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Useful Notes / The Presidents of Germany

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Standard of the German Presidency.

After the end of Imperial Germany, Weimar Germany decided to install a president instead of the Kaiser after the abdication of Wilhelm II (in fact, the term Ersatzkaiser was often used). While not carrying as much power as the American presidents (the Weimar presidents didn't do the actual government work, that's the job of the Chancellors), as the supreme commander of the armed forces and the man who could appoint and fire governments at will, they were still pretty powerful. Article 48 of the Weimar Constitution gave the President the right to issue "Emergency Decrees" ("Notverordnungen") and while they could be overruled by the Reichstag and there was supposed to be a law clarifying the extent and validity of that power, such a law was never passed and more often than not the Reichstag majority decided to let Emergency Decrees stand even if they disagreed with them to not undermine political stability. Those Decrees were used to much positive effect by President Ebert in the numerous crises of 1923 (inflation, Ruhr Occupation, Coup Attempts) and then abused by President Hindenburg in the last few years of the Republic.

After the bad experiences with a strong presidency, the constitution of West Germany gave most power to the chancellor and made the president a purely ceremonial head of state. Still, some presidents could take a bit of influence thanks to personal charisma. While most Presidents after 1949 have held (sometimes considerable) political office prior to being elected President and most were at least strongly associated with a political office, it has been an unwritten rule that the President officially "pauses" his party membership for his time in office and runs the office in as non-partisan a manner as possible. Presidents and their wives usually take on a cause or two which they champion during their time in office and they often become involved in a related charity after they leave office. No former President has ever seriously tried to achieve political office, but they are still sometimes interviewed as "elder statesmen" or sought out by their successors for advice and as "replacement presidents". The (quite considerable) presidential salary is paid for life, even after leaving office.

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Weimar Republic and Nazi Germanynote :

    Friedrich Ebert
  • Social Democrat. First chancellor (see The Chancellors of Germany) and then first President of the German Reich (the technical name for what historians call "Weimar Republic"). Had to deal with many rightwingers who accused him of being a traitor. And leftwingers who didn't forgive him that he had been pro-war (though not pro-conquest) during World War I, or not creating a socialist state after the revolution of 1918/19. And uprisings from left and right. And the ramifications of the treaty of Versailles. And the hyperinflation and the suffering economy. And the bureaucracy and judiciary being not exactly helpful (most of them remained staunch monarchists at best ambivalent about the new Republic). And one occasion when he appeared on a photo wearing swim briefs, which conservatives found inappropriate for the leader of a country. Apparently the photo was published by his enemies to ruin his reputation. And many more problems. He died in 1925, before his term was finished. He had been elected by the inaugural Constitutional Convention at Weimar and got his term extended repeatedly through votes of the Reichstag instead of standing for popular re-election.

    Paul von Hindenburg
  • World War I Generalfeldmarschall (and widely seen as a war hero in Germany due to the victory troops under his commandnote  achieved against Russia in 1914) — no party, closest to the conservative German nationalists. Became the candidate for the right-wing parties in the second round of voting and defeated the democratic candidate, former chancellor Wilhelm Marx (not related). Hindenburg also won because the Communists would rather vote for Thälmann insted of Marx, splitting the anti-Hindenburg vote, and because the Bavarian Catholics supported the Protestant Prussian over the Catholic Rhinelander Marx (oh the irony). Although he didn't like the republic much, being a traditional monarchist, he still swore an oath on the constitution. note  He was already 77 years old when elected for the first time, thus making him 84 when reelected in 1932. However, at that time he was seen as the only one who could prevent a certain guy from Austria becoming president instead. And one year later, he appointed him chancellor (under blackmail). He died a year later, and Hitler seized absolute power.

    Adolf Hitler
  • National Socialist. Hitler absorbed the state office of President during his tenure as leader of the German Reich after Hindenburg's death, but he didn't actually use the title. Officially out of respect for Hindenburg, unofficially because it was a democratic institution and too reminiscent of the "hereditary" arch-enemy France. Hitler merged the Presidency with the Chancellery, creating the combined office of Führer und Reichskanzler, representing Hitler's dual roles as Chief of State and Chief of Government. Technically Hitler had a third role as Führer of the Nazi Party, but the relationship between the Party, the State and the Government was very chaotic in the Third Reich (and that's leaving out the military offices Hitler also acquired that confusingly enough made him his own subordinate several times over). In practice Hitler was simply the Leader, no qualification required. Fun fact: Being born Austrian, he got the German citizenship relatively late, otherwise he wouldn't have been electable at all.

    Karl Dönitz
  • National Socialist. Chief of the German Navy High Command during World War II (notably increasing its submarine fleet). Hitler decreed before his death that his unique office would be split into the Presidency and Chancellery again, and Dönitz was handed the former. Hadn't really much to do after Hitler's suicide and signed Germany's capitulation in May 1945. Was arrested by the Allies, brought to court in Nuremberg and served 10 years in Spandau, together with guys like Albert Speer and Rudolf Hess (Hermann Göring having committed suicide in Nuremberg).

East Germany:

The GDR had a president until 1960 (only one office-holder, Wilhelm Pieck), then replaced that office with a collective council of state, which had a chairman.

West Germany then The Berlin Republic:

    Theodor Heuss 
  • Liberal Democrat. A jovial guy who liked humor and wine. Tried to keep party politics out of his office. Started the first Arbor Day in Germany. Albert Schweitzer was the pastor at Heuss' wedding; Heuss' wife was a personal friend of Schweitzer's. He had voted for Hitler's enabling act as a member of the Reichstag in 1933.

