Germany is being buffeted by its biggest political storm in a decade, as respected former chancellor Helmut Kohl this week admitted his role in a scandal involving secret party bank accounts and suitcases stuffed with cash.
Mr. Kohl, a towering figure over German politics during his 16 years in office, oversaw the 1990 unification of Germany and was a powerful force behind the drive for European integration.
But as one Berlin newspaper put it this week, "A monument is crumbling."
Only last month, in ceremonies marking the 10th anniversary of the fall of the Iron Curtain, Kohl was feted in Berlin and in Prague, as a guest of Czech President Vclav Havel, along with former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, former US President George Bush, and ex-British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
On Tuesday, Kohl admitted to controlling "special accounts" while in office that he conceded were "perhaps violations of rules on party financing." But he denied that government policy had been influenced by bribes or kickbacks.
"The facts must be laid on the table," Chancellor Gerhard Schrder, who defeated Kohl in 1998 elections, said in response. The German parliament yesterday launched an investigation into the since-closed secret accounts, focusing on who contributed how much and to what ends.
The scandal crept up on Kohl, now honorary chairman of the Christian Democrats (CDU) and an opposition member of the parliament, from the hills of Bavaria. Investigators were probing allegations of tax evasion concerning a 1991 transfer of more than $500,000. Walther Leisler Kiep, CDU treasurer at the time, accepted a suitcase of cash from arms dealer Karlheinz Schreiber and deposited the money into a secret party account. The same year, the Kohl government approved the sale of 36 tanks to Saudi Arabia.
The scandal has thrown the Christian Democrats into disarray. Hoping to avoid a long, grueling investigation, the CDU leadership has called for it to be completed in a speedy and comprehensive manner. It is unclear whether the alleged irregularities in the party's financing could lead to criminal charges, but if proved, they could mean millions of dollars in fines.
The implications of impropriety have put current party leaders under tremendous pressure - not least because they owe their political fortunes to Kohl, who even current party chairman Wolfgang Schuble says managed his party in a "patriarchal style." An independent accounting firm is checking the CDU's books, and Mr. Schuble has said he wants to deliver a first report to the rank- and-file by the middle of the month.
The CDU's distancing from Kohl comes at a time when the party has dealt a string of defeats to the Social Democrats in state elections. Although the CDU is badly tarnished in advance of the next state election in February, the Schrder government's Schadenfreude - the German joy derived from somebody else's troubles - is limited, as his Social Democrats are also bogged down in a swamp of affairs and allegations.
"Of course not only Helmut Kohl is responsible for the decline of political culture in Germany. However, he contributed to it," says Hans Herbert von Arnim, a leading critic of Germany's political landscape. "Kohl wasn't just anybody; he was party leader of the CDU and chancellor - and therefore somebody from whom you would expect that he would resist temptation and not push things himself."
The professor at the German School for Administration Sciences in Speyer has long criticized the coziness between German politicians, particularly Kohl, and powerful lobbies. "Mere appeals to their ethics won't lead to the long-term goal," says Mr. von Arnim.
As it stands now, German law on political financing requires political contributions above 20,000 marks (about $10,000) to be reported annually, with the name and address of the donor. Parliament also distributes funds to political parties, some 200 million marks this year alone.
While Kohl insists he bent the rules in the best interests of the country, Gero Neugebauer, a political scientist in Berlin, says, "It's doubtful if that's an alibi." Until the investigations are complete, he says, it's hard to gauge the extent of the political damage. "The image in Germany of Helmut Kohl is determined by his accomplishments. His absolutistic rule has not influenced the attitude in the German population." Adds Mr. Neugebauer, "He ruled with the telephone and the checkbook. A few journalists and academics knew about it, but it wasn't an issue for the people."
On the streets of Berlin there seemed to be little surprise. "They all have dirt on themselves," says Vera Dahlmeier, a human resources manager. "I imagine that it will be played up so the Social Democrats look better."
Hilmar Bartel, a social worker, echoes her cynicism. "Kohl is an autocrat, but who isn't in politics? They are all egomaniacs," he says. "I don't think it's so surprising. You can be sure that it won't be the last revelation. How many investigating committees have we had already?"
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society