Former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, also known as the “chancellor of German unification”, finds himself in an uncomfortable public spotlight these days after a former confidant disclosed private conversations that the two had behind closed doors.
Heribert Schwan once worked for Mr. Kohl, helping him write his books, including an autobiography that was published in 2010 as well as other memoirs about Mr. Kohl’s tenure as chancellor and his late wife, Hannelore Kohl.
During a series of meetings, Mr. Schwan recorded conversations he had with the former chancellor and also had access to minutes of private meetings between Mr. Kohl and other world leaders at the time, as well as a file that the former East German state security kept on him.
This week, Mr. Schwan published a series of extracts from the 600 recordings that he kept, which were excluded from any of the books Mr. Kohl commissioned from him. They include nasty comments about fellow party members, such as current chancellor Angela Merkel. “Merkel has no clue,” Mr. Kohl allegedly said, and “cannot eat with fork and knife at dinner parties.”
“It does not reveal anything new about Mr. Kohl or what happened at the time.”
“Those are all subjective statements that he made about his enemies and traitors,” said Stefan Bollinger of the Free University in Berlin, who specializes on the former East Germany, German reunification and socialism.
Mr. Kohl served as chancellor from 1982 to 1998, first of the former West Germany and after 1990 of a united Germany. The fall of the Berlin Wall and the subsequent role that Mr. Kohl assumed during unification helped him to overcome internal party rivalries and maintain his strong position.
“This book is good for the author and the publisher,” said Mr. Bollinger “but it does not reveal anything new about Mr. Kohl or what happened at the time.” Mr. Bollinger said that Mr. Kohl was known for his clear-cut judgments about others, so any of these comments don’t come as much of a surprise to historians.
The 85-year old Mr. Kohl himself reacted to Mr. Schwan’s book, which had an initial print run of more than 100,000 copies, by successfully suing him. Mr. Schwan was ordered to hand in all recordings he had made copies of at the time, but he was not stopped from publishing his book.
Ironically, Mr. Kohl appeared on Wednesday, during one of his rare public appearances, to present a book of his own in Frankfurt at the international book fair – written by Mr. Schwan. It is a new version of his memoirs, which Mr. Schwan wrote and that was first published five years ago.
At the presentation, the former chancellor, whose tenure of 16 years was the longest since Otto von Bismarck during the 19th century, seemed helpless and weak. He arrived in a wheelchair, surrounded by countless camera teams, photographers and journalists, who all expected him to lash out against his former confidant.
His appearance lasted 20 minutes, during which he was hardly able to speak weakened by previous diseases and his advanced age. His publisher was promoting the book when Mr. Kohl added, “it is the truth, how it really was.”
Franziska Scheven is an editor with Handelsblatt Global Edition in Berlin. To contact the author: firstname.lastname@example.org.