Germany: Presidents Come and Presidents Go

Berlin and its surroundings have had plenty to keep it occupied: an airline strike, a short strike of the bus, streetcar, and subway lines, the euro crisis, and price increases.  Or, on the happier side, warmer weather and the film Berlinale, with visits by many stars and an interesting, international mix of films often by young and new filmmakers.  And the successful resistance to the Nazi attempts every February to show their strength in Dresden.

But then, right in the middle of all this, President Christian Wulff resigns!  This has been in the making since December, it was no surprise but rather a drawn-out misery.  But when it happened it was still quite an event — the second resignation of a German president within two years!  Its immediate cause was a move to remove his immunity to charges on bribery cases by the legislature of his original state of Lower Saxony.  He quit, angrily, claiming he had made some mistakes but done nothing illegal.  He must now worry about the charges and possible loss of his government pension.

Now the politicians must scurry around to find a successor, very quickly, in fact, since constitutional rules demand a new president within thirty days — by March 18th.  But first, here are some of the basic facts.

First it was disclosed that Wulff had used the good graces of a very wealthy friend and supporter to borrow money at an unusually favorable interest rate to renovate a home for himself — actually a modest-looking building, no fancy villa or semi-palace.  Then it was found that he tried to get the newspaper BILD, the rottenest but most influential rag in Germany, like the New York Post in many ways, not to publish this story, or at least to wait till they met.  He used voice mail and his words were angry, though not obscene, but ended with a veiled “or else.”  That “or else” was immediately publicized by BILD (and all the others) as proof that he was against freedom of the press.

Then they started hunting for all possible misdeeds, often from the years before he became president.  And whaddayaknow, they found things.  Like almost every major party politician (and others as well), Wulff took occasional advantage of offers to spend pleasant vacations here and there at the expense of wealthy friends.  In the most noted case, a film entrepreneur invited him for a few days to his small vacation hotel on an island in the North Sea.  In one case, while he was minister president of the state of Lower Saxony, i.e. before he became president, he had accepted better plane seats than those he had paid for

All of this was reprehensible — but small potatoes, very small potatoes.  When you start looking through recent West German history, you find many top politicians who, like Helmut Kohl, have been involved in bribery paid to them or (illegally) their party’s war chests amounting to tens and hundreds of thousands and even millions by major trusts and monopolies.

Indeed, and no doubt far more seriously, among Wulff’s nine predecessors as president since 1949, the first one had voted for the law granting full power to Hitler in 1933, the second one, an engineer, had built barracks for concentration camp prisoners at the base for V-1 rockets at Peenemunde and elsewhere, another had concealed and long denied his former membership in the Nazi Party, his successor had been not only a member of that party but also a storm trooper, his successor, quite liberal in office, had been an officer in the terrible murderous siege of Leningrad during the war.  Another, too young for such a background, had long been the assistant of a key Nazi legal expert who remained a leading professor long after the war.

As I see it, Wullf’s misdeeds are run-of-the-mill perks, illegal but committed by many if not most politicians, and incomparably less serious than those of many preceding him.

So why did the mass rag BILD and then all the others jump on him?  My very personal suspicion is because Wulff, though otherwise a typically conservative politician, was decent enough to publically reject discrimination against immigrant groups, even saying, very courageously, that Islam had now become part of the German scene as legitimately as Christianity or Judaism.  This view is anathema to right-wingers generally, and BILD is a main purveyor of hate-the-Muslims propaganda.  Indeed, BILD printed installments of the book by a major proponent of such hatred, the politician and banker Thilo Sarrazin.  In my view this is one likely possibility for the philippic campaign against the otherwise relatively harmless Christian Wulff.

Where do we go from here?  A special body to select a new president will consist of all deputies to the Bundestag plus an equivalent number of politicians or celebrities chosen by Germany’s sixteen states.  The total of 1,240 will then vote, needing an absolute majority on the first two tries.  If that proves impossible, a simple plurality would then suffice.  The two parties currently running the government, the Christians and the Free Democrats, will have a slim a majority of one to three votes; since the vote is secret and there are often renegades, this means that Angela Merkel is hunting for a candidate who will also be supported by the Social Democrats and the Greens.  In calling for consultations with them, she pointedly failed to invite the only other party, the Left party, whose more than 120 votes might just make a difference (as they did when Wulff barely won out two years ago).  This snub could lead the Left, once again, to put up its own candidate, even without any chance of success.

The president in Germany has few powers: he can veto laws but does so very rarely; he (or possibly she) welcomes heads of state, goes on state visits abroad, and makes hopefully historic speeches every so often on the state of the country, without sounding too partisan.  But turmoil between now and the election next month can shake things up considerably — while distracting attention from other matters.

One possible candidate is the man whom Wulff just barely beat two years ago: the East German pastor and Red-hunter who administered the archives about the Stasi (State Security apparatus of the East German Democratic Republic) and made a name for himself as a conservative, extremely anti-Left, whose Stasi files were used in ways reminiscent of FBI files during the McCarthy period to criminalize thousands, including many only because of unavoidable and often totally innocuous contacts of one kind or another with the Stasi, totally destroying their careers and often their lives.  Joachim Gauck smiles in a friendly way; he even cries when discussing supposed terrors in the bad old days (although he was treated in a very benign manner considering that he was a very pro-western pastor — some claim he himself had Stasi ties).  But he is only one of a series of candidates now being discussed.  Perhaps, by the time you read this, one of them will have been chosen.  I hope it is not Gauck.

Victor Grossman, American journalist and author, is a resident of East Berlin for many years. He is the author of Crossing the River: A Memoir of the American Left, the Cold War, and Life in East Germany (University of Massachusetts Press, 2003).

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