Feature

Germany: Family drama swirls around Helmut Kohl

Is a towering figure of the 20th century being held captive by his much younger wife?

Is a towering figure of the 20th century being held captive by his much younger wife? asked David Charter in The Times (U.K.). The estranged sons of former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl accuse their stepmother, Maike Kohl-Richter, of “controlling their frail father and keeping him prisoner.” In an emotional TV interview, Walter and Peter Kohl said 49-year-old Kohl-Richter “had stalked their father for years before gaining almost complete power over his life.” They say she began an affair with him in the 1990s, when she was around 30 and he was still married to their mother, Hannelore, who committed suicide in 2001 after suffering for years from a debilitating allergy to light. Kohl-Richter finally seized her chance to marry Kohl in a hospital chapel in 2008, where the aging statesman was recuperating from a stroke and a nasty fall. Now 82, he can’t walk or speak well, and his sons say Kohl-Richter keeps him from seeing his family and friends and writes all his correspondence for him. Peter said that the last time he saw his father, after forcing his way into the apartment in 2011, Kohl was delighted to see his granddaughter but implied that he would catch grief from his wife for the visit.

In their telling, Kohl-Richter comes across as “menacing,” said Torsten Krauel in Die Welt (Germany). Peter Kohl has detailed the accusations in a new foreword to his best-selling biography of his late mother. Peter wrote that when he first saw Kohl-Richter’s apartment, in 2005, he was appalled to find that it was a shrine to his father, full of photographs of him, clippings, election memorabilia, even framed letters. It looked like the result of “decades of obsessive collecting for the purpose of hero worship,” he wrote, “like you might attribute to a stalker.” In the TV interview, he described how upsetting it was to see Kohl-Richter wearing his mother’s clothes. 

We’ve covered some of this ground before, said Mely Kiyak in the Frankfurter Rundschau (Germany). Walter Kohl wrote a memoir some years back describing his father “as emotionally stunted,” a cold man uninterested in family life. But apparently the sons “are not finished working through their feelings of violation, their stepmother drama, their need for parental love.” It would be self-indulgent if it weren’t so interesting. By sharing their personal tragedy, they make us wonder about our current leaders. Can a man who is cruel in his family life make humane policy? 

In a way, this tragedy is personal for all Germans, said Jan Fleischhauer and Dirk Kurbjuweit in Der Spiegel (Germany). Kohl was an enormous personality, “the father of German reunification and one of the architects of the euro.” To see “the frailty of this once mighty man” is painful; he who once commanded is now under his wife’s domination. Kohl-Richter looms omnipotent as “the gatekeeper who decides who gets in and what gets out,” who controls “his very words.” Her power has implications for history, too, since she is in charge of his archives—everything from the correspondence between him and Hannelore to letters from world leaders such as George H.W. Bush and François Mitterrand. Will Kohl’s legacy survive intact?

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