Merkel ‘couldn’t eat properly with a knife and fork’ - Kohl

Book reveals unvarnished views not intended for publication until after Kohl’s death

Former German chancellor Helmut Kohl has said Angela Merkel, his protégée turned rival, was so inexperienced when he plucked her from obscurity in 1990 that at state dinners she "couldn't eat properly with a knife and fork".

In outspoken conversations with a ghostwriter, Dr Kohl suggested the Berlin Wall fell because the Soviet bloc faced economic ruin and “not because the holy spirit” blessed civil rights marches in the autumn of 1989.

He dismisses former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev as a political "failure" and his own heir-apparent Wolfgang Schäuble as a disappointment. But Dr Kohl reserves his greatest venom for Angela Merkel, who was a 36-year-old physicist who served in his post-unification cabinets from 1990, but turned on him a decade later.

“At state dinners she mooched around so much that, more than once, I had to tell her to pull herself together,” he said.


The 84-year-old's frank remarks were made during 600 hours of recorded conversations with journalist and ghostwriter Heribert Schwan in 2001.

The conversations served as the basis for three volumes of memoirs until the two men had a falling out and the final volume was shelved. Last year a German court ordered Mr Schwan to return the tapes to Dr Kohl. He did so in March, but retained full transcripts of the conversations. A new book, called Legacy: The Kohl Transcripts, is based on these unvarnished views from the ailing former politician, which were supposed to be published only after his death.

Awkward moment

Dr Kohl’s assessment of the events of 1989 comes at a particularly awkward moment: in advance of next month’s 25th anniversary celebrations and before he presents a new volume on the period at the Frankfurt book fair on Wednesday.

In public, Dr Kohl has always given credit to the East German people for bringing about peaceful end to German division in 1989. In private, however, he is far less generous: “It’s completely wrong to suggest that the holy spirit somehow came over the squares of Leipzig and changed the world,” he said, describing that narrative of 1989 as “evening class” logic.

For Dr Kohl, the Berlin Wall fell because economic necessity forced Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to adopt pragmatic reforms, dubbed “perestroika”.

“Gorbachev went through the accounts, realised he was screwed and couldn’t support the regime so . . . to retain communism he had to come up with perestroika,” said Kohl.

Despite the Russian’s key political role in permitting German unification, Dr Kohl suggests that he had, in the end, “failed”. “He dissolved communism, partly against his will . . . but without violence or bloodshed. Not much more of abiding [value] occurs to me.”

The tone of the taped conversations from 2001, published in extracts in this morning's Der Spiegel, reflects a difficult period in Kohl's life. His wife, Hannelore, took her life in July of that year, after many years living in complete darkness because of a rare allergy to daylight.

It was also a time when his political legacy became tainted by a scandal over undeclared donations for his Christian Democratic Union (CDU). Dr Kohl has never identified the source of these illegal donations, and does not do so on the tapes.

Near-fatal shooting

He is more expansive on Mr Schäuble, instructing his ghostwriter to give their complicated relationship adequate space in the planned memoir. He speaks of his respect for how Dr Schäuble recovered from a near-fatal shooting in 1990 that left him paralysed and reliant on a wheelchair.

“With Schäuble I have to say how much store I put by him, how I trust him and more,” he said. “That he was to be my successor is something I discussed often with him – he knows how often I defended him passionately and that he would be able to follow me.”

After years of close co-operation, however, the two men fell out when Dr Kohl refused to leave office in advance of the 1998 general election, believing Dr Schäuble had neither the political support in the CDU nor the clout to push through the introduction of the euro.

Dr Schäuble confronted his boss in March 1998, six months before election day, and told him the time had come to leave. The two men had a flaming row which Dr Kohl described later as “among the worst experiences in my life”. In the recorded conversations Dr Kohl takes a cooler view of Dr Schäuble, claiming he mismanaged the donations scandal, “either through ineptitude or intention”, allowing Angela Merkel snatch the CDU leadership.

Derek Scally

Derek Scally

Derek Scally is an Irish Times journalist based in Berlin