Photo Gallery: Christian Wulff, Germany's Awkward President

Foto: Christian Thiel / DER SPIEGEL

Lone Wulff New German President Fails to Hit His Stride

Christian Wulff has only been German president for a few weeks, but he's already stumbled several times, most notably in dealing with Islam critic Thilo Sarrazin. A speech to mark 20 years of German reunification could be Wulff's big chance to show that he can play the role of Germany's moral compass, but other political heavyweights threaten to upstage him. By SPIEGEL Staff.

During a recent visit to the Viking Museum in Haddeby in the far north of Germany, German President Christian Wulff was asked if he would like to shoot at a Styrofoam model of a wild boar. He gave one of his bodyguards his jacket, took a bow and arrow, and then tried desperately to place the end of the arrow on the string and draw the bow. He fiddled and fumbled around with the weapon, without success.

The Viking on duty, who was dressed in felt and suede, couldn't really say what Wulff was doing wrong. Eventually the president managed to string the arrow, but he drew the bow too far back, pulling the arrow tip beyond the bow, whereupon the arrow fell to the floor at his feet. When the president finally managed to shoot an arrow, it landed way in front of the wild boar.

Clumsy Behavior

It was just the latest in a series of recent shots that have failed to hit their target. Whatever the new German president does or says, he never gets it quite right. Shortly after being elected German president  -- a largely symbolic position -- at the end of June, Wulff spent a slightly suspect vacation at the luxury home of a businessmen friend of his, Carsten Maschmeyer. Next Wulff expressed himself rather clumsily when speaking about the mayor of Duisburg and responsibility for the Love Parade disaster, where 21 people died in a stampede.

And the way Wulff dealt with the Thilo Sarrazin affair  was just as clumsy as his handling of the bow and arrow. As German president, Wulff would have had to decide if the controversial Islam critic should be ejected from his position on the board of the Bundesbank, Germany's central bank. He was saved from having to make a decision when Sarrazin stepped down , but Wulff had already appeared to take sides with ill-judged comments he had made earlier, and he was criticized for his role in negotiations involving the terms of Sarrazin's resignation.

Then there is Wulff's silence. Over the past four weeks, Germany has been embroiled in a massive debate about Islam in Germany and the integration of foreigners into German society. Wulff has yet to make an extensive statement on the matter, even though he had promised to make integration one of his key topics, and despite the fact that as German president he is supposed to be the moral compass of the nation.

Not surprisingly therefore, many people in Berlin's political circles are talking of a false start. The German president's power lies in his words. He can't govern, but he can influence opinion through his speeches. It is by this that he is measured. Words can also be dangerous in politics, however. Use them inelegantly, and you could jeopardize or even put an end to your political career.

Career Politician Wanted

This is precisely what Wulff's predecessor, Horst Köhler, experienced. When, on a return flight from Afghanistan, Köhler said that "military deployments are necessary in an emergency to protect our interests, for example when it comes to trade routes," his words were interpreted as meaning that the German armed forces were in Afghanistan to further Germany's interests. This prompted harsh criticism in the media and Köhler decided to resign.

It had been assumed that Wulff would be able to avoid such faux pas. In contrast to Köhler, a former head of the International Monetary Fund, Wulff is a career politician,  so his experience should guard him against making awkward remarks. Indeed this experience was seen as Wulff's advantage over the other possible presidential candidate, Joachim Gauck.  Gauck, a former East German dissident who was put in charge of the Stasi archives after the fall of the Berlin Wall, had moral authority, but he was not a career politician. After Köhler's misstep, there were concerns about appointing another neophyte to the position. Wulff seemed like a safe pair of hands, albeit one that would produce a rather boring presidency.

Twelve weeks into his presidency, those expectations have been revised. The career politician is having difficulty adjusting to his move from quiet Hanover (where he presided as the governor of the state of Lower Saxony, his previous position) to restive Berlin, where his every word is dissected extensively, and where the responsibilities are so weighty that they quickly become a burden. Both Brandenburg Governor Matthias Platzeck and his counterpart from Rhineland-Palatinate, Kurt Beck, couldn't cope with the change from the provinces to the capital. Both men gave up the post of leader of the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) after a short time in office.

Wulff is nowhere near this point. He is, however, already giving the impression of being afraid of his own words. He is due to give his first major speech on Oct. 3, a national holiday that celebrates the anniversary of German reunification. Such speeches are like a driving test for Germany's presidents. They can either pass or fail them. Just like his predecessor, Wulff is already having problems with certain sections of the media. He feels misunderstood and persecuted. Wulff wants to be a modern president. He is in his second marriage and is proud to have appointed Germany's first ethnic Turkish state-level minister during his time as governor of Lower Saxony.

