The president of the Federal German Republic is head of state, must approve governmental appointments and legislation—but is expected in the normal course of events to act like a British or Swedish constitutional monarch and to allow the chancellor and the national and state legislatures to govern the nation.
The most positively remembered presidents were those who were teachers to the nation. One was Gustav Heinemann, an anti-Nazi and Social Democrat who presided over the social reforms of Willy Brandt—and his policy of seeking co-existence with the Soviet Union. Asked on television if he loved the state he answered: “I love my wife, that is quite sufficient.” The remark was taken by the student movement as endorsement of its struggle against self-righteous and self-perpetuating authority. Another was Richard von Weizsäcker, son of the Nazi Foreign Minister Von Ribbentrop’s eagerly obedient deputy. On the fortieth anniversary of the German defeat he delivered a speech remarkable for its rejection of national self-pity and acknowledgement of national responsibility.
There have been other presidents who performed well, a couple of mediocrities and two recent ones who greatly embarrassed their original sponsor, Chancellor Angela Merkel. Presidents are elected for five-year terms by the parliament, joined by representatives of the states, and a chancellor with a secure parliamentary majority can and usually does use the election to make a political point.
The first recent embarrassment was provided by the uninspired economist Horst Köhler, former director of the International Monetary Fund. Merkel used her majority to install him in office without consulting the Greens, Social Democrats or the Left Party. Köhler plodded his way through a term, leaving behind him a trail of platitudes, mostly about the benign nature of the free market. He quit suddenly early in his second term, in 2010, indignant because his proposal that Germany join the US in the military defense of “the West” evoked sharp criticism.
Merkel then chose as candidate a potential rival, Christian Wulff, the plausible young executive who was governor of Lower Saxony. The Greens and Social Democrats (the Left Party dissenting strenuously) instead backed Joachim Gauck, a pastor from the former East Germany who had audibly opposed the Communist regime. Gauck was the first administrator of the agency making public the records of the Communist political police, and that did not please those who had begun successful careers in the Communist state. He was something of an icon, an obdurate moralist, and Merkel obviously considered that as president he would offer too striking a contrast to her own devotion to a politics of small compromises. Merkel was also from the former Communist Germany, but was decidedly not an antagonist of the regime.