Ailing father of unity dividing critics over his 'Lady Macbeth'


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The Independent Online

Helmut Kohl is still the "unification chancellor" – a giant of contemporary European history who holds an unassailable reputation of having done more than any other post-war German leader to end his nation's division and rid the capital Berlin of its infamous wall.

But as Germany today celebrates the 22nd anniversary of the reunification that Mr Kohl did so much to bring about, the 82-year-old former architect of unity has become a tragic figure. Confined to a wheelchair because of a bad fall and injuries to his head he suffered four years ago, he cannot speak for more than 10 minutes at a time and when he does, he slurs his words.

The ex-conservative leader is said to be still fully compos mentis but he has been prematurely aged by his disability. To make matters worse, the father of German unity and the ardent advocate of the single currency now stands accused of causing the deepening euro crisis, while his tumultuous private life is likely to be the subject of an upcoming book.

Indeed, the chief focus of attention nowadays is rather the neatly dressed, petite 48-year-old woman who never leaves his side. Maike Kohl-Richter has been Mr Kohl's his second wife and unofficial carer since the spring of 2008. German media have painted her as a controlling figure, saying she is "building a wall" around Mr Kohl.

She is alleged to have terminated close friendships that have endured for decades and is even reported to have been behind a police decision to force Mr Kohl's two sons off the premises of their bungalow home in the west German village of Oggersheim.

"The Lady Macbeth of Oggersheim," is how Der Spiegel magazine described her in print earlier this week. Ms Kohl-Richter grew up in the town of Siegen, near Bonn, and joined the local youth wing of Mr Kohl's conservative Christian Democratic Party. She worked her way up, eventually becoming a government official in the economics department of the Berlin Chancellery in the late 1990s. It was then that she met the man in person.

Mr Kohl's first wife, Hannelore, committed suicide in 2001 after suffering for years from an allergy to light called photodermatitis. In 2005, he announced that Ms Kohl-Richter had become his new companion. In 2008 they were married.

Ms Kohl-Richter has so far declined to respond to the criticism about her control over Mr Kohl's life. But Hans-Peter Schwarz, a historian who has just completed a new, favourable biography of Mr Kohl, has dismissed the allegations against her as unfair: "On certain issues somebody has to decide for him."

And Mr Kohl has told friends that without Ms Kohl-Richter he would probably not be still alive. But more hurtful allegations could be in the pipeline. One of the figures to have been wounded most is Heribert Schwan, a 67-year-old journalist who spent years ghost-writing Mr Kohl's memoirs.

Mr Schwan claims he was obliged to sever all contacts with Mr Kohl in 2009. But now he is planning to respond with a book that may further damage the reputation of Mr Kohl and his wife. Mr Schwan has 630 hours of recorded interviews with Mr Kohl and intimate details that were revealed to him by his former wife shortly before her death. He has also gained access to the secret police files the East German Stasi kept on him.