Kohl, a Stubborn Statesman,


By Roger Cohen

New York Times
January 12, 2000

Berlin, Jan. 11 -- A streak of obstinacy helped Helmut Kohl unify Germany and persuade his countrymen to abandon their beloved mark for the euro. But now the same stubbornness that elevated him to statesmanship appears to be unhinging his Christian Democratic party and unraveling Mr. Kohl's reputation. By admitting that as chancellor he accepted over $1 million in secret payments to the party during the 1990's, but refusing to reveal the names of the donors or quit politics, Mr. Kohl has opened devastating divisions among Christian Democrats no longer sure whether to revere or revile their once sacrosanct leader.

Under German law, any donation to a party that exceeds 20,000 marks ($10,500) must be declared. It was Mr. Kohl's failure to do this while operating secret bank accounts that led to the opening last month of a criminal investigation into his actions.

The plight of the Christian Democrats worsened further at a hastily convened news conference today when Wolfgang Schäuble, 57, a protégé of Mr. Kohl and his successor as leader of the party, described how, in 1994, he accepted a bag containing 100,000 marks ($52,000) in cash from an arms broker named Karlheinz Schreiber, who is currently in Canada fighting extradition to Germany. Thus weakened, Mr. Schäuble will be hard-pressed to reverse the party's sharp political slide -- one that has abruptly revived the fortunes of Chancellor Gerhard Schrí¶der, a Social Democrat.

A well-oiled political machine powered by a strong identification with the basic conservatism of most Germans, the Christian Democratic party is still a long way from collapse, and the aura surrounding Mr. Kohl has not been entirely stripped away. But the events today suggested strongly that the worst is yet to come. The bag of money, Mr. Schäuble said, was given to him the morning after a fund-raising meeting on Sept. 21, 1994, organized by Brigitte Baumeister, then treasurer of the Christian Democratic party. "I passed the donation onto Ms. Baumeister for further use and financial accounting," Mr. Schäuble added.

The problem, as he himself conceded today, was that this formal accounting never took place and the money disappeared from view until it was transferred more than a year later to a private Frankfurt bank, George Haucks & Sí¶hne. A bank official declined today to give any information on the account. Ms. Baumeister has suggested that the account was used for what she has called "special earnings" of the party.

There appeared to be other potentially devastating problems with Mr. Schäuble's story, among them why he would consider it natural to accept a bag full of cash and how he can now hope to clear up a scandal in which he has become deeply implicated. Up to now, Mr. Schäuble had sought to distance himself from Mr. Kohl in the affair, declaring recently that the "Kohl era is over." But by declining to take full responsibility and withdraw from politics, the former chancellor has plainly undermined his successor and ensured that the shadow of his era remains long.

Inconsistencies in Mr. Schäuble's account suggest the extent of his predicament. In November, when asked about Mr. Schreiber, who now lives in Canada, the Christian Democrat leader said he thought he had "run into him" once. The clear intent of Mr. Schäuble was to show that he had nothing to do with a man already linked to shady payments under Mr. Kohl, including a one-million mark donation to the Christian Democratic party made in Switzerland in 1991.

But today, acknowledging that he had not only met him twice but had also been involved in the presumably memorable handover of 100,000 marks, Mr. Schauble said: "We should be very careful when we talk about the issue of lying. Once or twice is not particularly important, nor does it constitute a lie." The remark, suggesting a very pliable notion of what truth-telling is, appeared to reflect a political culture long cultivated by Mr. Kohl. Under the man who was chancellor for 16 years until 1998, accountability and transparency were far less important than loyalty and the preservation of power.

It is already clear that much of the unaccounted money controlled by Mr. Kohl was used to provide funds to party branches and individuals in order to cement party unity and a fierce loyalty. "He used this money to sustain his authority," said Hans-Peter Müller, a sociologist. "He corrupted his party, forging a regime of personal power."

The culture that permitted such practices has clearly shifted in Germany, as elsewhere in Europe. Already there are murmurings that the fate of Christian Democracy in Germany may bear some similarity to that of the Christian Democrats in Italy, a once dominant party whose undoing after the cold war began with a corruption scandal that ultimately revealed a wide network of slush funds and secret payments.

"As in Italy, where the public mood was long misjudged, you see Kohl today underestimating public opinion and the changes since 1989," said Claus Leggewie, a political scientist. "The worst-case scenario is now the Italian-style implosion of a party founded in 1949 to fight the cold war and unify Germany."

Neither Mr. Kohl nor Mr. Schäuble appear to have entirely grasped the gravity of the scandal. Certainly, Mr. Kohl has given the impression that he believes that he made a minor mistake, scarcely relevant in the light of his achievements.

Today, Mr. Schäuble rejected suggestions that he should resign as party leader, saying there was "no reason" to do so. He argued that while he should have checked more carefully what happened to the money, his actions were the right ones in that he handed the funds to the party treasurer. Mr. Schäuble's implication today was that he had expected the treasurer to declare the cash. In other words, he argued that his actions were distinct from Mr. Kohl's in that he had not tried to keep the money secret or himself direct its use. Clearly attacking Mr. Kohl, the party leader said: "If everyone had acted in the manner I did, we would soon have all the explanations."

But even the best explanations may not prevent heads from rolling at this point. Growing irritation was evident within the party today and there were isolated calls for Mr. Schäuble's immediate resignation. If he survives, it is also unclear how he will able to settle the central issue of dealing with Mr. Kohl. Largely unrepentant, adamant in his refusal to reveal the names of his secret donors, Mr. Kohl has shown no sign of leaving the Bundestag or distancing himself from a party of which he is still honorary chairman. As a result, the party is deeply split. There are those still loyal to Mr. Kohl, among them Jürgen Rüttgers, another protégé and possible future leader.

Others, like the former defense minister Volker Rühe, now see the former chancellor as a menace. "Kohl is playing a very dangerous game," said Mr. Müller, the sociologist. But the former chancellor still seems to be bathing in the spotlight he enjoyed just two months ago, on the 10th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, when the likes of George Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev stood beside him. Unlike those two men, however, he often gives the impression of being unaware that time has moved on.

A recent cartoon here showed a statue of Mr. Kohl being dismantled. "He was a great statesman," said Alfred Hartenbach, a Social Democrat member of the Bundestag. "His great mistake has been to continue in politics for another season."