    Heinrich Lübke 
  • Christian Democrat. Became infamous for his broken English and various goofs, some of which became Memetic Mutation. While some of them may have been invented, it is true frex that on a visit in Madagascar, he greeted the president with "Dear Mr president, dear Mrs Tananarive..." (Tananarive being Madagascar's capital!). He resigned three months before the scheduled end of his term due to controversy surrounding his past in Nazi Germany (the East German Stasi deliberately having leaked incriminating documents to West German press). Out of office it became clear that he was afflicted by a neurological disorder then called "cerebral sclerosis" and it has been argued that his Foot in Mouth Syndrome may have been due to his illness, making some of the vicious humor directed at him Harsher in Hindsight. For some reason, Penfold from Danger Mouse was named Lübke in the German translation.

    Gustav Heinemann 
  • Gustav Heinemann — Social Democrat. Active in the Bekennende Kirche (the resistant faction of the Protestant Church) under the Nazis, he became a member of the Christian Democrats and a minister, but left party and cabinet when Adenauer started to rearm West Germany. He founded the small Gesamtdeutsche Volkspartei, which later joined the Social Democrats. Narrowly elected by Liberal and Social Democrats, the latter still being in a grand coalition with the Christian Democrats. Once when asked whether he'd love Germany, he answered "I don't love the state, I love my wife." Generally, a quiet guy. Only served one term, for health and age reasons.

    Walter Scheel 
  • Liberal Democrat. Former state secretary / foreign minister. Became famous for singing a popular German song, "Hoch auf dem gelben Wagen". Only served one term. His stepdaughter is married to Hella von Sinnen, Germany's most famous lesbian comedian. While many of Germany's Presidents had run for the office of chancellor at one time or another (Scheel never did), he is the only one to have served in both offices as he, being Vice-Chancellor in the Willy Brandt government, filled in as interim chancellor for a few days after Brandt resigned.

    Karl Carstens 
  • Christian Democrat. His election was an alarm sign for the social-liberal coalition which had been weakened in the Länder. Somewhat controversial for having been a member of the Nazi party. Liked hiking and used this hobby to "meet the German people". Only served one term, feeling too old for a second one.

    Richard von Weizsäcker 
  • Christian Democrat. Former grand mayor of West Berlin. Compared to "a mixture of banker and church congress president". Proved to be very popular among all democratic parties, even the Greens, and was reelected unopposed. Presided during the reunification of Germany. Came from a prominent family of public servants and diplomats who thrived in all German systems since the Kaiserreich; his father was a defendant at the Nuremberg trial of diplomats and public servants. Most famous for his 1985 speech on the fortieth anniversary of the end of WWII where he said May 8 was "also a day of liberation", which had not been acknowledged by conservatives up to that point.

    Roman Herzog 
  • Christian Democrat. Former head of the German Supreme Court. Became the candidate after Helmut Kohl's candidate Steffen Heitmann (who'd have been the first president from East Germany in The Berlin Republic) proved to be too conservative. Took three rounds to be elected, but he proved to be quite popular. Most famous for his "Ruck-Rede" (roughly: tug speech), criticizing the Germans for being too indolent.

    Johannes Rau 
  • Social Democrat. Grandson-in-law of his predecessor Gustav Heinemann, in fact. And like him, a former member of the GVP. (His opponent from the Left Party was his wife's aunt - how ironic.) First German politician to speak in the Knesset, the parliament of Israel. As a pious Protestant he was nicknamed "Bruder Johnannes" (brother or friar John). Had been leader of the state of North Rhine Westphalia (Germany's most populous) for bordering on two decades before being elected President.

    Horst Köhler 
  • Christian Democrat. Former head of the IMF (International Monetary Fund).note  First president who hadn't held major political office before ascending to the presidency. Reelected in 2009, but quit just one year later after some remarks he made about the military's role became hugely controversial.

    Christian Wulff 
  • Christian Democrat. Former minister president of Lower Saxony. He was accused of having gotten a loan from a friend (who was also a businessman) for favorable conditions (the implication being corruption), which tripped an avalanche of other accusations. When it got so bad that he might have lost his immunity, he resigned after less than two years in office, however, it should be noted that he was acquitted of all charges in a court of law. In the course of the affair, Wulff committed numerous PR blunders, among them calling the head of Bild (Germany's main right leaning tabloid) whom he had considered a friend and arguably threatening him. The call was recorded and then published. Oops. The only notable thing in his short term apart from the scandals was a speech he gave with the line "Islam is a part of Germany". His private life is also interesting in that his wife more or less admitted that fame was one of the key things that draw her to him, started divorce proceedings after he left office, published memoirs and then got together with him later and stopped the divorce proceedings.

    Joachim Gauck 
  • Independent. Former Lutheran pastor from East Germanynote , who appeared on the political stage during the time of the Hole in Flag revolutions. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, he was the head of the government agency responsible for investigating the crimes of The Stasi (the GDR's infamous Secret Police). Served only one term. Had been nominated by the Greensnote  for the presidency ahead of the election that led to Wulff becoming President and despite that not having a chance of succeeding (the CDU/CSU and FDP majority was quite solid) the manner of Wulff's resignation led to him becoming the all-party consensus candidate the next time around.

    Frank Walter Steinmeyer 
  • Social Democrat. Consensus candidate of SPD, CDU and Greens and former foreign minister. Highly popular (if considered a bit boring) due to him saying and doing very few controversial things even before entering Bellevue.