President of Germany

President of Germany

Infobox Political post
post = President
body = the Federal
Republic of Germany
insignia = Standarte des Bundespräsidenten.svg
insigniasize = 100px
insigniacaption = Presidential Standard

residence = Bellevue Palace
incumbent = Horst Köhler
took office: July 1, 2004
termlength = 5 years
formation = September 13, 1949
inaugural = Theodor Heuss
website = []
The President of Germany ( _de. deutscher Bundespräsident) is Germany's head of state.

After the abdication of Wilhelm II, German Emperor in 1918 and the promulgation of the Weimar Constitution, the President of Germany (German: Reichspräsident, President of the Realm) was Head of State in Germany. The office was abolished in 1934 with the death of President Paul von Hindenburg. Its powers were merged with those of Reichskanzler. Adolf Hitler's official title was changed to "Führer und Reichskanzler". The office was briefly revived at the end of the Second World War when Hitler appointed Grand Admiral Karl Dönitz as his successor for President of Germany.

The German Reich did not cease to exist in 1945, but after four years of Allied occupation, two German states were formed inside of Germany as a whole in 1949: the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) in the former U.S., British and French zones of occupation, and the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) in the former Soviet Zone. Each German republic had a head of state with the title of President, although East Germany abandoned the title with the death of the first president, Wilhelm Pieck, in 1960. There continued to be two heads of state on German soil until the Reunification of Germany in 1991. At that point the President of the Federal Republic (German: Bundespräsident) became the president of the whole of Germany.

Weimar Republic presidency

During the Weimar Republic of 1919-1933 the head of state had the German title "Reichspräsident". This literally means 'President of the Reich' ("reich" is an ambiguous German word that roughly means 'dominion', 'empire' or 'realm'). However in English he was usually simply referred to, like the modern president, as the President of Germany. The Weimar constitution created a semi-presidential system in which power was divided between the President, a cabinet and a parliament. The President enjoyed far greater power than the current president and had an active political role, rather than a largely ceremonial one. The influence of the President also increased greatly as a result of the instability of the Weimar period.

The President had authority to appoint any Chancellor he wished and could dismiss the entire cabinet at any time. However it was also necessary for the cabinet to enjoy the confidence of the Reichstag (parliament) because it could be removed by a vote of no confidence. [cite web
title=The Constitution of the German Federation of August 11, 1919
] All bills had to receive the signature of the president to become law and, although he did not have an absolute veto on legislation, he could insist that a law be submitted for the approval of voters in a referendum. The president also had authority to dissolve the Reichstag, conduct foreign affairs, and command the armed forces. Article 48 of the constitution also provided the president sweeping powers in the event of a crisis. If there was a threat to "public order and security" he could legislate by decree and suspend civil rights.

Unlike the current President of Germany, the Weimar constitution provided that the president was directly elected and served a seven year term. The election involved a form of the two round system. However the first President was elected by the National Assembly and subsequently only two direct presidential elections actually occurred. These were the election of Paul von Hindenburg in 1925 and his re-election in 1932.

The system created by the Weimar constitution led to a number of problems. In particular, the fact that the President could appoint the cabinet, while the Reichstag had only a power of dismissal, created a high cabinet turn-over as ministers were appointed by the President only to be dismissed by the Reichstag shortly afterwards. Eventually Hindenburg stopped trying to appoint cabinets that enjoyed the confidence of the Reichstag and ruled by means of three "presidential cabinets" ("Präsidialkabinette"). Hindenburg was also able to use his power of dissolution to by-pass the Reichstag. If the Reichstag threatened to censure his ministers or revoke one of his decrees he could simply dissolve the body and be left able to govern without its interference until elections had been held.

