Kohl’s Wife Suffered War Rape Trauma, Life in His Large Shadow

The cover of "Die Frau an seiner Seite" ("The Woman at His Side,") a biography of Hannelore Kohl by Heribert Schwan. Kohl, the wife of Chancellor Helmut Kohl, committed suicide 10 years ago. Source: Heyne Verlag via Bloomberg

Helmut Kohl is fed up. You can’t really blame the man who reunified Germany and was the country’s longest-serving chancellor since Otto von Bismarck.

First, his son Walter Kohl described his troubled childhood and distant father in “Leben oder gelebt werden” (“Live or Be Lived,”) which topped the Spiegel magazine’s non-fiction bestseller list in March and is still at slot No. 5.

Now comes Heribert Schwan’s biography of Hannelore Kohl, portraying a traumatized though strong woman leading a lonely life in husband Helmut’s shadow until her suicide 10 years ago. “Die Frau an seiner Seite” (“The Woman at His Side”) is the current No. 1 on Spiegel’s non-fiction bestseller list.

Kohl, who is 81 and remarried, complained last month that his private life is being “put on display and marketed.” He was a notable absentee at a service in Speyer cathedral to commemorate the 10th anniversary of Hannelore’s death on July 5 -- a rebuff to his two sons, who were present.

After reading both books, I feel I know more about Kohl family life than is necessary from the public interest perspective. Maybe even from the personal interest perspective.

Yet there is much about Hannelore that is worth telling. With her curly blond tresses and Germanic features -- prominent cheekbones, square jaw -- she was mocked by the media as a provincial “Barbie.” That is unfair. She was an intelligent woman and a talented linguist, a dedicated care-giver and a committed philanthropist as president of her own foundation to help people with brain injuries.

Rape Trauma

She was burdened with suppressed memories of horrific wartime experiences, Schwan says. His most shocking revelation is that Hannelore was raped as a 12-year-old at the end of World War II by conquering Red Army troops while she was fleeing the Soviet occupation zone. Though she never used the word rape in their discussions, she said “yes” when Schwan asked her directly if she had been raped, he writes.

It was a fate she shared with as many as 1.9 million other women and girls, according to Schwan’s figures. Hannelore described being “thrown out of a window like a sack of cement by the Russians.” An attack from that era left her with a fractured vertebra and back pain for the rest of her life.

Born in Berlin, Hannelore moved with her family to Leipzig at an early age, the city she still considered home after decades in the western Palatinate region. Schwan portrays her parents as enthusiastic Nazis -- her father was the ambitious, wealthy director of a company that manufactured anti-tank missiles and employed thousands of slave laborers during the war.

Hannelore’s childhood was haunted by horrors of war. The Leipzig street where her family lived was engulfed by a firestorm and burned for days during the allied bombing, creating indelible images in her mind, Schwan says. The death of her dachshund in the bomb attack left her inconsolable, he writes.

Horrors of War

As a schoolgirl, she was forced to help trainloads of soldiers and refugees arriving at the station. Tasks included separating the dead from the living and escorting maimed, starving, frozen people to provisional clinics.

The family fled to the west in the postwar chaos, homeless and destitute. When her father died suddenly in 1952, Hannelore was forced to give up plans to study as an interpreter and took a job at chemical maker BASF to support her mother.

Hannelore met Helmut at 15, though they didn’t marry until 1960, 12 years later. Their conjugal roles were strictly divided: He focused on his career, she on the home and children. His wife wielded no influence over Helmut’s political choices. He even neglected to tell her he was running for chancellor. She found out by watching the television news.

She also had no say in their vacation: Helmut insisted on going to St. Gilgen in Austria every year, where he was accessible to journalists, diplomats and fellow politicians. Hannelore, who liked to keep a low profile, hated the holidays.

Light Allergy

Schwan marshals medical experts to support his theory that the bizarre light allergy of her later years may have been a psychosomatic reaction to the suppressed traumas of the war. Hannelore refused psychotherapy, saying her position didn’t allow her to bare her soul to a stranger, according to Schwan.

Toward the end of her life, she could only leave the house by night. She took an overdose aged 68, explaining in letters to loved ones that her incurable illness had become intolerable.

It seems unlikely that Hannelore, who did her utmost to guard her family’s privacy, would have welcomed Schwan’s book. Schwan, who collaborated with Kohl on the ex-chancellor’s memoirs, justifies his decision by saying that she poured her heart out to him knowing he was a journalist and “signaled” that she expected him to publish her confidences one day.

Maybe not while poor Helmut is still alive. For all his shortcomings as a husband and father, it’s clear from the book that she loved him.

“Die Frau an seiner Seite” is published by Heyne Verlag (320 pages, 19.99 euros in Germany).

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

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