The President Is Dead. Long Live the Republic!

The German president has stepped down, the nation has lost its head. It’s a good time to abolish the vestiges of monarchic thought.

In his recent book “In the King’s Shadow”, Philip Manow explores the thesis that modern democracies have incorporated many monarchic forms of legitimization and expression. Our interpretation of democracy is rooted in the imagination of the monarchy. In his analysis, Manow focuses on regicide. He quotes the French revolutionary Robespierre, who is said to have commented on the public decapitation of King Louis XVI with the words, “the king must die so the country can live.”

The past eight weeks must have felt like a recurring walk to the guillotine for the German president Christian Wulff. But that is not the comparison I am interested in making. Instead, I want to focus on a peculiarity of the German political landscape: The office of the president can be interpreted as a remnant of feudal times. Like the British queen or the French president, the German president is the “head of the nation” rather than “head of state”. We expect the president to be of impeccable moral character, not unlike medieval kings. In Germany, the president holds no political power. His function is representative, and it is shored up by a rather diffuse appeals to “authority” and “dignity”.

The consent of the people plays a central role in this context. The divine right of kings was rooted in Christian teachings about the “kingdom of Jesus”, who was seen as the representative of God on earth. The people could dispose of kings when they failed to live up to the standards of generosity and decency that Jesus had embodied. The idea of “vox populi, vox dei” – the voice of the people is the voice of God – is a sentence that existed well before it was popularized by Marx and Engels in the 19th century.

Today, the people have spoken again. The judicative – in a democracy, prosecutors are acting on behalf of the people – announced that it would seek to have Mr. Wulff’s immunity suspended in order to launch an investigation into a possible corruption case. Here, we see a crucial difference to former kings: The consecration of kings was meant to be irreversible; immunity is a temporary concession. But when the point has been reached where consecration is questioned and immunity suspended, we sense that the time has come for the king to abdicate and for the president to resign. Legal and moral arguments became increasingly intertwined over the past few days, and the German president was forced to step down.

Yet even Mr. Wulff should have been held innocent until proven guilty. Under modern rule of law, guilt means that someone has violated a law, and that the violation has been proved beyond reasonable doubt. The law is not rooted in religious morality, and it is unfair to measure the president against those standards. Evidently, even modern democracies have never quite abandoned the conventions of feudalism. We praise the rule of law, yet judge by the standards of divine morality. Mr. Wulff’s insistence that his resignation does not imply an admission of guilt should be taken for granted. Sometimes, we seem to forget the protection of innocence. Under the cover of the law, we live and act as our forefathers did under the rules of divinity or the protection of the monarch.

Today, the nation has lost its head. The almost divine head of the German president has (metaphorically) been chopped off, and the political machine has slowed to a standstill. What is the body without its head, the state without the nation, or politics without a common idea?

This is the moment to pursue far-reaching change. In Shakespeare’s “Macbeth”, the sky darkens when the king is murdered. But today, the sky over Berlin remains bright. Evidently, our modern king is more expendable than we thought. So why don’t we reconsider the office of the president: Do we really want to protect and perpetuate those remnants of the monarchy? Or has the time come to abandon them? The president must die, so the free and secular republic can live.

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