Ceremonial duties occupy Germany′s president | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 18.03.2012
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Germany

Ceremonial duties occupy Germany's president

Germany's official head of state, the country's presidents have filled their time issuing certificates and giving speeches. Shocked by the atrocities of the Nazi regime, presidential powers were intentionally limited.

The German president is not as powerful as his international counterparts in the United States, France or Russia. For instance, he - or she - does not command the armed forces. The president also cannot put emergency laws into effect or dissolve the parliament. And the president is not elected by the people, but by members of a convention drawn from both federal and state legislatures.

The relatively weak position of the office has its roots in German history. Before the National Socialists took over power in 1933, the "Reich President" Paul von Hindenburg wielded substantial power by commanding the armed forces and making changes to laws. Adolf Hitler, who at the time was Reich Chancellor, needed the additional powers of the president to take absolute control of the country. When von Hindenburg died, Hitler took advantage of the situation and convinced voters to elect him both Reich chancellor and president.

Hitler and von Hindenburg shaking hands

Hitler took control of both the president's and chancellor's offices

While many Germans thought they were deciding on a bureaucratic matter, it power given to Hitler ultimately enabled him to start World War Two.

Lessons learned

In 1948, Germany's Basic Law, the country's constitution, was crafted in such a way as to limit presidential power to avoid any potential for a dictator to take over again. Though the constitution still called for the office of the president to be established, the person filling it would have mainly representative functions.

The constitution also took military power away from the president. In times of peace, the defense minister is in charge of the armed forces with the chancellor, not the president, taking over during wartime. Parliament is tasked with deciding whether to deploy the country's armed forces.

The president's tasks today

German Basic Law explicitly states the president's tasks and power today in its articles 54 to 61. The office holder, who so far have been all men, represent the state domestically and abroad. Germans have grown to expect their president to act in a politically neutral manner, and presidents have tended to meet that expectation with many presidents deciding to suspend their party affiliations during their time in office.

Theodor Heuss

Theodor Heuss was Germany's first president

But the president is not entirely powerless. Most of the office's power comes through protocol and formality. With the president's signature a bill becomes a legally binding law and the president is allowed to appoint and dismiss federal judges.

Proposing the chancellor: A merely formal task as the chancellor is elected by the Bundestag, the lower house of parliament, whose members are elected by the public. The president does, however, officially hand over the letter of appointment.

Signing laws: Laws - including treaties with other countries - can only come into force with the president's signature. Experts at the Office of the Federal President check whether laws passed by the Bundestag and Bundesrat, the upper house of parliament, are compatible with the German constitution. The process is normally a formality, but it is by refusing to enact a law that presidents have made their power clear.

A folder

The president's offices are filled with the laws of the land

Recent examples include the Aviation Security Act, which would have permitted hijacked passenger jets to be shot down before reaching critical areas such as a nuclear power plant. President Horst Köhler, who served from 2004-2010, signed the law with concern and recommended it be checked by Germany's highest court. The Constitutional Court eventually rejected the law.

Richard von Weizsäcker, in office from 1984-1994, also had objections to a proposed law that called for German airspace to be secured by private companies. Von Weizsäcker set off a wide debate on what parts of government could responsibly be outsourced to private organizations and which should remain in state hands. He eventually signed the law after an amendment was made to the constitution.

Appointing federal judges and high-ranking civil servants: Another formality in which the president hands over letters of appointment. Judges are appointed by the justice departments in the respective states.

Right of pardon: It was a rare occasion that a president had to act in this matter, as verdicts can only be issued in fair trials in accordance with the rule of law. Left-wing Red Army Faction terrorist Christian Klar, who was sentenced to life in prison, appealed for a pardon to Köhler. The then-president denied the appeal. His decision, however, was shrouded by controversy as the Christian Social Union said it would not support his re-election if he were to grant the appeal. Chancellor Angela Merkel criticized her Bavarian sister party's attempt to influence the president's decision.

Joachim Gauck

Joachim Gauck is expected to be Germany's next president

Of the 10 men who have served as German president, only Theodor Heuss, the first president, attempted to expand the presidential powers ascribed by the constitution. He called for the president to be present at the chancellor's cabinet meetings but his request was denied.

Four of Germany's 10 presidents enjoyed enough popularity among the lawmakers and officials responsible with electing them to win a second term.

Author: Wolfgang Dick / sst
Editor: Andreas Illmer

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