The bigger they come, the harder they fall.
As Helmut Kohl, the colossus who bestrode Europe for more than a decade, falls from his pedestal into a swamp of allegations about illegal slush funds, he is dragging his party and, some say, the whole edifice of German politics with him.
New revelations appear almost daily, and leaders of Mr. Kohl's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) have worried openly that their party might not survive the crisis. "We are facing a test of our existence," CDU chairman Wolfgang Schaeuble said Monday.
If the party fails that test, it could have grave implications for the country. "If the CDU breaks up, the system could very well break up with it," warns Gero Neugebauer, who teaches politics at Berlin's Free University. "That is a real threat."
While struggling with high unemployment, Germany has the biggest economy in Europe and is the Continent's linchpin. Since uniting its eastern and western halves after the 1989 fall of the
Berlin Wall, the country has grown toward a new role as a crossroads between East and West. Its political health and social stability are key to the prospects for Europe as a whole, which is why its neighbors are keeping a diplomatically quiet but nonetheless careful eye on the CDU's travails.
A sea change has swept the German political scene since November, when former Chancellor Kohl admitted taking more than $1 million in undeclared, and thus illegal, contributions to his party. Nothing illustrates the scope of that change better than the slogan that the CDU leadership chose this week for a forthcoming nationwide campaign: "Germany needs the CDU."
For most of the second half of the 20th century, the CDU - conservative, confident, and reassuring - was the natural party of government in Germany. Today, it feels it has to convince Germans that it deserves to exist.
"We are rebooting," says Ursula Heinen, leader of the young CDU parliamentarians' group in the Bundestag, or lower chamber of parliament. "We have to start anew, and to build from our roots, which are still strong.
"All over Germany," she explains, local CDU leaders will have to "go to the people and say 'you can trust ME.' The people want to trust us, we have to show that they can."
That will not be an easy task. The party acknowledged this week that it could not account for more than $6 million in contributions from 1989 to 1998 - unable to say where the money came from. Since Kohl's admission two months ago, prosecutors have put together a picture of secret Swiss bank accounts, arms dealers, and bags of cash.
And this picture concerns only money for which records have been found. Speculation has been rising that there may be much more, especially since key documents in one of the most suspicious deals have disappeared from the chancellor's office.
The real problem, however, is where the money came from. Kohl will not say, insisting that he gave his "word of honor" to the donors that they would remain anonymous. Until the source of all the illegal money is identified, CDU politicians know, speculation about its origins will only continue to do the party more damage. Already suspicions that the money came as bribes or kickbacks have been voiced, along with theories that it was linked to illegal CDU slush funds dating back 40 years.
"That is our Achilles heel until those people, such as Helmut Kohl, who could tell us [where the money came from] do so," lamented CDU secretary-general Angela Merkel in a TV interview. "It is like a fish on a hook from which it cannot free itself."
The crisis has serious financial implications for the party: It may be liable for as much as $18 million in fines for the $6 million in illegal contributions to which it has admitted. Among the public, it is paying a high price, too.
Support for the CDU, which was leading the governing Social Democratic Party (SDP) by a commanding 49 percent to 30 percent before Christmas, has plummeted to 34 percent - 7 points behind the SDP, according to Dimap, a respected Bonn-based polling firm.
But the government is not crowing over its rival's discomfiture, despite its sudden advantage in upcoming regional elections. "Every government needs an intact opposition that is as strong as possible," Chancellor Gerhard Schrder said this week.
These are not crocodile tears. An uneasy realization is spreading through Germany's political class that its democratic political culture is more fragile than had been thought, and is now in danger.
There is a real fear that if the CDU were to break up, as its Italian counterpart did in the wake of financial scandals in the early 1990s, large numbers of middle-class voters would feel unrepresented. And with extreme-right parties hovering in the wings, "that could be dangerous," suggests Dr. Neugebauer.
"The CDU's contribution to keeping the situation stable must be to find a quick solution to this crisis, find new leaders, and start challenging the SDP again."
In the end, some CDU politicians say, the crisis will likely speed up a process of modernization of the party that would otherwise have taken years, as it opens itself up and makes its structures more accountable, democratic, and transparent.
At the same time, argues Dietmar Herz, who teaches German politics at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., the scandal's fallout marks another major step in Germany's transformation into a new country, symbolized by last year's move of the capital from Bonn to Berlin.
One by one, Dr. Herz says, the traditional pillars of German society - the church, the trade unions, and other institutions founded on belief and ideology - have been losing influence in a more pragmatic world. The CDU, which defined itself by its anti-Communism, is a victim of this shift, and "the crisis will be a watershed, whatever the results," he predicts.
"This is the end of the old Federal Republic of Germany," agrees Neugebauer. "This is the twilight of the gods."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society