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Presidents of Germany: A brief history of Germany's head of state

Presidents of Germany: A brief history of Germany's head of state

Given Germany’s long and complex history, you would be forgiven for thinking that the role of Germany’s president was a long-established position. In fact, the position was established relatively late in Germany’s history, with the title of Reichspräsident being created in 1919 following the promulgation of the Weimar Constitution. In this article on presidents of Germany, we will take a closer look at the country's highest-ranking official.

Leaders of Germany: German chancellors & presidents

If you have some idea of how Germany is governed or its history, you might know that the German chancellor is the head of the German government, and the president is the head of state. More people will be more familiar with Germany’s chancellor, who takes a more active political role. The position of chancellor has been personified in modern times by the long-serving Angela Merkel, who in 2021 retired from the role after serving for 16 years and 16 days.

Today, the chancellor of Germany exercises much more political power than the president, which is more of a ceremonial role as Germany’s head of state. The chancellor’s authority is maintained in the constitution of the federal republic (known officially as the Basic Law) and is upheld due to their status as the leader of Germany’s ruling party (or coalition). Politicians who have assumed the role of chancellor have almost always been the chairperson of their respective party, with the exception of Helmut Schmidt and current Chancellor Olaf Scholz.

How is the role of the president different to chancellor?

The Basic Law gives the German chancellor broad powers to institute government policy – which is why Germany is sometimes referred to as a “chancellor democracy”. The chancellor determines who will take positions in the Federal Cabinet, the chief executive branch of the German government, and makes proposals to the president regarding ministers’ appointment and dismissal from their job.

The chancellor can also set the number of cabinet ministers and assign their specific duties. They are further responsible for government policies, and ministers are legally bound to implement specific policies in line with any formal policy guidelines issued by the chancellor.

In contrast, the role of the president in modern Germany is largely ceremonial, although German presidents do have the right to act politically. Probably the most important function in the role of the president today is signing laws into effect. Presidents can refuse to do so, but this rarely occurs. If anything, a president might check if the law is constitutional before signing it.

Other important functions of the president include:

  • Appointing and dismissing the chancellor and their ministers
  • Convening and dissolving the Bundestag
  • Appointing and dismissing federal judges and civil servants
  • Awarding honours
  • The power to pardon
  • Declaring a state of emergency and exercising emergency powers
  • Representing Germany at official functions

Presidential election and impeachment

The German president is elected by ballot. When a new president has to be elected, the Federal Convention is convened, something which is done with the sole purpose of electing a president. The Federal Convention consists of all members of the Bundestag (the German federal parliament) and an equal number of delegates from Germany’s 16 states. The Basic Law stipulates that a maximum of three voting rounds can be held, with an absolute majority needed in the first round of voting, or a plurality in the second or third rounds, to be elected.

The Federal Convention must be called no later than 30 days before the end of the incumbent president’s term, or within 30 days of a sitting president’s impeachment or resignation. Since the Reunification of Germany, every Federal Convention has had more than 1.200 votes, as there has always been more than 600 members of the Bundesrat since then. Every member of the Federal Convention can suggest a candidate for president, so the candidates are not always tied to a parliamentary party.

Who can be the German president?

Any German over the age of 40 that is able to vote in the Bundestag elections can run for president. However, the result is often determined by the majority party, or ruling coalition, with members expected to vote for their party’s preferred candidate. A presidential term is five years and anyone who enters the office is limited to two consecutive presidential terms. Once elected, successful candidates must swear an oath before assuming office.

Removal from office

Once in office, the president cannot be prosecuted, and cannot be voted out or recalled. However, the president can be impeached, by both the Bundestag and the Bundesrat, for violating German law. In either situation, a two-thirds majority is needed for impeachment. Once the president has been impeached by either the Bundesrat or the Bundestag, the Federal Constitutional Court will determine whether the president is guilty of breaking the law. If the court convicts the president, it has the authority to remove them from office.

History of the German presidency

The role of the German president has shifted drastically in the short time since it was established. First created by the Weimar Constitution, the presidents of the Weimar Republic enjoyed considerably more power than their modern counterparts. The office of president was incorporated into the role of Führer under Hitler, and was only re-established following his suicide and enforcement of his last will. The role was then redefined to its current form.

Aftermath of WW1: Reichspräsident established

The role of the German president was first created in 1919, under provisions given in the Weimar Constitution. Following Germany’s defeat in World War I and the abdication of Emperor Wilhelm II, a German National Assembly was called in Weimar, a city in Thuringia, after the January 1919 federal elections. The Constitution of the German Reich was then signed into German Law by Friedrich Ebert (who had just been elected president of the new Weimar Republic), which turned Germany from a semi-constitutional monarchy into a democratic federal republic.

