Walter, the son of Kohl and his late first wife Hannelore, has written a tell-all story of growing up as the offspring of Germany’s giant of conservative politics in the late 20th century.
The book, Leben oder gelebt werden (“To Live or be Lived”) lays out in uncompromising detail the broken father-son relationship between Helmut and Walter and reveals the failed efforts at reconciliation.
“For decades I hoped for a ‘conversation to clear the air’ with my father,” Walter writes, according to extracts published this week in news magazine Focus. “Today I know that we will never have that conversation. All my attempts failed and ended in a cycle of arguments, misunderstandings and fresh pain.”
Helmut Kohl, who turned 80 last year, was chancellor for 1982 until 1998, making him the longest-serving German leader since Otto von Bismarck. He is recognized as a key architect of the European Union and also as the leader who oversaw the reunification of Germany at the end of the Cold War. For decades he dominated the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU), the party now headed by his former protégé, Chancellor Angela Merkel.
But it is the private man that is revealed in the new memoir, in which Walter Kohl argues that his father neglected the family out of his single-minded love of politics.
“Politics was and is my father’s real home,” he writes. “His true family is called CDU, not Kohl.”
Walter describes his father as practically one and the same as his beloved party, branding him a “clan chief of a tribe called the CDU.”
“The party was at times the most important and enduring source of his energy,” he writes. “He never, with very few exceptions such as my brother’s accident in Monza in autumn 1991, gave up a party meeting or official meeting in favour of a family duty. For decades he invested his best efforts in party and committee work, ‘churning out decisions,’ as he called it.
“He concentrated his thoughts and wishes on this. It ranked far above family and private life. We moved on his political stage as props, without major roles. We can also say we felt like spectators in his life because we saw him almost every day on television.
“It was part of our mother’s job always to propagate the hope that at some time it will be different, but in this she let herself be deceived.”
Walter Kohl, now 47, has an economics degree and works in the car parts industry and is described by his publisher as a “committed Christian.” He no longer has contact with his father, according to daily Süddeutsche Zeitung.
He also writes about the misery of his mother Hannelore, who suffered a rare allergy to light and was largely confined to her home. She committed suicide in 2001.
Walter Kohl writes that he considered suicide himself after his mother’s death and thought about how to do it in a way that guaranteed his life insurance would be paid out. He resolved to kill himself in a phony scuba-diving accident on the Red Sea, but eventually changed his mind out of concern for his own son.
According to Walter’s account of their relationship, Helmut Kohl remained distant and became defensive when his son tried to broach the subject of their troubled relationship.
“Every boy wishes for a father with whom he can explore the world, go camping or play football. Every boy wishes for a father who is there for him. I never managed to reach my father. Now more than 40 years have passed and the essential form of this father-son relationship remains unchanged.
“My father often reproached me for not appreciating the advantages I had because of my background. But I didn’t want advantages; I simply wanted to be allowed to be like others my age.
“He thought I saw everything from a negative perspective and was unfair to him. My response was always the same, whether as a timid suggestion or an angry accusation: a father had to be judged as a father and not a chancellor. This was the point at which our discussion usually degenerated into a rhetorical boxing match. In the end we were both frustrated: each felt himself unfairly treated and emotionally exhausted.”
The extracts published by Focus also describe the atmosphere of terror that reigned in the 1970s when the leftist militant group the Red Army Faction (RAF) began its campaigns of kidnappings, bombings and murders against West German politicians, business leaders and state prosecutors.
Walter Kohl describes the alienation of what he calls “life behind bullet-proof glass,” in which his father was “a guest in our house.”
There is a moving passage in which Kohl recalls instantly bonding with business association leader Hanns-Martin Schleyer, when their paths crossed while each was waiting to see Helmut Kohl in Bonn. Schleyer was soon afterwards murdered by the RAF in 1977.
Kohl, then 14, was surprised to find Schleyer, who he had seen on television as head of the Confederation of German Employers’ Associations, treat him without any pretension or condescension.
“Here was once again finally a person who was probably worth getting to know because he took me seriously and almost spoke to me like an adult.
“It was a very nice conversation, the kind I’d often wished for, like a conversation with a fatherly friend, even though we’d only just got to know each other. So I gathered all my courage. I needed someone to whom I could pour out my heart and tell my woes: the constant security, the isolation from my schoolmates, the constant expectation about what could happen.”
They talked about terrorism, which was a source of fear for the young Kohl. Schleyer reassured him there was nothing wrong with being scared, but he should remember the chances were slim of ever being affected by a terrorist attack. Shortly afterwards, Schleyer was kidnapped and then killed by the RAF.
“The kidnapping and later the murder of this man, who had spoken so openly and honestly to me, upset me most deeply,” Kohl wrote.