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Wolfgang Schäuble

The last days of King Kohl
Mitten im Leben, Wolfgang Schäuble, Bertelsmann, E21.47

The implosion of Germany's centre-right Christian Democrat Union is one of the most dramatic political events of the past decade. Seemingly invincible under Helmut Kohl, the CDU-led coalition held power for 16 years in Europe's largest country. Then, in a matter of months, the party fell apart in the wake of an illicit financing scandal which is still buried in mystery.

Wolfgang Schauble, the long-time crown prince to King Kohl, is well-placed to write the definitive account of what went wrong. The former leader of the CDU has produced a book which is part political testament and part authentic thriller. By the end, the reader is left gasping at the speed of the party's descent into chaos.

The action begins on September 21 1994, when Mr Schauble arrives at the Hotel Konigshof in Bonn to deliver a fund-raising speech. A stranger by the name of Karl-Heinz Schreiber approaches him and asks for an appointment the next morning in his office. He duly turns up at 9.30am, introduces himself as a businessman with influential friends, including Mr Kohl, and hands Mr Schauble an envelope with DM100,000 for his personal use.

"I thanked him and said that I would pass on the contribution immediately to the party treasurer," recounts Mr Schauble. "Then, without mentioning the contents, I asked a colleague to pass on the envelope to Frau Baumeister [the treasurer]. When I later met her, I told her to book the money correctly so that there could be no doubt that this money was for the CDU rather than for my personal use."

This secret donation comes back to haunt Mr Schauble in late 1999 when the first revelations appear in the press about a CDU slush fund. This time Mr Schreiber turns up in a car park outside a supermarket in Switzerland. He hands over DM1m in a suitcase to senior CDU party officials.

We now know that these exchanges were a small part of a sophisticated covert fund-raising operation run with the knowledge of Chancellor Kohl. The network included anonymous private donors and powerful German companies. They were crucial to Mr Kohl's power-base because much of the money was funnelled to the regional CDU parties. They explain how Mr Kohl imposed the discipline that made the CDU a formidable election-fighting machine.

This book is supposed to be a personal account of Mr Schauble's mid-life crisis, but it is really about the end of the Kohl era. The author pays tribute to the chancellor's role in German unification. He acknowledges his contribution to the evolution of the CDU into a moderate, pro-market, pro-European party - something the centre-right never achieved in the Weimar Republic. But his distaste for Mr Kohl's treatment of the CDU as a personal fiefdom is palpable; so too is his belief that Mr Kohl clung to power far too long.

The author says he told Mr Kohl as early as March 1998 that the general election against a resurgent Social Democrat party was unwinnable if he insisted on going toe-to-toe against Gerhard Schroder. He suggests that Mr Kohl was so power-hungry that he might even have considered heading a Grand Coalition between the CDU and SPD.

The portrait of Mr Kohl after his September 1998 election defeat is even more devastating. At no time does the former chancellor help the party clear up the scandal. He refuses to reveal the names of the anonymous donors on the grounds that it would breach confidence. Yet at the same time, his entourage is in contact with Mr Schreiber.

There are two points on which Mr Schauble can be faulted. By his own admission, he erred in misleading parliament about the original DM100,000 donation, which, it turned out, had not been properly booked in the party accounts. Also, he fails to explain why he overlooked a second meeting with Mr Schreiber. Both errors made his position unsustainable and he resigned in February.

This is a pity because Mr Schauble comes across as a decent and intelligent man with a teak-hard temperament and a sharp wit. His observations on the first few months of the Red-Green coalition are acute, especially when they deal with the tensions between Mr Schroder, whom he casts as a showman with few principles, and Oskar Lafontaine, the leftwing finance minister who could never come to terms with letting Mr Schroder sneak in as the chancellor-candidate. Mr Lafontaine was a bomb waiting to explode once he took his place in the government. Mr Schauble helped restore morale after the September election defeat, but he was probably doomed to go down in CDU history as a transition figure between Mr Kohl and a younger generation of centre-right politicians.

Two questions arise. Will the new CDU leadership under Angela Merkel maintain the same reflexively pro-European line as her predecessors?

And how far was Mr Kohl able to overcome grass-roots opposition to giving up the D-Mark for the euro because of the steady flow of illegal funds from offshore accounts in Liechtenstein and Switzerland?

Now there is a book waiting to be written.

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