Magazine article The Spectator

Kohl Warrior

Magazine article The Spectator

Kohl Warrior

Article excerpt


THE time has come to say a word in defence of Helmut Kohl. It is not an easy task, for the collapse of his reputation has been amazingly rapid and complete. Each day brings new revelations of the lies and tricks practised during the 16 years of his chancellorship, and new expressions of horrified surprise that such deliberate lawbreaking could occur in the pristine world of West German politics. Each day brings some previously unthinkable humiliation for the former Chancellor: on Tuesday the announcement that the award to him of the Westphalia Peace Prize had been suspended. The hounds of the Berlin press vie with each other to sink their teeth into Herr Kohl and the many lesser Christian Democrats who were drawn as willing accomplices into his illegal system of party financing. Germany is written off by its own editorialists as a 'land of lies', especially since a second scandal has come to light involving the acceptance of free flights by Johannes Rau, the ineffably pious German President, and a large circle of his Social Democrat colleagues.

It would be tempting but unfair to blame priggish liberal commentators for getting the whole affair out of proportion. At several dinner parties in Berlin in recent weeks I have talked to solid upper-middleclass Germans of conservative temperament who are just as shocked as the press is by the growing evidence of Herr Kohl's systematic law-breaking. Nor has the former Chancellor helped his own case by maintaining a pig-headed silence on the crucial question of where the money for his secret bank accounts came from. His claim that he did not even know about the party's hidden funds in Switzerland and Liechtenstein beggars belief.

But the first point to make on Herr Kohl's behalf is that anyone who ever mistook him for a squeaky-clean upholder of the German constitution was ridiculously naive. Anyone with eyes to see (and Germans such as Professor Wilhelm Hennis saw this in the 1970s) knew on the slightest acquaintance that he was an unscrupulous power politician who would strike any low blow to safeguard his own position. Herr Kohl escaped by the skin of his teeth from an earlier scandal about illegal party funding. He lied in 1985 when he claimed under oath to a parliamentary committee investigating the Flick affair that he had no knowledge of the Staatsburgerliche Vereinigung, a money-laundering operation set up in 1954 to channel contributions from big business to political parties.

The Flick affair turned out to involve such a large number of leading West German politicians that it was felt no very rigorous consequences could be drawn from it. It showed that, among the political class, secret donations were considered no more reprehensible than you or I might find employing a babysitter without registering her for tax and social-security contributions. Standards may have changed since the fall of communism, but for most of Herr Kohl's political career keeping the show on the road was considered infinitely more important than worrying whether every last bookkeeping rule had been obeyed.

Consider the man's extraordinary gifts. He had an insight into the realities of power that was worthy of A.J.P. Taylor, and a genius for making himself useful. In the 1980s he stood firm against the mighty West German peace movement, ensuring that Nato did not falter on the brink of victory. …

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