Was Islamophobia to blame for the resignation of Germany’s president?

BERLIN – This city and much of Germany have had plenty to keep them occupied: an airline strike, a short strike of the bus, streetcar and subway lines, the Euro crisis and price increases.

Then there’s been the warmer weather and the Berlinale film festival, with visits by many stars and an interesting, international mix of films often by young and new filmmakers.

Also on the brighter side was last week’s successful resistance to the annual February attempts by the Nazis to show their strength in Dresden.

But then, right in the middle of all this, President Christian Wulff resigns! This has been in the making since December, so it was no surprise but rather a drawn out misery.

But when it happened it was still quite an event – the second resignation of a German president within two years! Its immediate cause was a move to take away his immunity on charges of bribery in his home state of Lower Saxony. He quit, angrily, claiming he had made some mistakes but done nothing illegal and now has to worry about the charges and possible loss of his government pension.

Must now scurry

The politicians, meanwhile, must now scurry to find a successor. The constitution demands a new president be sworn in within thirty days – by March 18th.

What led up to the present situation? First it was disclosed that Wulff had used the good graces of a very wealthy friend and supporter to borrow money at an unusually low interest rate to renovate his home – actually a modest-looking building, no fancy villa or semi-palace.

Then it was found that he tried to get the tabloid newspaper BILD, the rottenest but most influential rag in Germany, not to publish this story, or at least to hold it until he met with them.

He used voice mail and his words, angry though not obscene, ended with a veiled “or else.” That “or else” was immediately publicized by BILD (and a slew of other publications) as “proof” that he was against freedom of the press.

Then the media went on a fishing expedition for any other possible misdeeds going back to well before he had even become president.

Not at all surprisingly, they found that, like almost every other politician, Wulff took occasional advantage of offers to spend pleasant vacations here and there at the expense of wealthy friends. In the most noted case, a film entrepreneur had invited him for a few days to a small vacation hotel on a fancy island in the North Sea.

Took better seats

In one case, while he was minister of the state of Lower Saxony, before he became president, he had accepted better plane seats for a private trip than those he had paid for.

All of this was small potatoes, very small potatoes. When you start looking through recent West German history, you find many top politicians who, like Helmut Kohl, have been involved in bribery paid either to them or into their party’s war chests in the amounts of tens, hundreds of thousands and even millions of Euros.

Indeed, and far more seriously, among Wulff’s nine predecessors as president since 1949, the first one had voted for the law granting full power to Hitler in 1933, the second one, an engineer, had built barracks for concentration camp prisoners at the base for V-1 rockets at Peenemunde and elsewhere, another had concealed and long denied his former membership in the Nazi Party, his successor had been not only a member of that party but also a storm trooper, and his successor, though quite liberal in office, had once been an officer in the terrible, murderous siege of Leningrad during the war. Another, too young for such a background, had long been the assistant to a top Nazi legal expert who had remained a leading professor long after the war.

As I see it, Wulff’s misdeeds are run-of-the-mill perks, illegal but committed by many if not most politicians, and incomparably less earnest than many preceding him.

So why did BILD and then much of the rest of the media jump on him. My very personal suspicion is because Wulff, though otherwise a typically conservative politician, was decent enough to publically reject discrimination against immigrant groups, even saying, very courageously, that Islam had now become as much a part of the German scene as Christianity or Judaism.

This view is anathema to right-wingers generally, and BILD is a main purveyor of the hate-the Muslims plague. Indeed, BILD printed installments of the book by a major proponent of such hatred, the politician and banker Thilo Sarrazin.

Where do we go from here? A special body must select a new president within one month. It will consist of all deputies to the Bundestag plus an equivalent number of politicians or celebrities chosen by Germany’s sixteen states.

The total of 1,240 will then vote, needing an absolute majority on the first two tries. If that proves impossible, a simple plurality would then suffice.

The two parties currently running the government, the Christian Democrats and the Free Democrats, will have a slim majority of one to three votes.

Failed to invite the Left

Since the vote is secret and there are often renegades, this means that Chancellor Merkel is hunting for a candidate who will also be supported by the Social Democrats and the Greens. In calling for consultations with them, she pointedly failed to invite the only other party in the Bundestag, the Left Party, whose more than 120 votes might just make a difference (as they did when Wulff barely won out two years ago). This snub could lead the Left, once again, to put up its own candidate, even without any chance of success.

Unlike the prime minister, the president in Germany has few powers – he can veto laws but does so very rarely, he (or possibly she) welcomes heads of state, goes on state visits abroad, and makes hopefully historic speeches every so often on the state of the country, without sounding too partisan. But turmoil between now and the election next month can shake things up considerably – while distracting attention from other matters.

One possible candidate is the man who Wulff just barely beat two years ago: Joachim Gauck. Gauck was once an outspokenly pro-Western mayor in the former East Germany. After reunification, he became a Red-hunter who administered the archives about the Stasi (State Security apparatus of the former East Germany).

In the new unified German state, Gauck made a name for himself as an extremely anti-left conservative, and used Stasi-files in ways reminiscent of anti-communist use of FBI files during the McCarthy period to criminalize thousands.

Even people who had totally innocuous connections or contacts with the Stasi had both careers and lives ruined.

Gauck smiles in a friendly way and even cries when discussing the supposed terrors of the allegedly bad old days in the German Democratic Republic (East Germany).

Gauck, despite his strongly pro-Western views, was actually treated very benignly in the German Democratic Republic. He was so well treated, in fact, that many have suggested he himself may have had ties to the Stasi.

But he is only one of a series of candidates now being discussed. Perhaps, by the time you read this, one of them will have been chosen. I hope it is not Gauck.

Photo: Reading the Quran inside a mosque in Hamburg, northern Germany. Frank Augstein/AP



Victor Grossman
Victor Grossman

Victor Grossman is a journalist from the U.S. now living in Berlin. He fled his U.S. Army post in the 1950s in danger of reprisals for his left-wing activities at Harvard and in Buffalo, New York. He landed in the former German Democratic Republic (Socialist East Germany), studied journalism, founded a Paul Robeson Archive, and became a freelance journalist and author. His latest book,  A Socialist Defector: From Harvard to Karl-Marx-Allee, is about his life in the German Democratic Republic from 1949 – 1990, the tremendous improvements for the people under socialism, the reasons for the fall of socialism, and the importance of today's struggles.