Helmut Kohl’s funeral request divides the nation he reunited

Germany’s late leader asked for a ‘European state ceremony’. Was he settling scores?

German reunification: Helmut Kohl at a rally in 1990 for the first free elections in East Germany. Photograph: Michael Urban/Reuters

German reunification: Helmut Kohl at a rally in 1990 for the first free elections in East Germany. Photograph: Michael Urban/Reuters

 

Helmut Kohl helped to end Europe’s postwar division but never shrugged off a prickly reputation for causing personal rifts. Now the late architect of German reunification is sowing discord after his death with his carefully laid plans for his funeral.

Maike Kohl-Richter, his widow, revealed after Kohl’s death last week that he wanted a “European state ceremony” in the European Parliament in Strasbourg, and not in Berlin or elsewhere in Germany. After an international ceremony next week his remains are to be conveyed from the French border city along the Rhine to Speyer, in Germany, for a funeral Mass in the city’s ancient cathedral.

Kohl-Richter made clear that the late chancellor wanted to mark his historic contribution to European unity, which was built on close co-operation with France and its president François Mitterrand.

But reports quickly spread that Kohl, a man well known for bearing grudges, was also settling scores with Berlin politicians, including Angela Merkel, the chancellor, and Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the federal president.

Former protegee: Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, signs a book of condolences for Helmut Kohl. Photograph: Steffi Loos/Getty
Former protegee: Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, signs a book of condolences for Helmut Kohl. Photograph: Steffi Loos/Getty

Kohl “felt he had been mistreated and bad-mouthed by some politicians”, the historian Michael Stürmer says. “Perhaps he could not accept that they would speak over his coffin.”

After the triumph of reunification, Kohl’s chancellorship ended in defeat and scandal. The winner of four elections, he lost his fifth, in 1998, amid public anger at reunification costs and the launch of the widely resented euro. Having lorded it over his Christian Democratic Union, Kohl also became embroiled in a party-financing affair that prompted Merkel, his protegee, to turn on him and replace him as CDU chairman.

Officials working for Gerhard Schröder, his Social Democrat successor in the chancellery, meanwhile launched a probe into whether Kohl had illegally destroyed documents before leaving office. Steinmeier was then Schröder’s chief of staff.

Both Merkel and Steinmeier, as head of state, would almost certainly have spoken at a German state funeral.

Merkel will speak in Strasbourg, as will the European Commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker, from Luxembourg and a loyal supporter of Kohl; the European Council’s Polish president, Donald Tusk; and President Emmanuel Macron of France.

A family adviser denied there was any intention of slighting Berlin or its politicians, saying: ‘He wanted his funeral to be a wonderful celebration of Europe’

A family adviser denied there was any intention of slighting Berlin or its politicians, saying: “Mr Kohl made clear before his death that he was a politician not of the Berlin republic but of the Bonn republic and the Rhineland [in western Germany]. He wanted his funeral to be a wonderful celebration of Europe and of his European policies.”

Stephan Holthoff-Pförtner, Kohl-Richter’s lawyer, denied there had been any conflict between his client and Merkel over the funeral, saying the two women had “an appropriate relationship”.

Steffen Seibert, Merkel’s spokesman, has declined to comment on reports of conflicts over the funeral.

The Bundestag speaker said: ‘Kohl’s way was lined with injuries – those he suffered and those he inflicted on others’

On Thursday German MPs took part in a low-key commemoration of Kohl in the Bundestag in Berlin – a shadow of next week’s European event. Hinting at tensions, Norbert Lammert, the Bundestag speaker, paid tribute to the former chancellor’s achievements but said: “Kohl’s way was lined with injuries – those he suffered and those he inflicted on others.”

In a reference to the disputed funeral Lammert indicated that Berlin should perhaps have had a greater role, saying pointedly that the place and manner of the commemoration of such a great contributor to Germany were, “with all respect, not only a family matter”.

He also appeared to back Steinmeier, who sat nearby, saying that the Bundestag was “the best possible place” for such an event, “in the presence of the federal president”.

Family tensions: Helmut Kohl’s son Walter and his children were turned away from the late chancellor’s home on Wednesday. Photograph: Michael Deines/Promediafoto/EPA
Family tensions: Helmut Kohl’s son Walter and his children were turned away from the late chancellor’s home on Wednesday. Photograph: Michael Deines/Promediafoto/EPA

Politics is not the only arena where Kohl’s death has laid bare division. It has highlighted long-standing tensions in his family, including between Kohl-Richter, whom he married in 2008, and Walter and Peter, his two sons from his first marriage, which ended with the death of his first wife, Hannelore, in 2001.

This week Walter Kohl and his children called at the house that Kohl-Richter shared with Helmut Kohl, to pay their respects, but were refused entry in a scene captured by German media.

© Financial Times