It first happened in May 2010; and on Friday it happened a second time. The breaking of a political taboo, thought to be impossible in the 60-year history of the Federal Republic of Germany: The President resigned! First Horst Köhler, now Christian Wulff. What’s wrong with these gentlemen, selected for the top job of the nation? Or has their work become “mission impossible”?
Articles 54 to 62 of the German “Grundgesetz” – the constitution – show the symptomatic dilemma of the office. They regulate the election, the oath of office, the duties to sign laws and to host envoys, et cetera. Then, in distinguished perfection, the constitution describes the incessant limitations to his office. Not a single word gives a clue what the president’s ideational tasks might be, how he is supposed to lead his office and which role this office should play in the institutional structure of the Federal Republic.
The reasons for the omissions can be found in history. In 1948, a so-called Parliamentary Council was tasked with the drafting of a constitution for Germany after the second world war. One of the fundamental ideas during the drafting process was that power should not be centralised. Broadly speaking, it were decisions of heads of state in modern German history which had been responsible for much of the misery. The result were clear boundaries to power.
The current German discussion about sense and role of the head of state resembles the leadership crisis in Britain during the middle of the nineteenth century. People mistrusted and ridiculed the highest authority, Queen Victoria (who is such a celebrated figure today). The monarch had decayed into a caricature who did not know how to fulfil her representative tasks and lacked creativity to reinvent herself and her office. The abolishment of the monarchy was publicly discussed. An immediate rethinking and new orientation of her leading role was inevitable if the queen did not want to become completely irrelevant.
An indeed, the Queen understood the signs of the times and invented a new identity for her office and the entire nation. She invented British traditions, which are still the foundations of the British self-perception and have a great impact on the habitus and pride of the people. After the death of her husband Albert, Victoria dedicated herself to the good of the nation. She was the first to understand the dichotomy of a modern head of state: to be “Head of state” and “Head of Nation”. It signalled a revolution in state leadership: A “head of state” was understood to be in charge of all the bureaucratic and ceremonial duties, but beyond that served as the ideational father or mother of the nation.
The highest office had a managerial component, but also a social and cultural one. The monarchy is not just about shaking hands or attending parades but about the creation of a highest moral authority: a secular way to embody the values and principles of the nation. Queen Victoria understood how important it is to give people a feeling of stability and continuity and to implement a counterpart to the quick turnover of the electoral cycle. Independent from party politics, the head of state was seen as a social lighthouse and mediator to give guidance and stay in touch with the people. This understanding of leadership became a universal codex for future British rulers, which increased not just the popularity of the monarch but also the unity of the society.
But representative functions and the staging of nation and state are not just phenomena of a monarchy; they are an inevitable and essential part of any state. Each incumbent is tasked with reinventing, defining and interpreting the office of the president: He or she must fill the uncertainty that has been deliberately left by the language of the constitution.
The office of the German president has as many limitations as it has liberties and spaces for interpretation. It requires the incumbent to have a high sense of intellectuality and ethics, as well as an understanding of how important identity and moral representation are for the functioning of a state. This is true in any political system, no matter whether it is a democratic, monarchic or socialist state.