'I Made Mistakes' : In Germany's Rapidly Spreading Politics-and-Money Scandal, Helmut Kohl Resigns as CDU Chairman and a Key Party Official Commits Suicide

By Hammer, Joshua; Theil, Stefan | Newsweek International, January 31, 2000 | Go to article overview
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'I Made Mistakes' : In Germany's Rapidly Spreading Politics-and-Money Scandal, Helmut Kohl Resigns as CDU Chairman and a Key Party Official Commits Suicide


Hammer, Joshua, Theil, Stefan, Newsweek International


The phone call was long, heated and, in the end, painfully decisive. For 40 minutes last Tuesday morning, German ex-chancellor Helmut Kohl and Wolfgang Schuble, 57, his wheelchair-using protege and the chairman of the Christian Democratic Party, argued "in loud voices," according to German newspaper reports about their crumbling political fortunes. The once mighty CDU was in turmoil, battered by a politics-and-money scandal that had dominated headlines for weeks.

Now Kohl himself was under attack for refusing to come clean about a network of slush funds he controlled. By his stubborn silence, Schuble told his longtime mentor, Kohl was leading the party into "an abyss." Later that morning, after a "tearful" meeting of the party leadership, the ex-chancellor gave up the fight. "I've decided to... resign from the honorary chairmanship of the Christian Democratic Party," he declared. "I've been a member of the CDU for 50 years and it remains my home. I made mistakes, which I've admitted in public. I have always tried to do my duty."

Kohl's resignation from the ceremonial post marked the most dramatic turn yet in a fast-developing scandal that some have called Germany's Watergate. Since the "Spendenaffre" broke in mid-November, the country has been held rapt by one revelation after another of financial shenanigans and alleged influence peddling at the highest levels of government. There have been lurid tales of secret foreign bank accounts, suitcases stuffed with Deutsche marks, clandestine meetings with a fugitive weapons dealer in Canada fighting extradition to Germany. Parliament is investigating whether millions in undisclosed donations were used to influence the sale of tank parts to Saudi Arabia and an oil refinery to the French firm Elf-Aquitaine.

The heap of allegations has sunk Kohl's Christian Democrats into the worst crisis in the party's 54-year history. A recent poll found that the CDU's popularity has fallen to 29 percent, a record low, and prosecutors have begun raiding the homes and offices of party officials in search of incriminating evidence. On Thursday, the treasurer of the CDU's faction in Parliament, Wolfgang Huellen, hanged himself at his home in Berlin; police promptly opened an investigation into Huellen's alleged funding abuses. "This isn't just a CDU crisis, it's a state crisis," says Hans Herbert von Arnim, a professor of politics at the School of Public Administration in Speyer, Germany.

The biggest casualty of the affair is Kohl, Germany's chancellor for 16 years until his defeat in 1998, and the dominant figure in postwar German history. Bullheaded and combative, with a force of personality to match his physical girth, Kohl pushed through German reunification, reconciled the country with its neighbors, persuaded Germans to surrender their beloved mark for a new Continental currency, the euro, and placed Germany at the epicenter of a newly integrated Europe. Just weeks ago his countrymen voted him one of the 10 "greatest Germans" of all time, along with Einstein, Bismarck and Martin Luther.

Now, analysts and politicians say, Kohl's legacy may be forever tarnished by his role in the scandal--and his arrogant handling of its fallout. By refusing to name the anonymous donors who funneled money into secret slush funds for years, Kohl conveyed the impression of an obstinate and possibly corrupt wheeler-dealer with a brazen disrespect for Germany's Constitution. "In Kohl's understanding, the state and society came only second to the party," says Gunter Hofmann, a correspondent for the weekly Die Zeit. "He had no democratic ethics, no feeling for democratic rules that put the law first."

The Spendenaffre came to light in mid-November, after German tax investigators probing a shadowy German weapons merchant named Karlheinz Schreiber uncovered a suspicious $500,000 payment to CDU treasurer Walther Leisler Kiep in 1991. Kiep and another CDU official reportedly received the cash from Schreiber in a metal suitcase in the parking lot of an Italian restaurant in Switzerland, and deposited it into a secret party bank account.

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'I Made Mistakes' : In Germany's Rapidly Spreading Politics-and-Money Scandal, Helmut Kohl Resigns as CDU Chairman and a Key Party Official Commits Suicide
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