within the Christian Democrats -- a man who was both feared and respected the world over. On the other, was a young woman who dressed like Kohl's beloved first wife Hannelore to please him. Hannelore, who suffered from an incurable allergy to light, committed suicide in 2001.
A Shifting Dynamic in the Kohl Household
But reality didn't develop according to the cliché. Kohl's sons, his old friends and his confidants were the first to feel the effects. If one believes their portrayal of events, it was Kohl's new wife who began systematically cutting ties to his past. She divided the world into good and evil -- and the second category is where most ended up.
First, contact to Kohl's sons was broken off. Then his longtime office manager Juliane Weber, who had even lived with him for a period in a home in Bonn, was no longer wanted. Then, one day, Eckhard Seeber, who had been Kohl's chauffeur and friend for decades, was ordered to hand over the keys to the car and the house -- as though "Ecki" had been just a common servant. When Seeber rang the doorbell of the Kohl family home on Saturday in order to say goodbye to the former chancellor, he was turned away. Furious, he told a friend about the undignified treatment he had received from the widow.
But Richter isolated herself as well. Friends who had studied with Richter say that birthday cards or congratulations on her relationship with Kohl had been responded to with unfriendly telephone calls. She reportedly threatened old friends that if she ever read any indiscretions about her youth in the press that she would immediately get her lawyers involved.
In February 2008, Kohl suffered a fall in his home and doctors diagnosed a severe head injury. Kohl never completely recovered from the accident. He spent months in the hospital and in a rehab center, where Kohl and Richter married in May 2008. The witnesses at the wedding were the late media mogul Leo Kirch and former Bild editor Diekmann. Kohl did not invite his sons to the wedding.
Kohl was in a wheelchair for the rest of his life -- an invalid who had trouble speaking and required constant care. Some old friends stayed away because they couldn't bear the idea of seeing their idol weakened and unable to speak. "I didn't accept the last invitation from Maike," says one, "because a visit to Ludwigshafen meant a conversation with her and not one with Kohl."
Kohl's wife was now the dominant force at the Ludwigshafen home. She would plow through all the records, documents, letters and files, from morning to night. The entire house, from the basement to the living spaces are filled with them. She would spend her days reading about past events and writing -- she became obsessed with the need to defend her husband's legacy. She considers him to be one of the greatest statesmen of all time.
Kohl, whose undisputed historical magnitude always stood in strange disparity to his envy, had become quieter and more peaceful. Those who had the chance to visit him during his final years experienced a man who had mellowed with age and appeared to have made peace with the world. The petty desire for revenge that had driven him for so many years had transferred to his wife.
The role of becoming the primary interpreter of the life's work of a great politician can be a seductive one -- and the Kohl case is in no way an isolated one. In 1983, former Chancellor Willy Brandt married historian Brigitte Seebacher, and his new wife soon began trying to reshape the way people interpreted her husband's legacy. In her books and articles, the left-leaning internationalist Social Democrat Brandt -- much to his party's annoyance -- became a conservative nationalist.
When Brandt died on Oct. 8, 1992, his widow set the conditions for his state funeral. She rejected plans by his SPD party to transport his body in a special train to Berlin, making stops at the important stations in the former party leader's political career along the way. Brandt's previous wife Rut, to whom he had been married for 32 years and had three children, was not invited to the funeral in Berlin's Reichstag. "The horror," the chancellor's youngest son Matthias Brandt would call the episode. "Not inviting my mother and standing behind the coffin of Willy Brandt together with Kohl could only be the product of a truly dreadful person."
Like Maike Kohl-Richter today, Brigitte Seebacher-Brandt also claimed discretionary power over all the writings, files and documents of the deceased man. The fight over his estate lasted more than two years and nearly wound up in court. In the end, rather than placing the documents in a federally funded foundation dedicated to Brandt's work, she agreed to give them to the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, a foundation aligned with the Social Democratic Party. Seebacher is now a member of a supervisory board that must provide approval for access to the files.
Many are now hoping the Seebacher-Brandt case could provide a precedent for an amicable settlement with Kohl's widow. At least 400 binders full of files are believed to be stored at Kohl's home in Ludwigshafen. Initially, Kohl had turned the files over to the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, but he reserved the right to take them back at any time, which he exercised in 2010. Since then, they have resided inside Kohl's home. There are also an unknown number of additional documents. Neither the Christian Democratic Party nor the German government can access the documents without permission from Kohl's widow.
The strife over Kohl's political estate has been brewing for years. During his time as the German government's state secretary for cultural affairs, Michael Naumann, a friend of Kohl's, visited Ludwigshafen several times in an effort to find a solution. But his talks on the matter were conducted almost exclusively with Kohl-Richter and not with the former chancellor, he recalls. She had done the talking and Kohl just nodded along.
"Mrs. Kohl-Richter wanted to maintain further influence over the use of the files," says Neumann. He tried to make clear to the chancellor's wife that foundation committees must be balanced and that a single person cannot have control over everything. The talks must have been extremely difficult.
In his memoirs, Kohl boasted of the "excellent records" that had been at his disposal. They "included numerous sources that will not be available to academia and researchers for a long time to come" -- a hardly disguised reference to government documents that remain classified today.
What is certain is that there are large gaps in the Kohl-era files currently held in the Chancellery that experts are unable to explain. Why, for example, are there almost no letters between Kohl and his ministers from 1989-90, the year German reunification took place? And why are their few traces of the multibillion deutsche mark loan extended to East Germany in 1983?
Was it sloppy record keeping or were they deliberately removed? But if they were, why would his correspondence with his ministers be among the documents missing?
There are no doubts that government documents legally belong in the Federal Archive in Koblenz. But it is also hard to imagine that Peter Altmeier, who is the head of the Chancellery, would sue Kohl's widow to obtain them. With many of the papers, the widow might also be able to make the argument that it is unclear whether the document is a government or a personal one -- such as deals made between coalition partners or letters that Kohl wrote on private stationery, even if the content itself was highly political in nature.
But there's also one other incentive for Kohl-Richter to reach an agreement with the CDU and the Chancellery. Currently, six separate government-financed foundations exist that are dedicated to the legacies of German leaders. Foundations dedicated to Konrad Adenauer, Willy Brandt and Helmut Schmidt each have annual budgets of 2.6 million euros. Even with donations, Kohl's widow wouldn't be able to raise that much money.
Inside the Chancellery, plans are already being made for the design of a Kohl foundation. The idea at the moment is to have branches in Ludwigshafen and Berlin. One possible location in Berlin would be a building on the grand boulevard Unter den Linden in the eastern part of the city that formerly housed East Germany's Ministry of Education, run by Margot Honecker, the wife of the final leader of the German Democratic Republic. At the very least, that would represent a nice victory for Kohl over a GDR regime that he loathed so much.
By Melanie Amann, Matthias Bartsch, Konstantin von Hammerstein, Peter Müller, Ralf Neukirch, Christoph Pauly, René Pfister, Klaus Wiegrefe