Only a few weeks ago, former chancellor Helmut Kohl seemed destined to live out his days as an admired elder statesman, basking in the glory of his role as the German leader who reunited a divided nation after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

But in an abrupt twist of fate that has stunned many of his compatriots, Kohl now finds himself besieged by charges about bribes, secret accounts and other shady dealings during his chairmanship of the Christian Democratic Union that threaten to besmirch his legacy as the father of German unification.

The scandal also could inflict serious damage on the Christian Democrats just as they seemed to be rebounding from a defeat in last year's national elections that forced Kohl to leave office after 16 years in power and ushered in a new governing alliance led by Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's Social Democratic Party.

Germans have long prided themselves on the integrity of their political system and looked with repugnance on frequent tales of bribery and political corruption in such neighboring states as France and Italy. While Germany has experienced rumors of illicit political financing in the past, the burgeoning financial scandal surrounding Kohl and his party has the potential to become the most explosive case in modern German history.

The "dirty money" affair broke earlier this month when prosecutors opened a tax evasion inquiry against Walther Leisler Kiep, a former treasurer for the Christian Democrats, on the grounds that he did not report a $530,000 cash donation and may have kept the money. The gift came in 1991 from an arms dealer, Karlheinz Schreiber, who is now detained in Canada.

Schreiber said he handed over the money to Kiep during a secret rendezvous in a Swiss parking lot as compensation for authorizing the sale of 36 tanks to Saudi Arabia at the time of the Persian Gulf War. Kiep denied keeping the money and said he deposited the cash in party accounts. Moreover, he insisted the party leadership was fully informed about all his money-raising arrangements.

But Kohl vehemently denied knowing anything about the payment and rejected allegations that his party had accepted bribes in connection with the tank sale. In his first comments about the charges, Kohl told reporters that he approved the sale on the eve of the Gulf War because, in the absence of sending German troops, he felt "a moral duty" to support the American-led coalition that was trying to drive Iraq out of Kuwait.

"It is incomprehensible to me how anyone can spin together a weapons deal and bribery charges from any decision I made as chancellor," Kohl said. "It is one of the most evil accusations I have heard in years."

At an uproarious session in Parliament this week to discuss the corruption charges, Kohl jumped angrily from his seat and demanded the right to clear his name as quickly as possible. A commission was established to review party funding sources during Kohl's tenure as chancellor and party leader, including whether the Schreiber donation had any impact on Kohl's decision to authorize the sale of the tanks to the Saudis. It is expected to begin work next week, but Kohl and other witnesses might not be called until January.

Meanwhile, tax investigators involved in the Kiep case have turned up at least a dozen accounts that were used by the Christian Democrats to receive clandestine payments. The network of secret accounts was acknowledged today by Heiner Geissler, a former general secretary of the party, who confirmed that Schreiber's payment had been deposited in one of them.

"Apart from the budget of the federal party, there were other accounts," said Geissler, whose career was shattered after he mounted a challenge to Kohl's stewardship of the party a decade ago. "I always believed that was wrong and it must be cleared up now."

The secret accounts, first reported by the Sueddeutsche Zeitung in Munich, were set up in the 1980s when the Christian Democrats were starved for funds. Kohl, who ran the party with a firm hand for 25 years, entrusted the operations to one of his closest confidants, Horst Weyrauch. Prosecutors discovered the accounts after scrutinizing documents in Weyrauch's possession.

The documents purportedly show how the party's tax adviser split up large corporate and other contributions among the anonymous escrow accounts to hide the origins of the payments. The money was later transferred from these slush funds to local party leaders, ostensibly at Kohl's direction.

In addition, prosecutors are looking into secret funding arrangements with large corporations that inflated the costs of infrastructure projects in eastern Germany to cover "sweetheart" payments to the Christian Democrats. One case is said to involve the French oil company Elf Aquitaine, which is suspected of charging an excessive amount to build an oil refinery at Leuna so it could pass along the surplus money to Kohl's party.

Kohl said he is eager to appear before the parliamentary commission and is willing to answer all questions related to secret sources of party funds. He continues to deny any personal knowledge of undeclared payments, but the contradictions provided by fellow Christian Democrats--and his reputation for maintaining control over his party while in power--have only whetted suspicions of the public and prosecutors.

For Schroeder and the Social Democrats, the misfortunes afflicting Kohl and his party have offered some comfort after a rocky year in power. Yet they, too, were reminded today that scandal knows no political bounds. Schroeder's fellow Social Democrat and successor as governor of Lower Saxony, Gerhard Glogowski, was forced to resign after admitting he wrote off his honeymoon to Egypt as a state expense.

CAPTION: Former chancellor Helmut Kohl has termed bribery charges over an arms sale "evil accusations."