The Scapegoat of the Sarrazin Scandal

The first major press shock of his time in office came last Wednesday, in the shape of an article in the heavyweight Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung entitled "Wulff Dictated Sarrazin's Conditions to Bundesbank." The newspaper reported that a representative of the president had led negotiations regarding the conditions for Sarrazin's resignation from the Bundesbank board. That seemed like a huge mistake by the president, a scandal even. After all, the independence of the Bundesbank is considered sacrosanct in Germany.

Joachim Poss, a senior member of the center-left Social Democrats, reacted to the apparent revelation by saying that the office of the president was "already tarnished." Poss said the country's head of state was apparently confusing the role of president with that of state governor. "It would be disastrous if the office-holder wasn't able to distinguish between the different dimensions of his duties," Poss told the Neue Osnabrücker Zeitung newspaper.

Wulff appears to have become the scapegoat of the scandal surrounding the recently-published book "Germany Does Itself In" by Thilo Sarrazin, in which the Bundesbank board member makes a series of controversial assertions about genetics and race. Although the Bundesbank wanted to sack Sarrazin over his claims, only the German president -- who appoints the bank's board -- has the power to make that decision. The case has a number of peculiarities.

Hot Water

Christian Wulff first got into hot water on Wednesday, Sept. 1. It began with words that Wulff probably should not have uttered. On an official visit to Dresden, journalists constantly asked the president what he thought about the integration debate reignited by Sarrazin's book. Wulff avoided the issue, well aware that it was a dangerous one.

At the end of a tour of the city's Albertinum art museum, Wulff found himself confronted by a camera team from the news station N24, and the question came up again. Wulff dodged it. The reporter repeated his question. Wulff dodged it again. So the reporter tried again: What did the debate about Sarrazin mean for Germany in general? Wulff is someone who likes to please. That instinct was to prove fateful. The reporter now had Wulff where he wanted him. "I think that the Bundesbank board is in a position to take action to make sure that the debate does not damage Germany," the president said. 

What's done is done. His words are now out there, and words are the fuel that drives the political machine. And these particular words proved especially powerful. According to one interpretation of his statement, Wulff may have expressed his feeling that Sarrazin should be sacked. As such, he can't claim to be entirely neutral about the case. Sarrazin and his supporters were jubilant. If ever an attempt were made to fire Sarrazin, they could use the president's statement against him in court. The president appeared a bit like a rabbit caught in the headlights.

Wulff knew he had made a mistake. So, too, did his people at the Office of the Federal President. The question now was how to get him out of the mess.

Intensive Negotiations

The next day -- Thursday -- Sarrazin had a meeting with fellow Bundesbank board members in Frankfurt. They had already met twice that week. Each time the board had suggested he step down, and each time he had rejected it. Now that Wulff had made his fateful declaration, Sarrazin's position was even better, and he refused to back down. Sarrazin was asked to leave the room. His colleagues decided to demand that the federal president relieve Sarrazin of his duties.

Late morning on Friday, the request arrived at the president's office by fax. The procedure in such a case is as follows: First the Finance Ministry and Interior Ministry look into the matter on behalf of the Chancellery. Merkel's chief of staff at the Chancellery, Ronald Pofalla, did indeed receive the request. But meanwhile Wulff's office was also taking steps of its own.

At about 6 p.m. that same day, Sarrazin's lawyer, Stephan Eiden, appeared at the Office of the Federal President and handed over his client's official statement on the matter. The head of Wulff's office, Lothar Hagebölling, received that statement. Hagebölling thought it was still possible that a mutually satisfactory agreement could be reached.

The president's three-man legal team spent the Sunday and Monday poring over the bank's request and Sarrazin's statement. On Tuesday, Sept. 7, Hagebölling called Bundesbank President Axel Weber in Frankfurt and explained the alternatives open to Wulff in this tricky case. Were he to reject Sarrazin's dismissal, Wulff would make the Bundesbank look stupid. If he agreed to it, Sarrazin could take the case to court and possibly win.

Hagebölling therefore urged Weber and the rest of the board to try to find an amicable solution. Weber didn't need much convincing. Barely 10 minutes later, he agreed to send the Bundesbank's chief lawyer to Bellevue Palace, the president's official residence, the very next day. Weber was just as keen as Wulff to sort the case out as soon as possible. After all, Weber would one day like to become the chairman of the European Central Bank. If he had been forced to sit at Sarrazin's side in board meetings week after week, it could have dented his image among his euro-zone colleagues.

That evening, Hagebölling reported to Wulff. The German president decided his officials should look into further avenues for agreement between Sarrazin and the Bundesbank.

Awkward Start

On Wednesday Wulff traveled to Switzerland. At 10 a.m., the Bundesbank's two emissaries, legal chief Bernd Krauskopf and a colleague, arrived at the president's office. Together with Wulff's lawyers, Rüdiger Hütte, the head of the Central Directorate-General in the president's office, Stefan Ulrich Pieper, the head of the legal division, and two other administrative lawyers, they discussed how they could reach agreement with Sarrazin. Their deliberations focused on three issues: Sarrazin's pension, the date of his departure and the wording of the press release. Hagebölling joined them later. Agreement was eventually reached at 3:30 p.m.

