Ironically, the indictment of Christian Wulff is an opportunity for him to polish his tarnished reputation. He's accused of accepting a bribe in return for a political favor, but the last word hasn’t yet been spoken.
A former German head of state is charged with corruption – one year after he stood down. It's all too easy to see this case as symptomatic of the allegedly depraved political class in Europe. Former German President Christian Wulff's case is different from other cases. No matter what the court will decide, there are no similarities whatsoever to the questionable state Italy is in or the recent scandal in France.
Italy was long governed by Silvio Berlusconi, a billionaire who had been convicted several times. In France, budget minister Jerome Cahuzac was recently forced to resign because of secret offshore accounts. His confession of guilt caused a severe crisis for French President Francois Hollande and his government. Germany is miles away from scandals of such proportions.
State prosecutors in Lower Saxony suspect Wulff of accepting the offer by a movie producer to pay for Wulff's family's trip to the famous Oktoberfest beer festival in Munich in 2008. Wulff was head of the federal state of Lower Saxony at the time. In that position, the prosecutors claim, he then wrote a letter to the Siemens group to help market a film project of said producer.
The state prosecutors see a direct link between Wulff's trip to Oktoberfest and his lobbying activity for the movie producer, which is why they have officially accused him of corruption. The sum at stake amounts to a little over 700 euros ($900). Now, whether that is enough for a highly paid politician to be corrupted can rightly be disputed.
The state prosecutors seemed to have doubts themselves: They made Wulff an offer that all charges would be dropped against payment of a fine – an offer that Wulff rejected, even if it would have spared him the legal categorization of "previously convicted." His lawyers rejected the offer of paying 50,000 euros because it could have been interpreted as a confession of guilt.
Wulff wants full rehabilitation
Now Wulff, who stepped down in early 2012, risks being convicted. He has decided to take that risk because he doesn't want to be stigmatized as having agreed to a controversial deal with state prosecution. It was the only choice the 53-year-old had if he wants to keep the possibility of being fully rehabilitated intact. In a legal sense that would be the case if the court acquits him of the suspicion of corruption.
If Wulff is lucky the trial may not even be opened in the first place. The Landgericht Hanover (regional court) has to decide on the admission of the indictment. The court will have to weigh just how convincing the argumentation used by state prosecution is.
Countless other allegations against Wulff that had led to his resignation have since proven to be unsubstantiated. Chances are high that it will end well for Wulff, but the damage has been done. His resignation from Germany's top political position was followed by the separation from his wife just a few months later.
Wulff has had to pay a high price – both politically and personally. He definitely has to take part of the blame himself. He often reacted clumsily and with little credibility to some of the accusations against him. To sum up, the first ever indictment against a former head of state will not harm political culture in Germany. On the contrary: It is proof of a functioning division of power in a democratic state. In addition, the substance of the alleged crime committed by Wulff almost seems negligible.
But an independent judiciary must of course not succumb to such judgments. That's why it's a good thing if state prosecution sticks to its indictment. And it's also a good thing if the fallen president seizes his chance to reestablish his credibility in a fair trial. And no trial at all would be something like a first-class acquittal for Christian Wulff.