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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Is Kohl's Graft Historic?

Overnight, King Kohl becomes King Lear. The political fall of Helmut Kohl must, irresistibly, be described in terms of classical tragedy.

Nemesis follows hubris. Two months ago, on the 10th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, he seemed an unchallenged national hero. When he walked down Unter den Linden, people approached him, like the old kaiser, just to touch his sleeve. It was as if they still believed in the royal touch.

In 16 years as chancellor, he was the architect of German unification and European monetary union. Here was a man who shaped Germany like no one since Konrad Adenauer.

And now: disgrace. The former chancellor resigned this week as honorary chairman of the Christian Democrats, after it was revealed that he had taken more than $1 million in secret payments and deposited the money in secret party accounts. He resigned rather than reveal the names of the donors, as the leadership of his party called on him to do.

In classical tragedy, the causes of the hero's bad end are to be found deep in the structure of the protagonist's own life and of the world in which he lives. So also here. Kohl's nemesis stems ultimately from what has been called the "Kohl System," an extreme version of the politics of personal relations. This system worked greatly to the benefit of Germany, and the West as a whole, in international relations. If Kohl had not bonded so successfully with Mikhail Gorbachev and George Bush, there would have been no German unification, no peaceful end of the Cold War.

The Kohl System was even more apparent inside Germany, and above all, in his Christian Democratic party. He would spend hours on the telephone, sounding out, flattering, cajoling and rebuking his provincial party chiefs and lieutenants. Favors were promised, including - as we now see - extra payments for campaigns and the like.

Over the decades, the corrupting intimacy of big business and politics grew. It's often asserted that corruption is mainly a southern European phenomenon. But in the heartland of Europe's Protestant north, it became routine for business people to distribute payments and sweeteners, in cash, in plain envelopes to politicians at home and abroad, as well as to friends, clients and employers. (Indeed, in Germany, bribing abroad was until recently a tax-allowable expense.) The practice was widespread, well known - and comprehensively denied. I remember seeing a cabaret artist trying to get an audience to sing along with him in a song about "Germany, Corruptiland." The audience sat stony-faced.

The current scandal dates from the 1990s. But Kohl had almost been here before. In 1984, his authority was shaken by the so-called Flick Affair. It emerged that Eberhard von Brauchitsch, the aristocratic head of the Flick company, had handed out large cash payments to leading politicians. He reportedly called it "outfitting the gentlemen in Bonn." The prosecutor's office looked into the possibility that Kohl had lied to a parliamentary inquiry into party financing. While it declined to bring corruption charges, the office did state that there was considerable evidence that Kohl had received some $23,000 for his party from von Brauchitsch.

This current scandal is even more shocking, because Kohl is now the grand old man of German and European politics, and it has sent his party and its current leader, Wolfgang Sch?uble, plummeting in the opinion polls.

But I do not yet believe the apocalyptic analysis that sees this crisis dispatching the German Christian Democrats the way of Giulio Andreotti's Italian ones, into oblivion. Still, for a quarter century, Kohl has filled the party with his prot?g?s, like a feudal lord. Renewal will be a slow business, almost certainly involving moving beyond the immediate successor generation of Sch?uble and to the "grandchildren."

As for old King Kohl, there is no doubt that his entry in the history books will be different from the one we would have written just one month ago. It seems extremely unlikely that he has committed any criminal offense. But on the evidence of what he has already admitted, he violated not only the law, but also the German Constitution, which explicitly states that parties "must publicly account for the sources of their funds."

Yet I suspect that, when the dust has settled, this won't change Kohl's place in history as much as one might think.

One of the oldest discussions in history is that about the nature of the "great man." Is this a moral category? Or is it simply a measure of an individual's impact on human affairs, for good and ill? Even the most positive "great men" tend to have great faults. We are shaken by how Winston Churchill wrote about Charles de Gaulle, or by Franklin Roosevelt's often cynical maneuvering.

Now the large faults of Kohl are being revealed. But by the standards of past "great men" they hardly shock. Especially when you put them against his achievements: seizing the chance for peaceful unification; incorporating 17 million new citizens, who had never known democracy, into an enlarged federal republic; embedding united Germany firmly in the larger structures of European and trans-Atlantic cooperation.

Yes, the balance sheet has to be adjusted. But a Richard Nixon, let alone a King Lear, could not show such a positive record, when, duly humbled, he approached history's pearly gates.

Timothy Garton Ash is a fellow of St. Antony's College, Oxford. He contributed this comment to The New York Times.