The head of state under this new constitution was called the Reichspräsident. Ebert assumed the role immediately and served until his death in 1925. Hans Luther, his chancellor, succeeded him as acting head of state. Walter Simons, the president of the supreme criminal and civil court (Reichsgericht), also briefly held the position of acting head of state after being asked by Hans Luther to accept the position of president. After the first round of voting in the 1925 federal elections failed to determine a winner, Luther wanted Simons to ask the two candidates going into the second round of voting to withdraw and accept Simons as president. Simons refused and Paul von Hindenburg was elected as president.

Powers of the Reichspräsident

The president under the Weimar Republic had a similar role as the modern president of Germany. However, in practice, the Reichspräsident could wield extraordinary powers as provided to him in the constitution. The Reichspräsident was in charge of appointing the cabinet and, while the cabinet ministers could largely only be appointed and dismissed at the behest of the chancellor, the president could appoint or dismiss the chancellor at will.

The Reichspräsident could dissolve the Reichstag, after which a general election had to take place. They were also responsible for signing bills into law, representing Germany in foreign policy matters, and were the supreme head of the country’s armed forces. The Reichspräsident was also granted special powers in case of a state of emergency, including emergency decrees and taking military control.

While some of these duties are similar to the president’s powers today, they were not simply ceremonial. President von Hindenburg dismissed parliament twice after the Social Democrats supported motions that revoked his presidential decrees. Both Ebert and Von Hindenburg made use of their presidential powers, Von Hindenburg so much so that his last four cabinets before Nazi Germany were called “presidential cabinets” due to his presidential decrees increasingly replacing Reichstag legislature.

Presidents of Germany in WW2: The rise of the Führer

For the majority of World War II, there was only one leader in Germany. One of history’s most nefarious dictators, Adolf Hitler assumed the role and powers of president following the death of Von Hindenburg, combining them with the role and powers of chancellor to become both the head of state and head of government. This new office came with the title Führer und Reichskanzler (leader and chancellor) and gave Hitler supreme control over Germany, its government, institutions, armed forces and police.

The reason Hitler was able to take power was the Enabling Act, which gave Hitler’s cabinet power to introduce laws without approval from the Reichstag. This was passed in the Reichstag after Hitler used the Reichstag Fire Decree to arrest 81 communist deputies and prevent Social Democrats from attending. The Reichstag Fire Decree was issued by Von Hindenburg at the council of Hitler in response to the 1933 arson attack on the Reichstag building. While meant to protect against similar attacks, the decree revoked the civil liberties afforded to German citizens in the Weimar Constitution and allowed the Nazis to legally imprison their opponents.

Once Hitler had risen to power, the Enabling Act allowed him to institute laws through decrees, basically making him a dictator. Hitler installed his Nazi colleagues in important political positions, so that all aspects of the government answered to him. He was also supreme commander of Nazi Germany’s armed forces (the Wehrmacht), using the title Führer und Oberster Befehlshaber der Wehrmacht (Leader and Supreme Commander of the Wehrmacht).

End of WWII: The fall of Hitler

Hitler remained Führer until, on April 30, 1945, when the tide of war had incontrovertibly shifted in favour of the Allies, he committed suicide. Hitler had signed his last will and testament the day before, in which he stated his intention to split the offices of president and chancellor. He named Karl Dönitz, the Supreme Commander of the Navy, as the new president, and Joseph Goebbels as chancellor.

Dönitz’s presidency would only last 23 days. He formed the Flensburg government and oversaw Germany’s surrender in Europe. His government was dissolved on May 23, 1945, after he was arrested by the RAF. Dönitz was found guilty of war crimes at the Nuremberg Trials and sentenced to 10 years' imprisonment. After completing his sentence he saw out the rest of his days in a small village near Hamburg.

German presidents of East and West Germany

With Germany’s impending defeat, the heads of the British, American and Soviet governments (Prime Minister Winston Churchill, President Franklin D. Roosevelt and General Secretary Joseph Stalin) met at the Yalta Conference in February 1945 to discuss the organisation of Europe after the war was over. From this meeting, the “Committee on the Dismemberment of Germany” was borne. Their job was to decide how Germany should be split between the Allied nations.

Germany’s territories were split into what is now known as East and West Germany. The western side of Germany was divided between Britain, France and the US, while the eastern part of the country was split between the Soviet Union and Poland. Both East and West Germany had their own governments, West Germany’s being the Federal Republic of Germany, which, following reunification, is the current system of government.

