Former German chancellor Helmut Kohl retired from politics nearly a decade ago, but the details of his turbulent family life are just beginning to surface in a memoir penned by his estranged eldest son. In his book, Live Your Life or Be Lived: First Steps on the Path to Reconciliation, Walter Kohl, the son of Kohl and his late first wife Hannelore, creates a damning portrait of his father as a single-minded career politician and an absent husband and parent.
Excerpts from the book, published last week in the German magazine Focus, describe in vivid detail the strained father-son relationship as the senior Kohl climbed the ladder of the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party to the chancellorship: “Politics was and is my father’s real home,” Walter writes. “His true family is called CDU, not Kohl.”
Walter’s decision to publish intimate revelations while his father is still alive could further complicate Kohl’s already divisive reputation. Widely regarded as a political powerhouse, he had a 16-year tenure (the longest of any German chancellor since Otto von Bismarck) that oversaw the end of the Cold War, the reunification of Germany and the creation of the European Union through the Maastricht Treaty. But his reputation was tarnished in 1999 with allegations that the CDU had received illegal donations during Kohl’s leadership. The charges were never proven in court, but paved the way for then-CDU secretary general and current Chancellor Angela Merkel to advocate for the party’s break with Kohl over the scandal. Kohl officially resigned from politics when he left the Bundestag in 2002.
Now 80 and living a largely private life, Kohl is riling politicians and residents of Dresden over the possible erection of a monument in his name. Germany’s Der Spiegel reported the local CDU chapter is pushing for a plaque to pay tribute to a speech Kohl made there in December 1989, shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall, to hundreds of thousands of citizens of what was still East Germany. The centre-left Social Democrats, the Left Party and the Greens are opposed to the monument.
During his political career, Kohl crafted the image of a family man. But Walter claims that is a lie, and that the familial rift intensified in 2001 when Hannelore committed suicide at the family’s home in Ludwigshafen. The final straw for Walter came in 2008, when he found out about his father’s second marriage, to Maike Richter, through a telegram. He wasn’t invited to the wedding, and learned the details of the ceremony from a tabloid newspaper. After that, Walter severed all ties with his father.
Still inscrutably private, Kohl hasn’t commented publicly on his son’s book. Though Walter says he’s made peace with their estrangement, he’s still haunted by the duplicity of Kohl’s image as a once-revered politician and the absent father he barely knew. “Every boy dreams of a father with whom he can explore the world, who would go camping with him or play soccer,” he writes. “Every boy hopes to have a father who is also there for him. I was not able to reach my father.”