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Helmut Kohl’s Suffering Son Fled Germany for Harvard: Review

The cover jacket of "Leben oder gelebt werden" (Live or Be Lived) by Walter Kohl, the son of former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl. Source: Integral via Bloomberg

Some parents cast a really huge shadow.

Pity Walter Kohl, whose colossus of a father, Helmut, was Germany’s longest-serving chancellor since Otto von Bismarck.

Now 47, Walter recounts a troubled childhood, struggles with depression and suicidal urges in “Leben oder gelebt werden” (“Live or Be Lived”), currently topping Spiegel magazine’s non-fiction bestseller list.

His book depicts a preoccupied father who retreated to his study after meals on the rare occasions he was home and only played with his two sons for magazine photo shoots. Unsurprisingly, they are estranged.

“Politics is his elixir of life, everything else is secondary,” Kohl writes.

Helmut Kohl’s wife, who killed herself with an overdose in 2001, took responsibility for the family and household. Portrayed by Walter as a strict yet loving mother and a long-suffering, dutiful spouse, Hannelore Kohl felt torn between her husband’s public role and her sons’ need for normalcy.

The two were irreconcilable, Kohl writes.

There was nothing normal about going to school with a police escort, taking vacations surrounded by diplomats and journalists, or facing the daily threat of kidnapping -- and worse -- during the peak of the Baader-Meinhof gang’s terror campaign.

Escape to Harvard

After a spell in the army, Kohl fled to Harvard University, and made friends who had no interest in German politics.

He then joined Morgan Stanley as an IPO analyst. He recalls proudly showing his father his workplace in a Wall Street tower block.

Helmut Kohl, who had “not the faintest idea what an investment bank did,” was horrified at the informal, partitioned offices and functional furniture.

In July 1990, as German reunification approached, the cover of Time magazine caught his eye in a New York supermarket. His father’s face, emblazoned with the headline “Mr. Germany,” hit him “like thunder,” he writes. “There was no peace, no anonymity anywhere -- not for me.” He does seem very sensitive.

Kohl moved back to Germany in 1994, deciding he no longer wanted to be a rootless immigrant or an investment banker for life.

Funding Scandal

Helmut Kohl lost the 1998 election and his party became embroiled in a funding scandal in 1999. His family was shaken to the core -- besieged by journalists and tarred with the same brush, Walter Kohl writes.

Driven to despair by the scandal and a bizarre allergy to light, Hannelore Kohl ended her life in 2001. Grieving and depressed, her son considered taking the same path, he writes.

In the years after her death, Kohl’s relationship with his father deteriorated. He wasn’t invited to Helmut’s wedding in 2008 and thinks new wife Maike Richter wanted nothing to do with the ex-chancellor’s family.

After giving a television interview that displeased his father, all contact ended. Kohl Senior hasn’t commented publicly on the book.

Writing “Leben oder gelebt werden” clearly served as therapy for a man who says he hit rock bottom in his late 30s.

Since then, Kohl has hauled himself out of a hole that he admits he partly dug for himself: He sank into self pity, constantly bemoaning the injustice of fate.

With his Korean wife, a son from his first marriage and a successful business importing car-making tools from Korea and China, Walter seems on the way to becoming his own man.

“Leben oder gelebt werden” is published by Integral (174 pages, 18.99 euros.) There are as yet no plans for an English translation.

(Catherine Hickley writes for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)

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