Germany’s First Ladies

Considering the vast amount of topics covered by the holdings of the University Library, it is probably not that surprising that we own our fair share of literature on the chancellors of Germany. Possibly less obvious, though, are the UL’s holdings of books about their partners, or about “Germany’s first ladies”. Having often been  perceived as merely the chancellor’s wife, these women have been largely overlooked, even though their stories are equally as fascinating. With Angela Merkel being the first female chancellor, or chancellor with a husband, there is unfortunately still a lack of publications on Germany’s “first gentleman”, Joachim Sauer (and this is likely to stay that way for the foreseeable future as he is not someone who relishes publicity).

Hannelore and Helmut Kohl at the election in 1983

Hannelore and Helmut Kohl at the election in 1983 (Bundesarchiv on Wiki Commons)

Hannelore Kohl, wife of German chancellor Helmut Kohl, is probably the most tragic of Germany’s first ladies. She was raped by Soviet troops towards the end of the Second World War, leading to a spine injury that caused her lifelong problems.  In 2001, at the age of 68, she committed suicide. Interestingly enough, she was not overly fond of politics but supported her husband’s ambitions. She was also allegedly involved in the development of the “ten point programme” (Zehn-Punkte-Programm) for the reunification of Germany. Probably because of her own injury, she was inspired to establish the Kuratorium ZNS, a foundation devoted to help those with damages to their central nervous system, which was later renamed as ZNS – Hannelore Kohl Stiftung. She developed photo dermatitis, a condition which meant that exposure to sunlight would cause her pain and effectively confine her to a darkened home day in, day out. It is this condition that is said to have eventually driven her to commit suicide. However, her death was surrounded by some dubious circumstances and thus remains controversial. Hannelore Kohl was a very private woman and did not talk much about her personal life. However, Heribert Schwan, a journalist who knew Hannelore during the 1980s while writing a biography about her husband, claims that she opened up to him during the last years of her life. In 2011, Schwan eventually published a biography of Hannelore Kohl entitled Die Frau an seiner Seite : Leben und Leiden der Hannelore Kohl (C206.c.3945). Claiming that she confided several ‘secrets’ to him during the last few months of her life, his book tries to look beyond Hannelore’s public persona and to explore what other reasons beyond her condition might have driven her to commit suicide.

An autobiography of Rut Brandt, the wife of Willy Brandt, is available in the UL in its original Norwegian edition, Alltid kom jeg hjem (571:77.c.95.205), as well as in its German version Freundesland : Erinnerungen (571:73.d.95.101), demonstrating Rut Brandt’s Norwegian and German roots perfectly. It is notable that the Norwegian edition includes several plates with black and white illustrations that the German version lacks. She was highly popular already during Brandt’s years as mayor of Berlin and later during her husband’s chancellorship. Rut was born in Norway in 1920 and, after having played a part in the Norwegian resistance between 1940 and 1942, fled to Sweden when the group was discovered. There, she met Willy Brandt two years later and they married in 1948. Rut and Willy Brandt divorced in 1980 after she had discovered that he had had an affair. However, she remained an active public figure in Bonn and died aged 86 in 2006. Willy Brandt went on to marry his mistress, Brigitte Seebacher, a historian and journalist. Brigitte Seebacher-Brandt published a book in 2004 about her late husband entitled Willy Brandt  (that she specifically does not want regarded as a biography because of her lack of distance to the subject matter), which stands in the UL at 571:73.c.200.57. Other UL holdings of her works written in the context of her professional life can be seen by doing an author search for Seebacher-Brandt, Brigitte.


Margot Honecker in 1988 in Potsdam (Bundesarchiv on Wiki Commons)

Another interesting “first lady” to take a closer look at is Margot Honecker, wife of East German leader Erich Honecker (1971-1989). In contrast to her West German counterparts, and in the spirit of the GDR, she pursued a political career herself and rose to power much earlier than her husband as Minister of Education (1963-1989). Having stayed in this position until the end of the GDR, she shaped a whole nation’s education system. Her controversial introduction of military lessons into school (Wehrkunde), teaching students how to use weapons, is probably what she is remembered most for. She is also believed to have arranged forced adoptions of  children of people who did not comply with GDR ideology. After the collapse of the GDR, she fled to Moscow and later to Chile with her husband in order to avoid criminal charges and remains a firm believer in Stalinism and the principles of the GDR to this day. While in exile in Chile, Margot Honecker also participated in a talk, or interview, with her husband’s friend Luis Corvalán. These talks were originally meant for a Chilean audience and thus originally published in Spanish under the title La otra Alemania, la RDA – Conversaciones con Margot Honecker, but were later also translated into German and published in 2011 as Gespräche mit Margot Honecker über das andere Deutschland (571:78.d.200.11). The biography Margot Honecker : eine Biografie by Ed Stuhler (571:78.c.200.90), published in 2003, gives a general overview of Margot Honecker’s life and her time as education minister. During his research, Stuhler tried to interview Honecker herself and to make contact with her and her family, but they refused to participate. Stuhler claims that this was due in part to her previous bad experiences with the press. However, in 2011 she agreed to publish the diaries of her late husband, written largely during his imprisonment and trial in the early 90s. Letzte Aufzeichnungen (571:78.c.201.23) includes a brief preface written by Margot Honecker, which highlights how strongly she still believes in the principles of the GDR to this day – she writes about the West discrediting socialism and communism by spreading lies and deceit and refers to the former GDR as “occupied” since the reunification.

In regards to Helmut Schmidt, who passed away this Tuesday, we recently also received Auf dem roten Teppich : und fest auf der Erde. Gespräche mit Dieter Buhl (C204.d.1874), an interview with his wife Hannelore “Loki” Schmidt. She was well known for her interest in biology and thus involved with various botanical institutions as well as for her passion for education and therefore remained publicly active long after her husband’s chancellorship ended. We are also working on a closer look at our holdings of Helmut Schmidt’s publications.

To find out more about our holdings on Germany’s First Ladies, it is probably easiest to do a keyword search for the spouse in question directly or the chancellor with the additional word “spouse”. All of our holdings have the appropriate subject headings attached, but as there is a variety of potential terms and subdivisions there is not one heading that applies to all (e.g. the subject headings are divided by subdivisions for Germany (West) and Germany (East) or just by “Germany” for after the reunification).

Stephanie Palek

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