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A new president and a chance for Germany to face its demons

Frank-Walter Steinmeier is a president in need of a project. EPA/Lukas Barth

Frank-Walter Steinmeier’s election as Germany’s president represents a rare opportunity for his country. While the role is essentially ceremonial, Steinmeier’s background, combined with a dramatically changing global political climate, leaves him well placed to lead a timely public engagement with one of Germany’s lingering taboos. Can the nation make peace with its past and end its reluctant approach to military intervention abroad?

Steinmeier had been widely tipped for the post of head of state for some time. He is a high-ranking member of Germany’s centre-left Social Democratic Party (SDP) and has served under the Christian Democratic Union’s (CDU) Chancellor Angela Merkel as her “grand coalition” deputy and foreign minister. He therefore has both the government experience and the cross-party regard needed to occupy a role that transcends party divisions.

He was nominated for the post by his SPD rival and party leader Sigmar Gabriel. And after the the CDU and Bavarian sister party CSU declined to come up with their own presidential contender, both threw their weight behind Steinmeier.

It’s possible that the canny Merkel wanted to avoid the prospect of going head-to-head with the well-respected Steinmeier in the federal elections later this year. It wouldn’t be the first time that she has sidelined a political rival by smoothing their way to the post of president.

Clipping the president’s wings

Unlike in France, the German president is not elected directly by the people, but by a committee of federal and regional MPs (The Federal Convention). On paper, what the president can do is strictly limited to ceremonial and procedural tasks. The constitution not only denies the president a popular mandate but screens him out of day-to-day politics as far as possible.

Merkel congratulates the new president. EPA

This was a deliberate measure to avoid the confusion of competences between the two top posts – president and prime minister (now the chancellor) – that helped to elevate Hitler to power in the 1930s. In common with heads of state in other European countries, the president performs tasks essential to the running of a democratic government. He appoints the chancellor and signs off laws.

Significantly, the president is the only office holder who may call an early election. After the abuse of government power under Hitler, Germany wanted a higher authority than the head of the executive to make sure that early elections wouldn’t be called simply for political advantage.

The nation’s conscience

Aside from safeguarding the constitution, Germany’s presidents have taken on an informal role as the “nation’s conscience”. Traditionally, it has fallen to the president to drive Germany’s ongoing process of “overcoming the past” (Vergangenheitsbewältigung) – the difficult and emotionally charged process of recovery and rehabilitation from the guilt associated with the country’s Nazi past.

Some of the best known German presidents have made their mark by carving out a special niche in these engagements with the past. In 1985, on the 40th anniversary of the German capitulation, President Richard von Weizsäcker urged older Germans to break their silence and acknowledge their own personal complicity with the Nazi regime. This led to a remarkable wave of confession and repentance throughout West Germany.

What was then a shocking breach of an impenetrable social taboo has now become part of the fabric of German identity. It aroused no controversy when President Joachim Gauck remarked, during the Holocaust commemorations of 2015, that there is “no German identity without Auschwitz”.

A president needs a project

What will Steinmeier’s project be? He could do worse than to draw on his experience as foreign minister to pursue the “normalisation” of Germany’s role in the outside world. Germany still has a deeply uncomfortable relationship with its external profile and armed forces.

Initially restricted by the post-war allied forces, in 1949, the new Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) was only too happy to cast off Nazi Germany’s association with military aggression. As a “civilian power”, its new aims in international relations were to uphold peace, cooperation and the rule of law. Military force was to be used only in the last resort and as part of a multilaterally authorised action.

Since the end of the Cold War, there have been signs of a new openness among German political elites towards their military. A younger generation of political leaders is less in touch with the horrors of Nazism and more aware of international pressures on Germany to play a more substantial role in global security. However, the public remains deeply wedded to the “culture of restraint”. This means politicians have to tread carefully.

Significant steps have been made. In 1994, a ruling by Germany’s Federal Constitutional Court allowed German troops to take part in UN peacekeeping activities. Germany took part in NATO activities during the Kosovo war in the 1990s. This was its first major combat mission since World War II.

However, Germany’s part in the war in Afghanistan exposed the limits of public tolerance. Germans see military and civilian deaths as unacceptable, and distasteful incidents such as the desecration of war victims’ remains have provoked widespread public anger.

This means political leaders are still reluctant to deploy combat forces in any capacity, even for multilateral overseas missions. In March 2011, Germany opted to abstain in the UN Security Council vote on military intervention in Libya. In doing so, it alienated its allies and undermined its efforts to be seen as an engaged and reliable partner in international relations.

So sensitive is the role of Germany’s military that it cost one former president his post. Horst Köhler, an otherwise very popular president, resigned over comments that appeared to suggest that military actions abroad could be justified in terms of Germany’s economic interests, such as securing free trade routes. The idea that Germany might use its military in any way instrumentally was seen as suggesting a return to expansionism.

Steinmeier is uniquely qualified to change this. While foreign minister, he stressed that Germany’s traditional military culture of restraint could not be allowed to become a “culture of disengagement”. He called for a public debate about the parameters of German foreign policy.

Germany’s leaders have skirted around their squeamishness over the military for some time and have made every effort to contribute to multilateral international relations through non-military means. Merkel in particular has contributed her negotiating skills to the EU’s efforts to engage with Russia and with Turkey.

However, as the US embarks on an uneasy path towards isolationism, European leaders are anticipating a new security landscape and new challenges. In order to play a more central role in NATO and to spearhead the mounting challenges in the EU’s eastern neighbourhood, Germany needs to embrace its military as a professional fighting force. It needs to develop a foreign policy that meets both its expanding international ambitions and the ethical demands of its citizens.

As Europe looks increasingly to Germany for leadership on the global stage, a Steinmeier presidency dedicated to defining an ethical and responsible military culture may speak both to his nation’s conscience and to a European audience beyond.

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