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Germany's President Steinmeier calls for unity amid upheaval

April 23, 2024

In his new book "We," Frank-Walter Steinmeier looks for diversity in the face of division — and embarks on a difficult balancing act for a head of state.

A gray-haired white man wearing glasses, suit and tie [German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier], gestures as he delivers remarks during a press conference
The German president is calling for unity in a time of political divisionImage: EPA/ERDEM SAHIN

It's not often that a German president writes a book while still in office but Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who's been Germany's head of state for over seven years, has done just that. 

He says the decision was prompted by the approach this year of major anniversaries for two significant events in German history: the 75th anniversary of the Proclamation of the Constitution [Germany's Basic Law] on May 23; and the 35th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9.

Steinmeier fears rise of the right, speaks of political despondency 

Looking ahead to those milestones, the president — who plays a rather more ceremonial role in matters of state — feels uneasier than he does celebratory when considering the state of the nation.

You could even say Steinmeier is alarmed in the face of rising right-wing populism, despondency, skepticism about democracy, and unresolved social issues tied to migration, the welfare state, and the fight against climate change.

In Steinmeier's book, titled "Wir" ("We"), he describes a country plagued by great uncertainty.

"Those who can never rest, never establish themselves, never know that they have a safe harbor, but rather must expect the unexpected at every turn — whether that be the emergence of a virus that paralyzes public life or a war that threatens to rob people of gas to heat through the winter — they lose faith in the most natural things," he writes.

Two men in suits [Prince William, Duke of Cambridge and  President Frank-Walter Steinmeier (R)] and two women in green and blue and dresses [First Lady (L) Elke Büdenbender and Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge] at Bellevue Palace in Berlin, Germany, on July 19, 2017
The president is drawing on his ceremonial duties as head of state as well as reflecting upon Germany's futureImage: picture-alliance/dpa

What about president as bridge-builder?

Steinmeier has tirelessly traveled the country, including visiting small towns and communities to talk with people whose opinions differ more and more — the experience prompted his attempt to look for what still unites us, for the "We" in his book's title.

But that brings up two questions now being put to Steinmeier. 

Is it really the president's place to take an explicit stance on current social upheavals and political controversies?

Or should the president be engaged in building bridges between all levels of society, beyond the day's current events?

Steinmeier: Plenty of reasons for hope

Does Steinmeier bear responsibility for creating a 'false sense of security'? 

If the president insists on pointing out past mistakes and poor decisions made by Germany when it enjoyed a position of comfort and a carefree sense of well-being — built, incidentally on a dependence on American security and cheap Russian gas — can Steinmeier really be the one to shake things up now?

After all, as foreign minister, Steinmeier played a major role in helping lull the country into a false sense of security, didn't he?

The former Social Democrat (SPD) politician was Germany's top diplomat from 2005 to 2009, and again from 2013 to 2017.

He was in his second term on the job, for instance, when Russia invaded and occupied Crimea in 2014 — in clear violation of international law.

From a friend of Moscow to a critic

Steinmeier would likely counter that last criticism by noting that many German politicians maintained dialogue with Moscow until the outbreak of war in Ukraine in February 2022.

But now he writes: "The war is radicalizing Moscow's unjust regime. It is entangling a partly fanatical, partly paralyzed Russian society in a culpability of historic proportions." 

But weren't there signs of that very trajectory early on, especially for a foreign minister?

Steinmeier visits Ukrainian troops training near Berlin

For a multi-ethnic and pluralistic society

The majority of people in Germany are likely to agree with many of the statements that Steinmeier makes in his book, such as when he writes that German society has never been homogeneous — with people from other countries and cultures having constantly joined it.

Germany today, he says, is made up equally of "those born into our political order as much as those who have immigrated into it, who are at home in it, who have become German by choosing a new nationality."

Some in Germany categorically reject such statements.

Of right-wing populists, Steinmeier writes: "Some of them even want to forcibly create such homogeneity and expatriate Germans who don't fit the bill. The majority of citizens oppose such unconstitutional fantasies."

A man wearing a suit cuts into a slab of meat as man in a white chef outfit looks on
Steinmeier celebrated immigrant culture born in Germany with Berlin-style Döner for his guests at a recent presidential event in Istanbul, TurkeyImage: Bernd von Jutrczenka/picture alliance/dpa

Criticism of social media and cancel culture

But the fact is it's not just a few confused crazies who can no longer identify with the president's concept of "We." Who reject democracy. Who think in right-wing extremist terms. And who conduct their own discussions within the bubbles of their own digital platforms.

It is here that Steinmeier identifies one of the central problems standing in the way of "We," writing: "The boundaries of what can be said have been pushed too far towards the unspeakable. A brutalization has taken root in political language that triumphantly presents itself as fearlessness. Paradoxically, at the same time, many feel confirmed in the idea that you can no longer speak your mind and are attacked for every frank word."

Steinmeier's goal is to mobilize a large, silent majority of society against this extremely vocal minority, and encourage them to keep their faith in democratic governance.

Steinmeier implores: "It is important to realize that it is not only obtuse or malicious politicians who are to blame for the fact that Germany is in a changed situation. No German politician can demand the world turn back... and that it do so in a way that is to our advantage."

The role of the German president

The power of a German president is limited, expressed in words, by uniting across every border. Steinmeier, with his book, is pushing the envelope of the job's function to the maximum.

His concern for the country's future is one thing. But what is missing is an honest assessment of where Germany — which is still one of the richest countries in the world, one with a functioning welfare state and constitutional order — stands in the world, and that upheavals like those described in the book exist elsewhere, too.

Occasionally, the reader gets the impression that the former power player feels frustration over not being able to actively shape society in these turbulent times.

But the restrained role of a purely representative head of state is his job, even when the world around him is acting crazy.

This article was translated from German.

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Jens Thurau Jens Thurau is a senior political correspondent covering Germany's environment and climate policies.@JensThurau