The Weimar presidency effectively came to an end in 1934 when Hindenburg died and Hitler became sole ruler of Germany. The office of president was not abolished, but combined with that of Reich Chancellor and Nazi Party Leader ("Führer"). [cite book
first=Reich Government
title=Reichgesetzblatt part I
publisher=Reich Government
date=1 August 1934
pages=p. 747

However the title of "Reichspräsident" was briefly revived in the dying days of the Nazi regime when Admiral Karl Dönitz was appointed in Hitler's will as "Reichspräsident" in 1945. The legality of this appointment is highly questionable, but Dönitz acted as "de facto" Reichspräsident by signing the capitulation to the Allies. He was arrested for war crimes a few days later.

List of Presidents ("Reichspräsident")

East Germany

The German Democratic Republic had an office of President from 1949 to 1960, when the first and only President, the veteran Communist leader Wilhelm Pieck, died. The ruling Socialist Unity Party then abolished the position. Thereafter the Chairman of the Council of State was the East German head of state until 1990. In the last months of East Germany's existence, this post was also abolished, and the President of the People's Chamber ("Volkskammer") acted as head of state until East Germany ceased to exist.

See Leaders of East Germany for a list of all office-holders

President of the GDR "( _de. Präsident der DDR)" (1949-1960)

*Wilhelm Pieck (SED) 11 October 1949 to 7 September 1960.

West Germany

With the promulgation of the Grundgesetz (the new German Constitution) in 1949, the office of President (in German: "Bundespräsident", i.e. President of the Federation or Federal President) was recreated in the Federal Republic of (West) Germany. The Federal President was to elected by a specially convened body called the Federal Assembly ("Bundesversammlung") to serve a five-year term.cite book
title=Grundgesetz für die Bundesrepublik Deutschland
publisher=Deutscher Bundestag - Verwaltung
pages=Article 54.1
] [cite book
title=Grundgesetz für die Bundesrepublik Deutschland
pages=Article 54.2
] In accordance with Germany's parliamentary system of government, the presidency has been limited by a mixture of law and convention to being a ceremonial position.

The Presidency today


The President is elected by secret ballot, without debate, by the Federal Convention, a body established solely for that purpose. The convention consists of all Bundestag members as well as an equal number of delegates chosen by the legislatures of the "Länder" (states). The delegates of each "Land" to the Federal Convention are elected by the members of the legislature of that jurisdiction under a form of proportional representation. However it is not required that "Land" delegates themselves be members of a legislature; often esteemed local citizens are chosen.

In total, the Federal Convention numbers more than one thousand people. The German constitution, the Basic Law, requires that it be convened no later than thirty days before the expiration of the term of office of the President. In practice it is convened every five years (in all years with year numbers ending in "4" or "9"). Since 1979 all these conventions have been held on 23 May, the date of the foundation of the Federal Republic in 1949. The body is convened and chaired by the President of the Bundestag.

The Federal Convention attempts to elect a president by an absolute majority of votes cast. If, after two votes, no single candidate has received this level of support, in the third and final vote the candidate endorsed by a plurality of votes cast is deemed elected. The process of electing the President is usually determined by party politics, the office being in the gift of whichever party, or group of allied parties, can muster a majority in the convention. The authors of the Basic Law chose an indirect form of presidential election because they believed it would produce a head of state who was widely acceptable and yet at the same time insulated from public pressure and lacking in sufficient popular legitimacy to undermine other institutions of government.


The office of President is open to all Germans who are entitled to vote in Bundestag elections and have reached the age of forty, but no one may serve more than two five year terms. The president receives an annual payment of approximately €213,000 that continues when he or she leaves office.

