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Thursday, 6 January, 2000, 15:04 GMT
Kohl scandal: The damage to his legacy

Mr Kohl (left): International success no protection from scandal

By European Affairs Analyst William Horsley

Kohl under fire
  • Reputation at risk
  • The scandal so far
  • The unification

  • Shortly after he lost power in elections in September 1998, Helmut Kohl said jokingly that after his retirement from the big political stage he did not wish to be treated as a monument, because "monuments are liable to be fouled by dogs who lift their legs against them".

    Now those words have come back to haunt the former German Chancellor, in a way he could surely not have foreseen then.

    The colossus of German politics, who appeared to enjoy his reputation as a human monument even during his last years in power, now faces the prospect that his reputation will be forever stained by revelations that had an arrogant disregard for the rules of politics in his own country.

    CDU The scandal threatens the CDU's electoral chances

    Mr Kohl's role as the Chancellor of German Unification and as one of the main architects of the European Union is not in doubt. Even his political opponents have acknowledged his enormous and positive part in these historic developments.

    Yet history shows that the title of international statesman is no sure protection against the ruin of reputations.

    US President Richard Nixon, for example, was widely acclaimed for his opening of relations with communist China at the height of the Cold War, yet he went down in history as a crook and a liar after the disclosures of the Watergate scandal.

    Mr Kohl's reputation as an honest politician is already severely battered. His overall place in history will depend largely on what emerges from the criminal investigation now under way.

    The former German chancellor staunchly denies that his receipt of secret political donations over many years resulted in any personal gain for himself, or that it involved any bribery.

    Yet already it is clear that he deliberately deceived others for a long time over the fact of the secret donations.

    Autocratic style

    Since the revelation was made, he has also shown contempt for the law by refusing to disclose details, including who made the donations and who received the secret payments which he himself ordered.

    Despite all the denials, the German public must now suspect that the secret flow of funds had something to do with influence-peddling, if not worse.

    A parliamentary inquiry into that question may prove as significant as the inquiry of the prosecutors, who say they are limiting themselves to suspicions of breach of trust, rather than more serious offences such as fraud.

    How could Mr Kohl have come to see himself as above the law in this way? A clue lies in his increasingly autocratic style of government, especially in the second half of his 16-year tenure of office.

    Helmut Kohl Mr Kohl carefully controlled his media image

    For years, the "Kohl system" was a fact of life in Germany. And after winning the first all-German elections in 1990, Mr Kohl seemed to dominate the political scene, encouraging the image of himself as "Father of the German Nation".

    Behind the genial image, though, was a ruthless streak.

    After surviving a challenge to his leadership in 1989 from the liberal wing of his Christian Democratic Union (CDU), Mr Kohl took revenge on those whom he saw as plotters against him, banishing them from key political positions and consolidating his own control.

    Among those who were cast from favour was the then secretary-general of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), Heiner Geissler.

    Mr Geissler has played an important part, many years later, in the undoing of Mr Kohl. It was he who first confirmed the existence of Mr Kohl's secret accounts, and so set the hounds onto his former master.

    Personal allies

    During his 25 years as CDU chairman, Mr Kohl kept strengthening his grip on his own party.

    He was renowned for his huge network of personal allies, which enabled him to stay on as leader long after some others in the party would have liked.

    Now it must be suspected that some of that loyalty could have been bought by unlawful gifts of cash by Mr Kohl himself.

    So far, he has said only that he used the money to help the fortunes of the CDU in eastern Germany after German re-unification in 1990. He also claims that the goal was to help build democracy.

    But others may well violently disagree with this self-justification. And the scandal now engulfing Mr Kohl threatens to wreck his party's prospects of recovery from its election defeat of 1998.

    Another key to the longevity of the "Kohl system" was Mr Kohl's careful construction of his statesman-like image through the media.

    Made enemies

    As Chancellor, Mr Kohl was never at ease with lively, independent media. He often treated journalists with open disdain.

    He made enemies of Germany's most searching investigative news magazine, Der Spiegel, and for many years refused all contact with its reporters.

    He reserved most of his occasional TV interviews for reporters from channels which behaved with what he thought was due deference.

    Such was the pressure on political journalists to conform to this "Kohl system" that news conferences with Chancellor Kohl and his ministers were often lacklustre.

    Many journalists decided that their best way of securing access to government information was not to stir up trouble, but to try to gain favour with the chancellor and his ministers in background "off the record" sessions.

    During his years in power, Helmut Kohl managed to present the image of a man who was personally incorruptible, and aloof from every scandal.

    That makes it all the more damaging now that it has come to light that Helmut Kohl had another side to his politics, which he wanted to remain forever a secret.

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    See also:
    04 Jan 00 |  Europe
    Kohl scandal: The story so far
    03 Jan 00 |  Europe
    Cash scandal threatens Kohl legacy
    30 Nov 99 |  Europe
    Analysis: Kohl under fire
    04 Jan 00 |  Europe
    Kohl's mark on history
    27 Sep 98 |  Europe
    Kohl's long reign over

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