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Kohl's memorial reveals unity, division

Sertan Sanderson
July 1, 2017

Ceremonies to remember former Chancellor Kohl included a service in Strasbourg before Kohl's body was taken on a river journey to the ancient German city of Speyer. There has been a measure of controversy.

Deutschland | Portrait von Helmut Kohl im Kanzleramt
Image: picture-alliance/NurPhoto

Former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl's memorial  was held on Saturday, with a cortege of European dignitaries and those from further afield paying tribute to him.

Yet for all its pomp and circumstance, the solemn proceedings risked being overshadowed by the kind of controversy that least fits a statesman accredited with being the architect of the most peaceful revolution of the 20th century. Since his death, the former chancellor's deep-seated contempt against all those he thought had crossed him has slowly come to light. And as Germany's longest-serving chancellor to date, that list won't likely be short.

The funeral arrangements likewise revealed how that brand of scorn lived on in Kohl's personal affairs, resulting in an ugly family feud that cast a long shadow over the former chancellor's memory on the day of his final journey.

At the heart of the controversy are two women whose agendas could not be more dissimilar. On the one side there's German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who wanted to do justice to the memory of her erstwhile friend and mentor. Opposing Merkel, there's Helmut Kohl's second wife, Maike Kohl-Richter, who says she was merely trying to fulfill his last wishes.

European memorial

Immediately after Kohl's passing, there was initially a sense of surprise when it was revealed that in his will he had rejected the notion of having a state funeral. It almost seemed like an atypically selfless act from the former chancellor to reject the highest honors a country can pay to its leader - one which later was elegantly circumvented by inventing the unique solution of giving the former statesman an elaborate "European memorial service" for his outstanding contributions for peace and stability in Europe as well as his staunch support for the European Union.

Helmut Kohl's casket
Helmut Kohl's casket was taken out of the family home in Oggerheim earlier in time for the unique "European memorial" service designed for the former chancellorImage: picture-alliance/dpa/T. Frey

But it didn't take long for ugly details to emerge, painting the picture of a baleful Kohl almost deliberately trying to keep his former friends, allies and even his family far away from his final journey, with his widow taking it upon herself to push for his wishes to be honored.

Finding herself at the heart of the controversy, Chancellor Merkel tried to keep a low profile until a decent compromise could be found between the warring parties - which came in the form of the unprecedented "European memorial."

However, this also means that this is exactly how the funeral of one of the greatest European politicians will forever be remembered: as a compromise.

Merkel and Kohl - a difficult relationship

Angela Merkel and Helmut Kohl
Helmut Kohl never forgave Angela Merkel for effectively forcing him out of politics - and assuming his placeImage: picture-alliance/dpa/J. Eisele

Kohl's political party, the Christian Democrats (CDU) only narrowly escaped political embarrassment when his widow, Maike Kohl-Richter, 34 years his junior and citing Kohl's final wishes, tried her best to prevent his one-time protégé, CDU-leader and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, from speaking at the statesman's memorial service, according to numerous accounts cited in Der Spiegel.

Merkel had learned the ropes under Kohl's leadership in the early 1990s following Germany's reunification. For a decade, Kohl took her under his wing and groomed her as his political heir. He called him "the girl" - a "girl" who would soon become the most powerful leader in the world.

But Helmut Kohl grew estranged from Merkel and indeed from nearly all of his colleagues and parliamentarian contemporaries since retiring from politics in 2002. He never forgave Merkel for effectively forcing him to quit politics after he had been implicated in an elaborate party financing scandal in 1999 involving illegal donations. Not only did she boot him out; she also took over his job, first as party leader of the CDU, and later as German Chancellor.

To speak or not to speak

Although the affair never tarnished his legacy as the architect of German reunification, Kohl, known for holding on to grudges like no other, wanted to make sure that his widow saw his last wish through of keeping Merkel away from his funeral. In the end, Maike Kohl-Richter failed to live up to Helmut Kohl's demands from the grave:

Helmut Kohl's residence in Oggersheim
With thousands of documents being stored at Helmut Kohl's residence in Oggersheim future disputes are not only likely but probable to followImage: picture-alliance/dpa/R.Wittek

Despite Kohl's objections, Angela Merkel was confirmed as a speaker at the unique funeral service in Strasbourg designed for the former chancellor after all. She will be joined in that role by European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, French President Emmanuel Macron and former US president Bill Clinton, as a host of world leaders and dignitaries are expected to attend the event.