The President may not be a member of the government or of a legislature at either the federal or "Land" level. On taking office the president must take the following oath, stipulated by Article 56 of the Basic Law, before the assembled members of the Bundestag and Bundesrat (however he or she is permitted to omit the religious references if so desired):

I swear that I will dedicate my efforts to the well-being of the German people, enhance their benefits, avert harm from them, uphold and defend the Constitution and the statutes of the Federation, fulfil my duties conscientiously, and do justice to all. (So help me God.)*

Last sentence is optional* [cite book
title=Grundgesetz für die Bundesrepublik Deutschland
pages=Article 56

Duties and functions

The degree of power actually conferred upon the President by the Basic Law is ambiguous. However, in practice, holders of the office treat it as a ceremonial, non-political one, and act in accordance with the advice and directives of the Federal Government. Unlike many constitutions the Basic Law does not designate the head of state as the commander-in-chief of the military (ceremonially or otherwise). This role is vested in times of peace in the Minister of Defense, going to the Chancellor rather than the President in times of war, by Article 65a. [cite book
title=Grundgesetz für die Bundesrepublik Deutschland
pages=Article 65a inserted by 7th Amendment (19.3.56), changed by 17th Amendment(24.6.68)
] The President carries out the following duties:

*Appointment of the Federal Government: The President proposes an individual as Chancellor and then, provided they are subsequently elected by the Bundestag, appoints him or her to the office. However the Bundestag is free to disregard the President's proposal and elect another individual to the post, who the President is then obliged to appoint. The President appoints and dismisses the remaining members of the Federal Government "upon the proposal of the Chancellor". The President can dismiss the Chancellor but only in the event that the Bundestag passes a Constructive Vote of No Confidence. [cite book
title=Grundgesetz für die Bundesrepublik Deutschland
pages=Article 67
] . If this occurs the President must dismiss the chancellor and appoint the successor requested by the Bundestag. [cite book
title=Grundgesetz für die Bundesrepublik Deutschland
pages=Article 67

*Other appointments: The President appoints federal judges, federal civil servants and military officers. All such appointments require the counter-signature of either the chancellor or the relevant cabinet minister. [cite book
title=Grundgesetz für die Bundesrepublik Deutschland
pages=Article 60.1

*Dissolution of the Bundestag: In the event that the Bundestag elects an individual for the office of chancellor by a plurality of votes, rather than a majority, the President can, at his discretion, either appoint that individual as chancellor or dissolve the Bundestag. In the event that a vote of confidence is defeated in the Bundestag, and the incumbent chancellor proposes a dissolution, the President may, at his discretion, dissolve the body within 21 days. So far, this power has only been applied three times in the history of the Federal Republic. In all three occurrences it is doubtful whether the motives for that dissolution were in accordance with the constitution's intentions. Each time the incumbent chancellor called for the vote of confidence with the stated intention of being defeated, in order to be able to call for new elections before the end of their regular term. The most recent occurrence was on 1 July 2005, when Chancellor Gerhard Schröder asked for a vote of confidence, which was defeated. [cite book
title=Grundgesetz für die Bundesrepublik Deutschland
pages=Articles 67 and 68

*Promulgation of the law: All federal laws must, after counter-signature, be signed by the president before they can come into effect. Ordinances must be signed by the agency which issues them, and then by the President. [cite book
title=Grundgesetz für die Bundesrepublik Deutschland
pages=Article 82
] Upon signing, the President has to check if the law was passed according to the order mandated by the constitution and/or if the content of the law is constitutional. If not, he has the right (and, some argue, the duty) to refuse to sign the law. This has happened only eight times. The constitution is not explicit on whether the President can refuse to sign a law merely because he disagrees with its content, i.e. if he has a power of veto, but it is generally held that he does not have such a power. In any case, as of 2007 no President has yet refused to sign a law unless he believed the constitution was being violated.

*Foreign relations: The President takes part in foreign visits and receives foreign dignitaries. He or she also concludes treaties with foreign nations (which do not come into effect until affirmed by the Bundestag), accredits German diplomats and receives the letters of accreditation of foreign diplomats.

*Pardons and honours: The President grants pardons if the person concerned had been convicted under federal jurisdiction (which is rare) and confers decorations and honours.

