Kohl Unplugged

A Former Chancellor's Bitter Memories

Germany Kohl Juncker
Helmut Kohl has had sharp words for many old colleagues.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Helmut Kohl’s legacy could be damaged by an unauthorized book of interviews in which he lashes out at his party colleagues, including Chancellor Angela Merkel.

  • Facts


    • Helmut Kohl was the German chancellor from 1982 to 1998, and he presided over German reunification.
    • The book of Kohl transcripts is the result of 630 hours of interviews at his home near Frankfurt.
    • The author, Heribert Schwan, has already written three other books related to the interviews.
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Angela Merkel “couldn’t eat with a knife and fork” is just one of the comments coming back to haunt former German chancellor, Helmut Kohl, with the launch of the book “Legacy. The Kohl Transcripts” this week.

Journalist Heribert Schwan recorded this and other statements over the course of 100 meetings at Mr. Kohl’s home near Frankfurt in 2001 and 2002.

The 630 hours of interview material were to be developed into the legacy of the “chancellor of German unity.” Three volumes were published, but then Mr. Schwan and Mr. Kohl fell out.

So far, the former chancellor has successfully defended his rights to his own words. A court ordered Mr. Schwan to give the tapes back in August, but the damage was done. Mr. Schwan had the full transcripts.  Mr. Schwan has appealed to the Federal Court of Justice, Germany’s highest civilian court, but the publication of the new book is already going ahead this week. Co-written with Tilman Jens, it is being described by publishers Heyne as an “authentic portrait of the chancellor – a close-up.”

“Kohl was being attacked from all sides in 2001 and 2002. His life's work seemed threatened.”

Bernhard Vogel, Former governor of Rhineland-Palatinate

One of his more inflammatory remarks had to do with the peaceful overthrow of the government of the German Democratic Republic. According to Mr. Kohl, it wasn’t GDR citizens who had brought about the revolution – a notion that was supposedly the product of the “community college brain” of politician Wolfgang Thierse, a member of the Social Democrats and former president of the German parliament – but rather the economic weakness of the Soviet bloc.

And the insults just keep coming. Mr. Kohl is quoted as calling former president Christian Wulff a “huge traitor” and a “loser.” He also allegedly described his longstanding minister of social affairs, Norbert Blüm, as “underhanded” and “backstabbing.”

His most venomous attack is on Ms. Merkel, a former protegee,who he made his environment minister.  “She loitered at state dinners so that I had to repeatedly tell her to pull herself together,” he told Mr. Schwan. Ms. Merkel turned on her mentor when he became embroiled in a scandal over illegal donations to the Christian Democrats.

There was no official comment on the excerpts, neither from CDU headquarters nor from the party’s parliamentary leadership. Mr. Blüm told Handelsblatt he was “not open to discussion at this level.”

Heribert Schwan Kohl Biographer dpa
Heribert Schwan, Helmut Kohl’s former biographer, is pushing ahead with the unauthorized book of transcripts. Source: DPA


Behind the scenes, however, the book has met with some astonishment. Some noted that Mr. Kohl has damaged his position as a historic figure who was behind German and European unity, even if he did not authorize the use of the transcripts.

Others remarked that it was unseemly to publish transcripts without consulting with the former chancellor first. Christian Bäumler, the national deputy leader of the Christian Democratic Employees’ Association (CDA) accused the authors and the publisher of acting irresponsibly. “The publication of the transcripts without the consent of the person involved is the real scandal,” he told Handelsblatt.

Ingbert Liebing, a member of the Bundestag and head of a party’s local politics organization, described the book as “outrageous.” Mr. Kohl’s statements, he said, are “more a part of history than they are relevant to politics today.”

The astonishment is leavened with sympathy in some quarters, with some top CDU politicians noting that the statements exposed the “human tragedy” surrounding Helmut Kohl – and how hurt and bitter he was after he was forced to give up the party leadership. Bernhard Vogel, former governor of the western state of Rhineland-Palatinate and a friend of Mr. Kohl, said the statements had to be seen in their historical context.

“Kohl was being attacked from all sides in 2001 and 2002. His life’s work seemed threatened. His wife was very ill and committed suicide in July 2001,” Mr. Vogel said in an interview on Deutschlandfunk, a public radio station. Mr. Kohl had also been shaken by the CDU financial donations scandal.

It remains unclear what will happen to the interview tapes. Former CDU politician Volker Rühe has suggested the establishment of a “Helmut Kohl Foundation,” but Mr. Schwan would rather see the tapes become the property of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, which is aligned with the CDU. Government spokesman Steffen Seibert, who said that the government had “no plans whatsoever” to start a Helmut Kohl foundation, also had no comment on Mr. Kohl’s remarks about Chancellor Merkel.

Mr. Kohl himself will make an appearance on Wednesday at the Frankfurt Book Fair, where he will read passages from his memoirs relating to the fall of the Berlin Wall 25 years ago and the events leading to German reunification. In contrast to the interview transcripts, in his book Mr. Kohl stresses the role of East German citizens demonstrating at the time. “The people of the GDR had launched a movement that could no longer be suppressed,” he wrote.

Daniel Delhaes is an editor at the Handelsblatt Berlin bureau.  Dietmar Neuerer reports on politics and economics for Handelsblatt online. To contact the authors:  delhaes@handelsblatt.com,  neuerer@handelsblatt.com

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