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.
Wulff won and began a very conventional presidency—with one positive facet, an inclusive attitude to Germany’s millions of non-European migrants. He was, however, overtaken by his own past. He had been a highflier, sometimes in corporate jets loaned by those doing business with his state. In the United States, that would not have amounted to much, but when the state attorney in Lower Saxony turned his attention to the former governor’s record, it was time for him to go. It is clear that the oppositional parties, Greens, Social Democrats, Left were grateful for the opportunity to embarrass Merkel—and so were her own coalition partners, the Free Democrats. More seriously, Wulff’s earlier nonchalance about propriety and his initial dismissal of the charges threatened to enlarge the pervasive cynicism that pervades much of German public life.
There followed a couple of days of rumor and frenzy. Were the German political elite to pursue full employment and an end to social exclusion and poverty with the energy it devoted to infighting during the search for a candidate, much would be gained. On account of losses in state government elections, Merkel’s earlier certain majority in the presidential electing assembly (scheduled for March 18) shrunk to four votes. The media made much of her fear of repudiation and defeat. She seems to have grasped that the problem lies elsewhere, in the dissatisfaction of large numbers of citizens with the entire political elite—and the parties.
Some interesting names circulated for the position only to encounter objections from the parties, two widely acceptable candidates turned down the chancellor’s approaches and the instant polls showed that a large majority favored Gauck. With no other recourse, the chancellor asked him to serve as consensus candidate. The Greens and Social Democrats promptly began to argue over who had originally backed him and the Left Party—excluded from the discussion, is seething. Its leaders complain, not without some reason, that Gauck has instrumentalized his anti-Communism. Some in the chancellor’s party are said to be irritated with their coalition partner for forcing their hands. The public is rather indifferent to insider political trading in Berlin and majorities in east and west applaud the choice.
As president, the 72-year-old Gauck will clearly make it his business to speak his mind. He is someone who is conservative in basic values, given more to moralizing pathos than to inspired modernity. The office has its own constraints (the incumbent is free to speak, but the nation is free not to listen) and he will sooner rather than later have to learn to live with these. I spoke with him, once, about my own considerable experience of Communist Germany as both a visitor to official institutes and a friend of the dissidents he worked with. I got the impression of a German Diogenes, his lantern at the ready to illuminate honesty—and his spirit resigned to finding plenty of darkness.
There is one aspect of his life that would certainly make it difficult for him, were he an American, to seek higher office. He is separated from his wife but not divorced from her, and is living openly with another woman. Already, some of the more conventional German Catholics have said that he has a duty to end the ambiguities of the situation. Gauck is perfectly capable of retorting that perhaps a bishop or two should try cohabitation. He probably won’t, but the very thought suggests that he could be an interesting head of state.