*State of emergency: In the event of a national crisis, the emergency law reforms of 1968 designate the President as a mediator. If the Bundestag rejects a motion of confidence, but neither the chancellor is dismissed nor the Bundestag is dissolved, the President may, by request of the cabinet, declare a "legislative state of emergency", which is quite different from a conventional state of emergency: If it is declared, during a limited period of time, bills proposed by the cabinet and designated as "urgent", but rejected by the Bundestag, become law nonetheless, if the Bundesrat does pass them. But the legislative state of emergency does not suspend basic human rights nor does it grant the executive branch any exceptional power. As of 2008, such an emergency has never been declared.

Impartiality and influence

Though usually chosen as the candidate of a political party or parties, the president nonetheless is expected to be non-partisan after assuming office. Every President to date has let his or her party membership rest dormant during his or her term of office. Although the formal powers of the President are limited, the President's role can be quite significant depending on his or her own activities. The very fact that the President usually doesn't interfere with day-to-day politics means that if he or she does choose to speak out on an issue, the event is perceived as one to take note of. There have been a number of occasions when certain presidential speeches have dominated German political debate for a year or more.

The role of President is similar in some ways to that of a constitutional monarch found in other European states, with the important difference being that the President is elected, and selected based on his or her distinguished reputation. Therefore, true political power in Germany is concentrated in the position of the Chancellor of Germany.Other comparisons might be to a court philosopher, or a 'national conscience'. The President is called on to develop, interpret and communicate a long-term view of trends affecting Germany and its role in the world. Formulating such vision calls for reflection about Germany's past. Recent Presidents have been instrumental in getting Germans to constructively confront their history during the Nazi period, for instance.

Reserve powers

Some argue that the Basic Law does not require that the President must follow government directives in all circumstances. It is suggested, for instance, that the President could refuse to sign legislation merely because he disagrees with its content, thus vetoing it, or refuse to approve a cabinet appointment. Because no President has ever attempted to take either of these actions the constitutionality of these points has never been tested.

In the few cases in which a bill was not signed, all presidents have claimed that the bill in question was manifestly unconstitutional. In the autumn of 2006, incumbent President Köhler did so twice within three months. Also, in some cases, a president has signed a law whilst asking that the political parties refer the case to the Federal Constitutional Court in order to test the law's constitutionality. The most recent case of such an occurrence was the controversial 'passing' of an immigration law in the Bundesrat in 2002. This law was ultimately declared invalid by the court for reasons of procedure.


The Basic Law did not create an office of vice president. If the President is outside of the country, or the position is vacant, the President of the Bundesrat (this position is rotated among the state premiers on a yearly basis) fills in as temporary, acting president. While doing so he or she does not continue to exercise the role of chair of the Bundesrat. If the President dies, or is removed from office, a successor is elected within thirty days. However since the establishment of the office this has never occurred.

While the President is abroad on a state visit the President of the Bundesrat does not assume all of his responsibilities but may deputise for the President, performing on the President's behalf merely those tasks that require his or her physical presence, such as the signing of documents.

List of Presidents ("Bundespräsident")

:"See also: List of German presidents since 1919"

¹ Note that even though the President usually has been member of a party prior to his term of office, the German Basic Law requests in Article 55 that the Federal President does not hold another office, practice a profession or hold a membership of any corporation. Accordingly every Federal President has let his party membership rest dormant and does not participate in the proceedings of any political party during his term of office.

Impeachment and removal

While in office the President enjoys immunity from prosecution and cannot be voted out of office or recalled. The only mechanism for removing the President is impeachment by the Bundestag or Bundesrat for willfully violating German law. Once the Bundestag impeaches the President the Federal Constitutional Court is charged with determining if he or she is guilty of the offence. If the charge is sustained the court has authority to remove the President from office. To date no President has ever been impeached.

The first official residence of the President is the Bellevue Palace in Berlin. The President's second official residence is the Hammerschmidt Villa in Bonn. The current office-holder is Horst Köhler, elected in 2004.

ee also

*German presidential election, 2004
*German reunification
*President of Germany (Weimar Republic)
*Politics of Germany
*Heads of State timeline
*List of state leaders


External links

* [ Official website]
* [ Germany: Heads of State: 1949-2005]

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