On the eve of the election last Sunday that gave former United Nations Secretary General Kurt Waldheim the inside track on the Austrian presidency, West German chancellor Helmut Kohl chastised critics of Waldheim’s wartime service as a German Army intelligence officer for their “arrogance.” Undaunted by reports – originating with the World Jewish Congress – that link Waldheim’s unit to the deportation of Greek Jews to concentration camps, Kohl said, “I sense an arrogance of the late-born, which I find hard to bear.”
What is arrogant is the head of the German government pronouncing judgment on this issue. However, it does not come as a surprise: Kohl is not known for his prudence.
In addition, he apparently gathered from his rendezvous with Ronald Reagan at the Bitburg war cemetery one year ago that “reconciliation” absolved his country of residual war guilt. Furthermore, there has been a recent upsurge in anti-Semitic remarks by West German politicians, and Kohl has done little to quell it. And perhaps most significantly, 10 months before nationwide elections, Kohl is in trouble, and, like his friend Kurt Waldheim, a cornered Kohl is not above appealing to national pride.
Kohl is under pressure, as prosecutors in two German cities decide whether he lied or suffered amnesia in testimony before two official inquiries into payoffs from private corporations. A total of $80 million was illegally funneled to German politicians between 1968 and 1980. The major donor to Kohl as an industrial giant whose founder, Friedrich Flick, helped finance Adolf Hitler’s rise to power; Flick was subsequently convicted at Nuremberg of war crimes, including the use of 48,000 slave laborers, 80 percent of whom were worked to death.
In November 1984, Chancellor Kohl admitted to a parliamentary commission that in the late ‘70s he had secretly accepted $53,000 from the Flick Group, a multibillion-dollar holding company. He claimed to have turned the money over to his party’s treasury. However, according to reports in the German press, Kohl actually received closer to $200,000 between 1974 and 1980, when he was a regional governor.
The timing of the payoffs is noteworthy. Two former finance ministers are now on trial, along with the former manager of the Flick Group, whose meticulously kept records of payoffs in the late ‘70s constitute the most incriminating evidence. The money, according to the magazine Der Spiegel, was in exchange for finance ministry approval of a $175 million tax waiver to Flick following its 1975 sale of an $800 million interest in Daimler-Benz, manufacturer of Mercedes cars, to Germany’s largest bank.
However, according to Der Spiegel, Flick’s payoffs to Helmut Kohl were more likely part of another deal.
The directors of the powerful conglomerate were upset in 1972 when Kohl’s conservative Christian Democratic Party lost its first postwar national election. Shortly thereafter, Kohl’s vanquished predecessor was made an offer he could not refuse. He resigned from the CDU chairmanship, joined a law firm, and, through a numbered bank account, received $700,000 from Flick over a seven-year period for legal services he never, apparently, rendered. The Flick brain trust, meanwhile, identified Helmut Kohl as most likely to succeed.
Among notes recorded in this period by Flick’s manager, and published recently in the German press, are entries such as: “I intend to fit out Herr Kohl exactly as we did the other gentlemen.”
The irony in this story involves the Flick manager, Eberhard van Brauchitsch. Throughout the 60s, Friedrich Flick, alone among leading Nazi-era industrialists, steadfastly refused to compensate surviving wartime slave laborers. The final “no” was uttered by von Brauchitsch, who is the son of Hitler’s one-time commander-in-chief and is now on trial in Bonn for lining the pockets of German politicians.
In January of this year, shortly after purchasing the Flick empire for a little under $2 billion, Germany’s largest bank agreed to pay surviving slave laborers a sum of $2 million. When the issue of survivor compensation resurfaced, a spokesman for the Christian Social Union, the CDU’s right-wing ally, told a Cologne newspaper he saw “neither a legal nor a moral basis for this demand by the Jews. The fact that it comes up now creates the impression that Jews are quick to show up whenever money tinkles in German cash registers.”
Although one might have hoped for an altogether different reaction from a head of state, Helmut Kohl characterized the 35-year-old spokesman as “a splendid young man” who had simply said something “foolish” and apologized. During parliamentary debate in March, Kohl went on to assert that it was absurd to even speak of renewed German anti-Semitism. According to the chancellor, “the overwhelming majority of our citizens, and particularly the young, are immune to anti-Semitism.”
It is not at all surprising, then, to read of Helmut Kohl’s being shocked by accusations against “his old personal friend” Kurt Waldheim and his denunciation of Waldheim’s critics as not only “arrogant,” but ignorant of conditions during the war. Unfortunately, Helmut Kohl is one of the all too many who prefer to re-write history, including their own.