President of East Germany

The German Democratic Republic was formed in the Soviet-controlled part of Germany. It is seen as being a communist state, and was established following the promulgation of its constitution in 1949. This also established the office of the president. It was a very similar position to the current role of president, being largely ceremonial in nature. Wilhelm Pieck served as the sole president until, in 1960, the position was replaced by a collective head of state: the State Council. The Chairman of the State Council was then considered the highest-ranking state official in Germany.

The GDR’s constitution also stipulated that the president of the Volkskammer (People’s Chamber), would act as head of state if necessary. This happened in 1990, just before reunification, when the State Council was abolished.

The Federal President of the Federal Republic of Germany

The current position of the German president was also created in 1949, on the signing of the Grundgesetz (The Basic Law of the Federal Republic of Germany), Germany’s current constitution. The constitution considerably weakened the political power of the president, and conferred power to the role of Germany’s highest-ranking elected official, the chancellor. Theodor Heuss, leader of the FDP, served as the first federal president of Germany.

Following the reunification of Germany in 1990 and the dissolution of the GDR, the president’s authority once again extended over the whole of Germany. President Richard von Weizsäcker oversaw the reunification of Germany.

List of presidents of Germany

The following is a list of all German presidents (not including acting heads of state).

Weimar Republic

Only two men served as Reichspräsident during the Weimar Republic:

  1. Friedrich Ebert (February 11, 1919 – February 28, 1925)
  2. Paul von Hindenburg (May 12, 1925 – August 2, 1934)

Nazi Germany

The office was president was absorbed into the role of Führer when Hitler seized power. It was eventually restored at the end of WWII.

  • Adolf Hitler (August 2, 1934 – April 30, 1945)
  • Karl Dönitz (April 30, 1945 – May 23, 1945)

German Democratic Republic

The President of the Republic was succeeded by the Chairman of the State Council in 1960, with Walter Ulbricht taking the inaugural role. Sabine Bergmann-Pohl acted briefly as head of state, following the dissolution of the state council in the lead up to reunification.

  • Wilhelm Pieck (October 11, 1949 - September 2, 1960)
  • Walter Ulbricht (September 12, 1960 - August 1, 1973)
  • Willi Stoph (October 3, 1973 - October 29, 1976)
  • Erich Honecker (October 29, 1976 - October 18, 1989)
  • Egon Krenz (October 18, 1989 - December 6, 1989)
  • Manfred Gerlach (December 6, 1989 - April 5, 1990)
  • Sabine Bergmann-Pohl (April 5, 1990 - October 2, 1990)

Federal Republic of Germany

Theodor Heuss served as the first president of the Federal Republic. Since then, 11 men have served in office.

  • Theodor Heuss (September 12, 1949 - September 12, 1959)
  • Heinrich Lübke (September 13, 1959 - June 30, 1969)
  • Gustav Heinemann (July 1, 1969 - June 30, 1974)
  • Walter Scheel (July 1, 1974 - June 30, 1979)
  • Karl Carstens (July 1, 1979 - June 30, 1984)
  • Richard von Weizsäcker (July 1, 1984 - June 30, 1994)
  • Roman Herzog (July 1, 1994 - June 30, 1999)
  • Johannes Rau (July 1, 1999 - June 30, 2004)
  • Horst Köhler (July 1, 2004 - May 31, 2010)
  • Christian Wulff (June 30, 2010 - Feb 17, 2010)
  • Joachim Gauck (March 18, 2012 - March 18, 2017)
  • Frank-Walter Steinmeier (March 19, 2017 - incumbent)

Germany and its president

As you can see, despite the relatively short history of the role, the German President has had a significant impact on Germany’s history. While the role was meant to represent a ceremonial head of state, those who have taken the role have frequently used it to realise their own political ambitions and achieve certain personal accomplishments.

Thus, even though the president has a lot less political power than the chancellor in practice, the presidency can be used to wield formidable power and influence over Germany, its affairs and government. In fact, the powers of the president were used by Adolf Hitler to bring about one of the most devastating and significant events in human history.

The role was understandably redefined to what it is now after World War II, and the president in Germany enjoys a certain popularity amongst the people. This is partly down to the men who have held the office since 1949, many of whom proved to be very popular. It is also partly down to its ceremonial role, as the president hardly ever raises the ire of the public in times of political or social strife, much unlike the chancellor and their cabinet.

William Nehra

Author

William Nehra

William studied a masters in Classics at the University of Amsterdam. He is a big fan of Ancient History and football, particularly his beloved Watford FC.

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