GERMANY IS FACING the worst political scandal in its postwar history. Leaders of the party which governed the country until just fifteen months ago, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), have admitted to illegally concealing contributions from secret donors. Auditors have been unable to trace about twelve million marks in such donations received since 1989. Initiator of this party financing scandal is none other than one of Germany's political heroes, former Chancellor Helmut Kohl.
State prosecutors early this month opened an investigation after Mr. Kohl confessed publicly that he broke the law by keeping up to two million marks in clandestine donations.
Several other CDU leaders, most of them Kohl proteges, have subsequently admitted that they, too, received for many millions more in contributions that were not accounted for on the party's books, as the law requires, but went into secret slush funds.
Mr. Kohl is stubbornly refusing to reveal the donors' names, insisting that his "word of honor" to them not to do so, rather than the law, should govern his conduct.
So far, it looks as if these secret donations went chiefly to fund the party's activities and were not designed to influence government decisions or personally enrich CDU politicians. The parliament has appointed an investigative committee to determine whether official decisions were corrupted by such donations. Mr. Kohl is likely to be the committee's first witness.
The spreading scandal has now moved beyond Mr. Kohl personally, however, to threaten the very existence of his party, which has ruled for 36 of the Federal Republic's 50-year history.
Helmut Kohl's shining reputation around the world as the statesman who achieved German unification, championed European union, and introduced the new European currency, the euro, has long obscured abroad the source of his political power at home: absolute control of his CDU party, which he headed for 25 long years, from 1973 until 1998.
He developed it into a mighty political machine, operating much like an old-time American political boss who dispensed favors, perks, bureaucratic jobs, and -- we are now learning as the scandal unfolds -- handouts of cash to his ward heelers and loyalists throughout the country.
Almost all the leaders of today's CDU were handpicked by Mr. Kohl for their obedience and loyalty rather than their political talent. The party's current chairman, Wolfgang Schauble, a typical example, owes his entire political career to Mr. Kohl.
The CDU 's leaders find it hard to repudiate a patriarch to whom they owe so much, who did so much for Germany, and who still enjoys much support among the CDU rank-and-file.
Yet most are now demanding a radical break with Mr. Kohl and his system. Last week, they forced him to resign as the party's honorary chairman. Bitter enmity has developed between Mr. Schauble, who must save the party from self-destruction, and Mr. Kohl, his onetime patron. The party's leadership is badly split on how to deal with its former hero and his refusal to identify the donors. The media are in full cry, suspecting that what has come out so far is but the tip of an iceberg.
It is now conceivable that the Christian Democrats of Germany will implode and vanish from the political scene as their counterparts in Italy did a few years ago. Why should this matter to Americans?
The CDU has always been America's party in Germany, staunchly transatlantic in orientation and supportive of U.S. foreign policy. Relations with Washington have generally been best with a CDU chancellor in power in the German capital. Kohl, chancellor for 16 years between 1982 and 1998 and a skilled practitioner of personal diplomacy, cultivated close relationships with Presidents Reagan, Bush, and Clinton.
The CDU may survive these scandals, but there is no doubt that it will be seriously weakened. That might pose a danger for German democracy, first because a strong opposition is vital to a healthy democracy, and second because weakening of the CDU could create a opening for rightists.
The Christian Democrats' great service to German democracy in the past has been to prevent the rise of an extremist party on the right. None has entered the parliament since the 1950s. A crippled CDU may no longer be able to perform this traditional function.
A right-wing party, such as exists in Austria, would stir old apprehensions abroad about the solidity of German democracy. For all his achievement as chancellor, history would then render a harsh judgment on Helmut Kohl, the party boss.
Robert Gerald Livingston of Chevy Chase is former director of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies at Johns Hopkins University.