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Merkel speaks at new, contentious Helmut Kohl Foundation

September 28, 2022

It's almost exactly 40 years since Helmut Kohl became German chancellor. A new political foundation is opening in his honor. But his widow is threatening legal action unless it is renamed.

Berlin, Angela Merkel speaks at the podium at the opening of the new Chancellor Helmut Kohl Foundation in Berlin -- September 27, 2022.
Merkel, who has not made that many public appearances since leaving the chancellery, praised the CDU grandee who was her mentor first and later became the leader she deposedImage: Christoph Soeder/dpa/picture alliance

Former Chancellor Angela Merkel and current Christian Democrat leader Friedrich Merz were among the high-profile guests on Tuesday as the new "Chancellor Helmut Kohl Foundation" held its opening event in Berlin, days before the 40th anniversary of Helmut Kohl becoming chancellor on October 1, 1982. 

However, the event took place amid a threat from Kohl's second wife and widow, Maike Kohl-Richter, to launch legal action unless the new foundation was renamed. 

Merz said that the peaceful, free and democratic post-Cold War Europe, which he said Kohl played a key role in establishing, "is more seriously threatened than ever in its history" amid Russia's war of aggression in Ukraine. 

Merz also praised Kohl for his role in German reunification and the collapse of the Soviet Union, saying the former chancellor "first recognized and then seized on the changes in global history of his era earlier than others." 

The opposition leader said Russia's invasion has shown the need for leadership in Europe: "Not leadership in the sense of dominance and dictating, but leadership in the sense of responsibility." 

Angela Merkel and Friedrich Merz in the crowd during the opening of the Chancellor Helmut Kohl foundation in Berlin, with Merkel visibly applauding -- September 27, 2022.
Merz and Merkel both praised the man who led the CDU/CSU in Germany before them at Tuesday's eventImage: Christoph Soeder/dpa/picture alliance

Merkel: Kohl would have kept one eye on future in Ukraine war

Angela Merkel, who rose in the CDU ranks under Kohl and later replaced him as the party's leader, made a comparatively rare public appearance since stepping down as chancellor after last September's elections. 

Merkel said that "three principles of statecraft" had defined Helmut Kohl: "The importance of the personal in politics, the unconditional will to shape [matters] and thinking in historical context."

She said that these principles would have likely informed his handling of the current war in Ukraine. 

Merkel posited that if Kohl were chancellor in 2022, he would "make every effort to protect and restore the sovereignty and integrity of Ukraine." 

But she also said that he would never have lost sight of "the day after" when dealing with the current crisis. 

Kohl would, "in parallel, always keep in mind what at the moment is so unthinkable, so wholly unimaginable — namely how relations to and with Russia could one day be redeveloped," Merkel said. "And, of course, he would never have tackled either solo as just Germany." 

Kohl was a key player during the collapse of the Soviet Union, particularly when it came to what would become one of the first chapters of this process, the fall of the Berlin Wall and German reunification

He became chancellor on October 1, 1982, after the Free Democrats defected from a coalition with the Social Democrats to instead join forces with the CDU/CSU, bringing Kohl's party to the head of a new government without an election. Kohl would then go on to win federal elections in 1983, 1987, 1990, and 1994. 

Widow Maike Kohl-Richter: Rename the foundation or face legal action

But as CDU politicians gathered to celebrate the late chancellor in Berlin, his widow Maike Kohl-Richter published a letter to the foundation's chairman, Volker Kauder, demanding that it be renamed. She said the foundation was injurious to her late husband's "post-mortem rights." 

Kohl-Richter argued that "self-determination" was the core component of her late husband's political ideology. She said that it was this commitment to Germans' rights to decide if they wanted reunification that kept the possibility alive in the 1970s and 1980s when many in the former-West Germany questioned whether this goal would ever prove realistic. 

As a result of this, she argued, the new foundation "does not represent the will of my husband and especially not the will of a man for whom the right to self-determination was an elemental one. You do not have the right to use his name for this government foundation or to appear or to act in his name," Kohl-Richter wrote. 

She said she regretted that the party had not taken notice of her earlier criticism and later her "explicit rejection" of the foundation's proposed name, which she said had been justified simply by referring to her as "difficult." 

She said the government had no right to his name after his death and recommended the foundation be renamed as the "German, German reunification, or European foundation, or whatever." 

Kohl-Richter concluded by alluding to the other famous legal battle over her late husband's reputation she has been embroiled in in recent years, the controversial memoir launched by her husband's official biographer Heribert Schwan. This book was published separately from the official biography after a dispute with Kohl-Richter led to him leaving the project unfinished, but it was later redacted after initial publication to remove certain contentious quotes from Schwan's recorded interviews with Kohl. 

Kohl-Richter was Helmut Kohl's second wife; the pair married in 2008. Kohl's first wife and mother of his children, Hannelore Kohl, took her own life in 2001. Kohl-Richter is also famously practically estranged from Kohl's two sons, Walter and Peter, with whom Kohl also had a strained relationship late in life. 

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msh/sms (AFP, dpa)