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The Wulff affair

Volker Wagener / mllNovember 14, 2013

Christian Wulff was the first German president to resign because he was under investigation for abuse of office. Now, the case is before the courts, and DW's Volker Wagener says it remains deeply embarrassing.

Former German President Christian Wulff (2nd L) awaits the start of his trial at the regional court in Hanover November 14, 2013. Wulff, who served just 20 months as president and was the man once tipped as a successor to Chancellor Angela Merkel, stood down in April 2012, when prosecutors asked parliament to lift his immunity, saying they suspected he had accepted undue privileges. Wulff rejects the charges and in April this year spurned an offer to settle the case with an out-of-court payment. REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach (GERMANY - Tags: POLITICS CRIME LAW)
Ex-President Wullf on trial (second from left)Image: Reuters

You can tell how much character someone has and how much they can take only when things start getting serious - that's what people say. Well, things started getting serious for Christian Wulff in Hanover, the capital of the state of Lower Saxony. That was where he worked his way up from leader of the opposition to state premier.

He was seen as conscientious, although a bit boring. But then, in June 2010, his career took a big leap when he became German president as the favored candidate of Chancellor Angela Merkel.

On the way up, Wulff tried to change his image, but at some point along the road, he must have lost his political instinct for what was right and wrong.

It's that instinct which allows a top politician to resist the temptations of the flatterers and the self-serving courtship of the rich and powerful. After just 598 days in office, President Wulff had turned into "the Wulff affair," offering an example of the dangers of temptation in politics, the power of the mass circulation media and the lack of self-assurance of the justice system.

Volker Wagener. Photo DW/Per Henriksen
Volker Wagener comments on German affairs for Deutsche WelleImage: DW

Reaching the top

Let's go back to Hanover: it's a town of just a half a million people - provincial, but still a place with its own celebrities. Former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder calls it home, the Scorpions, Germany's best-known rock-band come from there, as do a whole list of very wealthy and successful businesspeople. Those who are involved in the Hanover scene say that the city rocks.

Wulff wanted to be part of that scene. His young second wife Bettina was even keener on the idea. They sought out the glamorous world of the rich and the beautiful - and they succeeded in becoming part of it.

Wulff grew up in modest circumstances. He had to care for his mother and look after his younger brothers and sisters. He didn't start out with any advantages, and there's nothing wrong with having ambition. By becoming state premier, he had already climbed a long way up the ladder.

But his friends were playing in a different league and he wanted to play with them - let some of the glamor rub off on him. The Wulffs borrowed money for a house from a businessman at terms which were well below market rates, they let their holidays be sponsored, they took presents, or received big discounts on the things they bought. This was all small fry, and there was nothing criminal about it.

But why did he let himself benefit personally in ways that were only possible because of his office?

The power of the popular press

It would all have been forgotten if Wulff hadn't made one mistake too many. In the autumn of 2011, Germany's most popular newspaper, "Bild," which sees itself as the voice of the little guy, planned a story about how Wulff had financed his house. Wulff wanted it stopped. He threatened, he was rude - and he left a message on the voice-mail of the paper's editor.

From then on, "Bild" turned against him. For years, the paper had seen him as a reliable contact among the leadership of the Christian Democratic party, of which he was vice-chairman. It had courted him and given him good press coverage. Now everything changed. It became clear who was the dog and who the master - and it wasn't Wulff who was in charge. Over a period of two months, Wulff tangled himself in his own contradictions, until resigning was left as his only option.

And now: the court case

The state prosecutor spent months investigating, thousands of pages were written, but in the end, it's all about 750 euros ($1,000) which the Wulffs are said to have received from a film producer who paid for a meal, a hotel room, a babysitter and a visit to the Oktoberfest. The court plans to hear the case over 22 days. It's a test-case in lack of proportion.

Foreigners rub their eyes in disbelief over the petty accusations which can bring a politician down. In one way, though, this is appropriate to the office of president. The presidency ought, above all, to be a moral authority, even if, ironically, it has the least power of any constitutional body. The person at the head of the state must be above all suspicion.

As a result of his mistakes, that's exactly what Wulff wasn't. But his departure in shame at the end of just 18 months in office isn't just a Wulff affair - it's also an example of the mercilessness of the popular press and the documentation mania of the lawyers.

It's been an embarrassing drama, and, with typical German thoroughness, it has descended into a farce - for politics, the media, and now, the courts.