Meanwhile, the one person that Kohl did actually want to have as a speaker at his funeral won't be allowed to raise his voice there: Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban.

Orban had also been mentored by Kohl in the early years after the 1989 collapse of East European Communism, espousing liberal ideas as a young politician at the time. The two became lifelong friends. However, as prime minister of Hungary, Orban has been criticized for steering an authoritarian course in his country - one that is seen to be at odds with Kohl's legacy.

Family feud hits tabloids

Walter Kohl outside Helmut Kohl's residence in Oggersheim
Walter Kohl didn't hold back in telling the press that he was being refused to enter his childhood home and pay his respectsImage: picture-alliance/dpa/B. Roessler

But the unbecoming drama is expected to continue well beyond the funeral procession, as Helmut Kohl's widow revealed that the former chancellor had further surprises in store in his last will. With an impressive cache of thousands of handwritten documents from Kohl's 16 years as chancellor left for her to safeguard, Kohl-Richter has been reluctant to meet requests to eventually hand those papers over to the German Federal Archives. The debate rages on whether the German government has a right to claim ownership over the priceless documents.

While this next installment of the Kohl drama is likely to eventually be hashed out behind closed doors inside a courtroom, another very public affair has cast further doubt behind the uncooperative widow's motivation for exerting her power so willfully at a time when conventions on grief and bereavement would dictate more decorum: Kohl-Richter has also reportedly clashed with Kohl's estranged sons, Walter and Peter Kohl, going as far as turning them away at her front door.

Gravesite of Hannelore Kohl
Helmut Kohl will not be laid to rest next to his first wife of 41 years, Hannelore Kohl, who is buried in LudwigshafenImage: picture-alliance/dpa/U. Anspach

Walter Kohl said that he had only learnt of his father's death on the radio, having last spoken to him, by telephone, in 2011.

With tabloid magazines waiting for his arrival at the Kohl residence in Oggersheim by Ludwigshafen earlier in the week, Walter Kohl was barred from visiting the couple's home - in front of rolling cameras. A police officer was overheard telling Walter Kohl that there even was a restraining order in place preventing him from entering the property.

The rejection made headline news, even though it remained unclear why he initially had been refused. Walter Kohl was later allowed to see his father's body for a short period, with Maike Kohl-Richter being in sole charge of the circumstances surrounding the visit.

Isolation in final years

Kohl's sons are among a growing number of people who say that his second wife isolated him in his final years. Kohl had married Maike Kohl-Richter in 2008 - seven years after his first wife Hannelore's suicide-death. None of Kohl's family attended the event, and over the years lost touch with the patriarch. The couple's seclusion from nearly anyone who had shaped Helmut Kohl's life for more than 70 years was greeted with atypical respect by the media; the chancellor had paid his dues. It was time to leave him alone to enjoy his twilight years.

Not long into his relationship with Maike, Helmut Kohl suffered a major loss in his mobility after a fall, which also severely limited his diction. Kohl-Richter thus became the executor of his every last wish long before Kohl had passed away.

Speyer Cathedral
After a second service at Speyer Cathedral, Helmut Kohl will be laid to rest at the cemetery adjacent to the historic churchImage: picture-alliance/dpa/U. Anspach

But even in death, Maike Kohl-Richter is trying to protect her husband's memory from those who she thinks might try to hurt his reputation, from Chancellor Merkel to the Federal Archives to the family he raised for decades long before he had even met her. Accordingly and perhaps unsurprisingly, Helmut Kohl won't be buried next to his first wife Hannelore Kohl either, with whom he was married for 41 years.

Given the state of affairs in his family, Kohl's final resting place will instead be near Speyer Cathedral following a riverboat procession down a stretch of the Rhine River, where he will rest much as he spent his final years: alone.

Unending legacy

Helmut Kohl is survived by a nation of 83 million people "whose lives, without his resolve, […] would be completely different today," as Chancellor Merkel remarked with gratitude on the occasion of Kohl's 80th birthday in 2010.

It would appear that Merkel had long forgiven Helmut Kohl, as had a nation that long regarded him the last remaining great leader of the old guard; bringing together past with the present, East with West, Germany with Europe, and war with peace.

Helmut Kohl
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/A. Burgi
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