The tragic champion of German unification

By Tony Paterson

Ill health, a new marriage and the euro crisis have put Kohl under new scrutiny

Helmut Kohl is still the "Unification Chancellor" - a giant of contemporary European history who holds an unassailable reputation of having done more than any other post-war German leader to end his nation's division and rid the capital Berlin of its infamous wall.

But as Germany celebrates the 22nd anniversary of the reunification that Kohl did so much to bring about, he has become a tragic figure.

Confined to a wheelchair because of a bad fall and injuries to his head he suffered four years ago, 82-year-old former conservative leader cannot speak for more than 10 minutes at a time and when he does, he slurs his words.

To make matters worse, the father of German unity and the ardent advocate of the single currency now stands accused of causing the deepening euro crisis.

"Reunification is not only one of the underlying causes of the euro crisis, it is also one of the reasons behind our inability to solve it," Wolfgang Mnchau, one of Germany's leading economic analysts, said this week. "This is exactly the tragedy of Helmut Kohl: with his great political coup of German unity, he sowed the seeds for the destruction of his greatest political dream of European unity."

Some analysts argue forcibly that Kohl was so blinded by his political obsession with European unity that he pressed ahead with the single currency.

But nowadays it is not only the Unification Chancellor and his euro policies which have become a chief focus of attention. It is rather the neatly dressed, petite 48-year-old woman who never leaves his side. Maike Kohl-Richter has been Kohl's second wife and unofficial carer since 2008. German media have painted her as a controlling figure, saying she is "building a wall" around Kohl at their home in Oggersheim.

"She is looked upon as the Lady Macbeth of Oggersheim," said Der Spiegel this week. Sueddeutsche Zeitung said: " They live like two people who have been locked in a museum overnight by mistake. But this is no mistake. This is how she wanted it."

Kohl-Richter grew up in the town of Siegen, near Bonn, and joined the local youth wing of Kohl's conservative Christian Democratic Party. She became a government official in the economics department of the Berlin Chancellery.

Kohl's first wife, Hannelore, committed suicide in 2001 after suffering for years from an allergy to light called photodermatitis. In 2005 Kohl announced that Kohl-Richter had become his new companion. In 2008 they were married.

But Kohl's two sons, Walter and Peter, with whom the former Chancellor had had an on-and-off relationship for decades, were not invited to the wedding. They were told about it by telegram. "You could feel that my father saw his future with Maike, even if it meant ending his relationship with us," Walter Kohl wrote afterwards.

Eckhard Seeber, Kohl's former chauffeur, was a combination of personal batman and butler to Kohl for 46 years. When a distressed Seeber went to visit his boss in hospital in 2008, while he was still recovering from his fall, he was confronted by Kohl-Richter in the car park. "Maike told me to park the car in the garage and put the keys in the house. That's what I did and that was the end of it," Seeber told Germany's Bunte magazine. He has not met his former employer since.

Kohl-Richter has so far declined to respond to the criticism. But Hans-Peter Schwarz, a historian who has just completed a new, favourable biography of Kohl, has dismissed the allegations against her as unfair: "It is obviously difficult for her and her husband because of the disabilities Helmut Kohl now suffers from. On certain issues somebody has to decide for him." And Kohl has told friends that without Kohl-Richter he would probably not be still alive.

More hurtful allegations could be in the pipeline. One of the figures to have been wounded most is Heribert Schwan, a journalist who spent years ghost writing Kohl's memoirs. Schwan claims he was obliged to sever all contacts with Kohl in 2009. Now he is planning to respond with a book. Schwan has 630 hours of interviews with Kohl and intimate details were revealed to him by his former wife shortly before her death. He has also gained access to the secret police files the East German Stasi kept on him. The book could make interesting reading.

The life of a unifier

Born in 1930, Helmut Kohl was a member of the Hitler Youth movement but became the first post-war German Chancellor too young to have served in the armed forces during World War II. He was a leading figure in regional politics, before entering national politics in the late 1970s. He went on to become the Conservative Party leader and was elected Chancellor in 1982. He seized the initiative in 1989 by offering Germans the prospect of unity. Intense consultations with the then Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and the leaders of the United States, France and Britain led to a plan being hatched for unification in 1990. Kohl went on to serve two more terms as Chancellor. He is Germany's longest-serving Chancellor since Bismarck.

- Independent

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