German president Wulff carries on tradition of gaffes or scandals


BERLIN LETTER:Most German presidents seem to have strayed a little too close to controversy

FROM ADENAUER to Merkel, post-war Germany has had a remarkable line-up of chancellors. Germany’s presidents, though, are more of a mixed bag.

Last night President Christian Wulff took the unprecedented step of agreeing to a television interview to deny he did anything wrong in accepting a low-interest home loan from an industrialist friend. He apologised for calling the editor of the Bildtabloid to demand that he spike the story, but he refused to resign.

After three weeks of scandal, it remains to be seen if that is the last word on the matter. Wulff however isn’t the first German president to come under fire.

For most Germans, the ideal president was Richard von Weizsäcker, a man of intellectual brilliance and aristocratic poise during two terms from 1984 to 1994.

He steered the country through the joy and pain of unification, although he is best remembered for his 1985 speech describing the end of the second World War, on May 9th, 1945, as a “day of liberation from the inhuman National Socialist rule of violence”.

In German popular memory, almost every president before and since has paled in comparison.

Almost all German presidents have had to cope with slips or even full-blown scandals of their own. Some have their root in poor judgment but many others, it could be argued, arose from Germans’ high moral expectations of their head of state that leave little room for human failings.

The federal president fulfils a largely ceremonial role similar to the Irish president. They are elected by a specially convened electoral congress of Bundestag MPs and regional representatives.

This election formula, combined with a strict constitutional straitjacket once in office, was a conscious post-war response to the political instabilities of the Weimar era.

Although ostensibly a neutral figure, the presidency is, in reality, a political appointment by the sitting chancellor and politics is never far away from the official residence of Bellevue Palace.

West Germany’s first federal president, Theodor Heuss, only took up the job after horse- trading with then chancellor Konrad Adenauer. When he decided not to succeed Heuss, and several other candidates also turned down the job, it fell to Heinrich Lübke.

Lübke’s limited rhetorical ability and regular departures from prepared scripts generated an oeuvre of verbal gaffes so legendary that they were preserved on a 1966 record, “Heinrich Lübke speaks for Germany”. Lowlights include the president being booed during a speech by the residents of Helmstedt for forgetting the name of their town.

Posterity has been kinder to Lübke than his contemporaries. It emerged after his death that in his final years in office, he suffered from the onset of dementia.

Some years ago, a former journalist with Der Spiegel admitted making up one of the most notorious gaffes attributed to Lübke – a 1962 speech in Liberia that supposedly began “Dear ladies and gentlemen, dear negroes . . . ”

Lübke was forced to resign shortly before the end of his second term in 1969 after his signature was found on blueprints for Nazi concentration camps. The case remains controversial, however, with Lübke supporters claiming he fell victim to an East German propaganda smear.

Things were less colourful under Gustav Heinemann (1969-74) although his successor, Free Democratic politician Walter Scheel, is best remembered for his lilting interpretation of the popular song Up On the Yellow Cart.

The ditty is ostensibly about the demands of the postal service, although some experts interpret the lyrics as a haunting allegory about death.

Scheel’s successor, Karl Carstens, was a controversial choice because he had joined the Nazi SA in 1934. In office he stayed out of trouble, though, and became known as the “hiking president”.

The popular von Weizsäcker got into a spot of bother after asking the authorities in East Berlin to grant his daughter access to historical archives for her doctorate.

His successor in 1994, Roman Herzog, avoided controversy, unlike Johannes Rau (1999-2004). He came under fire when it emerged that, during his political career, he had used for private appointments an aircraft belonging to a state-owned bank.

In May 2010, President Horst Köhler resigned after six years following remarks in an interview that Germany should “in emergencies, use military missions to protect our interests, for instance free trade routes”.

Köhler said he was referring to piracy off the African coast, but opposition politicians attacked him for remarks they attributed to German military involvement in Afghanistan.

The president vacated his official residence of Bellevue Palace complaining of a “lack of support” at political level – a nod to chancellor Angela Merkel’s silence throughout the affair.

She has held her tongue this time around, too. The German leader needs Wulff to survive or face the Wildean accusation – to lose one president is misfortune, to lose two seems like carelessness.