BERLIN — It came as quite a surprise to everyone from the German president to the wags in the beer halls that former Chancellor Helmut Kohl had suddenly decided Sunday to break his silence over the illegal political contributions that have ruined his reputation.
But no one was more surprised than Kohl himself, who denounced the statement faxed to news agencies as a forgery and reiterated his stubborn intention to keep the names of his benefactors secret.
The statement--printed on the stationery of Kohl's Christian Democratic Union--purported to announce that Kohl had discussed his dire predicament with the donors and won their approval to disclose their identities in a closed-door session with a high-ranking parliamentary investigative committee.
The missive read like an account of a deal cut between Kohl and the probe leaders, down to the details of who would sit on the committee, to be headed by President Johannes Rau. Kohl had decided to talk, it said, to allow Germany's political leaders "to confirm that no political decisions were influenced by the hand-over of money."
Within minutes of the statement's distribution by the main international news agencies, Rau and others named as members of the investigating committee were besieged by radio and television reporters for reaction. Parliamentary President Wolfgang Thierse expressed concern that the statement seemed to assume that Kohl could set the terms of his cooperation with the investigation, but most political leaders professed relief and satisfaction that the legendary "chancellor of unity" finally appeared willing to put an end to the political crisis.
About two hours after the statement was distributed, however, a spokesman for Kohl informed the Berlin news agencies that the former chancellor knew nothing about it and was holding to his vow to remain silent. His refusal to cooperate with the parliamentary probe and a criminal investigation could land him in jail for contempt.
The hoax did serve to divert attention from another destructive disclosure of CDU financing irregularities. The ARD television network, together with a French station, reported that the CDU under Kohl had received nearly $16 million from the French government in 1992 to help ensure Kohl's reelection two years later.
The ARD report cited sources close to late French President Francois Mitterrand as saying the payments were never intended as bribes but as support "for the state interests of Europe."
The French government contributions to the CDU were allegedly funneled to the party via businessmen lobbying for acquisition of the eastern German Leuna oil refinery, which was bought by French company Elf Aquitaine in 1992.
Records of Leuna's privatization under Kohl's leadership have disappeared from the chancellery, frustrating efforts by the current government of Social Democratic Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder to trace the origin and use of $44 million in payments supposedly made by Elf Aquitaine businessmen as a "commission" on the refinery sale.