Unprecedented Trial of Former German President Begins

For the first time in German history, a former head of state is being put in the dock. Christian Wulff, who resigned in 2012, is seeking to be fully acquitted of charges he accepted favors.

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Former German President Christian Wulff (center) talks with journalists as he arrives for the beginning of his trial at the regional court in Hanover.
AFP

Former German President Christian Wulff (center) talks with journalists as he arrives for the beginning of his trial at the regional court in Hanover.


The court case that opened in Hanover, Germany, on Thursday is unprecedented in Germany. For the first time in history, a former president of the country has been forced to answer to charges in the dock. The Hanover public prosecutor's office investigated for longer than a year and has compiled over 1,000 pages of documents. And now a court is hearing the case against ex-President Christian Wulff in a trial that is expected to run well into 2014.

Scores of witnesses are expected, as well as a media circus. And some have criticized the fact that Wulff is even being taken to trial. After all, the case revolves around a paltry sum of €753.90 ($1,013). Some might be scratching their heads over the amount, asking if this isn't something for a small claims court. But this is about a former German president -- an office considered to be the country's moral compass.

Wulff resigned as Germany's head of state in February 2012 after it was revealed in December 2011 that he had taken a loan to purchase a house in his home state of Lower Saxony from a millionaire friend under favorable conditions not available to normal consumers. It was also alleged that he left the editor in chief of Germany's largest circulation newspaper harassing voicemails when it moved to publish a story about the deal. Although the position of president is technically the highest office in the land, it is a largely symbolic position in Germany, with most power being allocated to the chancellor.

The trial being rolled out in Hanover on Thursday focuses on events that took place before he became president. The court is examining relations between Wulff and film financier David Groenewold, who is alleged to have sponsored a trip to Munich by the then-state governor of Lower Saxony by paying €753.90 of their bill. The costs stem from a hotel room upgrade and a night of celebrations in a beer tent at Octoberfest.

Did Wulff Take Favors?

Prosecutors want to determine the reason Groenewald would have been so generous with the Wulffs. They believe that Groenewald invited the former governor to Munich to extract business favors out of him. Two months after the Oktoberfest trip, Wulff wrote a letter on behalf of Groenewald to Siemens, seeking the firm's support for his new film "John Rabe". The German multinational engineering company plays a prominent role in the World War II film. The film producer now stands accused of granting undue benefits -- and Wulff of accepting them. Both could face fines if prosecuted. And both defendants also deny the charges against them. Indeed, prosecutors had sought to settle the case out of court, but the men decided it would be better to clear their names rather than to cut a deal.

Then Lower Saxony Governor Christian Wulff and his wife Bettina appear here at Munich's Oktoberfest in 2008.
DPA

Then Lower Saxony Governor Christian Wulff and his wife Bettina appear here at Munich's Oktoberfest in 2008.

Nevertheless, prosecutors intend to ask some very serious questions in the case. Did Wulff allow himself to be bought during his time as governor? How far does friendship go, and at what point does corruption begin? Is it possible that Groenewold won Wulff's support through systematic and generous invitations to events? And was Wulff conscious of these intentions when he accepted them?

The charges were read on Thursday, but the Octoberfest events will only comprise the first phase of the trial. Afterwards, the court plans to scrutinize other vacations the Wulffs took together with the Groenewalds to Capri and Germany's version of the Hamptons, the North Sea island of Sylt, where the film producer also appears to have picked up some of the former president's tabs. Neither is facing any charges relating to those trips, but prosecutors are hoping details about the stays can shed more light on the relationship between the businessman and the politician.

No Turning Back

If convicted, Wulff could face a fine or a suspended sentence. He would also be forced to pay the court costs. For his part, Wulff doesn't appear to be concerned about any potential sentence. The fact that a former German president, a governor and a one-time possible candidate for chancellor would be forced to leave office is unprecedented. Wulff wants to prove his innocence. An acquittal would at least give Wulff the chance to restore at least part of his reputation.

When he rejected a deal with prosecutors earlier this year, Wulff had hoped the judges would reject the case. His reaction to recent developments in the case also shows that Wulff likely just wants to get things rolling and the whole trial behind him. One of the lawyers defending Groenewald recently fell ill and the trial could have been delayed, but neither the film producer nor the ex-president wanted that.

Despite the relatively low sum in question, the stakes could still be high for Wulff's reputation. Much light is likely to be shed in the coming months as details emerge in the courtroom on matters such as who gave or bought things for Wulff, be it a meal, a fancy pen or passage on a ferry during vacation. Former colleagues of Wulff, including former employees and bodyguards from the governor's office in Lower Saxony, are expected to testify. The tabloids are also likely to turn out in force on days when more prominent witnesses testify, like actress Maria Furtwängler, who plays a leading role in the popular German TV series "Tatort". Testimony by Bettina Wulff, who is currently separated from her husband, on Dec. 12 is also likely to draw new attention to the private life of Christian Wulff, who is 54.

In a news documentary aired on Tuesday on German public broadcaster ARD, Wulff's attorney Michael Nagel said Wulff had "wrestled with himself for some time" about whether to go to trial or not. As of today, there's no turning back.

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