The criminal investigation of former chancellor Helmut Kohl is the latest of several political financing scandals in Europe that indicate how a general clamor for greater openness in public affairs is strengthening the hand of prosecutors in many Western democracies.

Federal prosecutors today officially opened a legal process that will determine whether they bring charges against Kohl, the architect of German unification, who has acknowledged managing secret slush funds during his 16 years in office. Already, the case is a cautionary tale about the accountability of even the most respected statesmen.

Across Europe, a spate of corruption cases and legal woes afflicting powerful politicians in France, Spain, Britain, Belgium and Italy has reflected the rise of an activist judicial branch, perhaps the prime beneficiary of voter dismay over entrenched parties and political leaders.

"If the 19th century was regarded in Europe as the period of great legislatures and the 20th century the era of the powerful executive, then the 21st century could turn out to be the special time for the judiciary," said Sergio Romano, a leading Italian political commentator.

The weakening of the nation-state in Europe as barriers to trade and travel fall, coupled with the ascendancy of the "1968 rebel generation," which distrusted governing authorities, has strengthened prosecutors pursuing cases of public corruption or abuse of power.

In several Western European countries, the enormous investigative authority wielded by prosecuting magistrates has produced headline-grabbing charges of bribery and corruption that have devastated some prominent political careers and even provoked the reorientation of mainstream ruling parties.

In France and Spain, the impact of anti-corruption campaigns led by crusading magistrates caused a dramatic reversal in the electoral fortunes of Socialist-led governments that long dominated the political landscape.

In Italy, the bribery and corruption scandals of the early 1990s transformed the nation's political system by all but destroying the Christian Democratic and socialist parties, which had controlled governments there for four decades.

"The forces of European integration, technology and globalization are changing society so much that political institutions cannot adapt fast enough," said Giuliano Ferrarra, an Italian senator who entered politics with the collapse of the traditional party powers. "The mainstream parties that do not reform will suffer, and Germany is seeing this happen now."

While its neighbors endured roller-coaster years of political change, Germany took comfort in what many people at home and abroad admired as the rectitude and moral stability of its political system. Much of that integrity was attributed to taxpayers' willingness to dole out more than $100 million a year in direct subsidies to political parties so they would not be tempted to pursue shady sources of financing.

Besides damaging the reputation of one of the continent's most respected leaders, the Kohl case may have lasting repercussions on German politics. The influential weekly magazine Der Spiegel suggested that the scandal could imperil the existence of the Christian Democratic Union, which Kohl controlled as a fiefdom for 25 years.

Kurt Biedenkopf, a member of the party's presidium and the governor of the eastern German state of Saxony, dismissed the notion that the scandal surrounding Kohl may cause his party to disappear like its ideological cousins in Italy. But he acknowledged that Germany's Christian Democrats must change if they wish to maintain their influence as one of the nation's two leading parties.

"We face an extraordinarily difficult situation, but it has nothing to do with mafioso financing structures," Biedenkopf said. "What we need to do is shape a strategy for the future that gets us out from under Kohl's huge shadow. These are difficult but necessary changes. The party will be better off when its fate no longer depends on just one man."

While investigators explore whether to charge Kohl with breach of trust--which could entail a maximum five-year jail sentence--a new cloud of suspicion about an illicit transfer of party funds has fallen over his successor, Wolfgang Schaeuble.

Schaeuble was Kohl's most trusted lieutenant and the leader of the Christian Democrats in parliament. Schaeuble insists he never knew about the existence of the slush funds or the sources of the money, but many observers find it hard to believe that Schaeuble was not aware of Kohl's hidden bank accounts.

Kohl has insisted that he never used the slush funds for personal gain but to ensure the loyalty of local party chieftains. Explaining why he would risk so much to maintain such a system, Kohl said: "In my entire political life, personal trust has been more important to me than formal controls."

CAPTION: Ex-chancellor Helmut Kohl could be charged with breach of public trust.