At 5:30 p.m., Sarrazin's lawyer arrived at the president's office. He then spent until 9 p.m. with Hagebölling and Wulff's in-house lawyers going through the details of his client's premature departure. This time, the Bundesbank lawyers weren't in attendance.

After this meeting, everyone seemed confident that agreement was within reach. Thereupon the representatives of the president's office and the Bundesbank lawyers sat down together again. By 11 p.m. they had settled all the details.

Reaching a Compromise

On Thursday, Hagebölling called Weber again and explained the offer they wanted to present to Sarrazin. He would leave the Bundesbank on Dec. 31, 2010. His pension would be increased by €1,000 ($1,300) a month to match what he would have received if he had remained until the end of his term in office in 2014.

Weber accepted the second condition, but not the first. He never wanted to see Sarrazin in his bank again. He therefore demanded his immediate dismissal. Hagebölling negotiated a compromise with Weber: Sarrazin would work until Sept. 30.

The press release was also amended in a few areas. At about 7 p.m. on Sept. 9, the Bundesbank lawyers and Sarrazin's representative exchanged statements in Berlin. Thereupon the Bundesbank withdrew its demand for Sarrazin's dismissal. In return, Sarrazin asked Wulff to relieve him of his duties. This was the only time that representatives of the Bundesbank and Sarrazin's lawyer had come face-to-face at Bellevue Palace.

This in turn prompted the Finance Ministry to halt its examination of the case. Nevertheless, everyone, all the way up to Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble, was confused. The ministry's lawyers were of the opinion that Sarrazin could indeed be relieved of his office in the planned fashion. The Chancellery had also been told as much.

Decisive Role

On Sunday, Sept. 12, the Tagesspiegel newspaper in Berlin quoted Wulff's spokesman, Olaf Glaeseker, as saying, "The Office of the Federal President has taken on the role of mediator, with the legal involvement of the parties involved." He added, however: "All the actual agreements were reached exclusively between the contractual partners."

This gave the impression that the president's office had not played a large part in the matter, even though its role had actually been decisive. Wulff's people initiated and directed the course of the negotiations. And they weren't neutral mediators either, but participants with their own interests, because they wanted to shield Wulff against possible legal action by Sarrazin.

Wulff's unfortunate remarks in Dresden may have cast a shadow over both him and his office in relation to the affair. Nevertheless, Wulff did not dictate terms to the Bundesbank, contrary to what the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung article claimed.

The Knives Were Out

The whole business fits perfectly into the strangely awkward start of Wulff's presidency. It opened with a controversial vacation. No sooner had he been elected, than Wulff spent a number of days at a luxury villa belonging to his friend Carsten Maschmeyer, a man who had become extremely rich through his association with the financial services provider AWD and was particularly fond of rubbing shoulders with politicians. Although Wulff paid for the holiday apartment on the villa's grounds himself, it looked as if he was bringing his cliquey connections with him from his old job as governor of Lower Saxony to the position of German president.

Then his choice of words got him into trouble. In the wake of the Love Parade tragedy, Wulff suggested that Duisburg Mayor Adolf Sauerland -- a member of the center-right Christian Democratic Union, which Wulff also belongs to -- should resign, because Sauerland, as Wulff put it, was "politically responsible" for the disaster. Some of Wulff's colleagues in the CDU thought the president had been wrong to say that.

The knives were already out in Berlin. And the criticism only got louder as the Sarrazin case heated up.

Wulff's Big Chance

Indeed, Wulff really has difficulties expressing himself. He recently spoke to officer cadets and their families in the northern city of Flensburg. About 1,000 people had gathered in front of the city's naval academy, an impressive brick building, for the event. In a week in which it was announced that Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg practically wanted to abolish military service, the president blandly rattled off a speech full of platitudes. Was it really too much to ask of the president to say something to these soldiers about this revolutionary reform, be it only an expression of sympathy for a military that had undergone so much change over the last 20 years?

Apparently it was. Wulff monotonously delivered one empty statement after another. "You are about to swear an oath. I swore my oath only a few weeks ago. It is a pleasure to be able to serve our country." Wulff spoke uneasily, as if someone were squeezing all the air out of his lungs.

Competition for the Best Speech

On Oct. 3, Wulff will have a chance to redeem himself when he gives the main speech on the Day of German Unity at the official celebration in Bremen. Bremen is hosting the event because the city-state is currently presiding over the Bundesrat, the second house of Germany's parliament which represents the interests of the federal states.

To prepare himself, Wulff is meeting many people who he thinks can give him a boost, including Lothar de Maizière, who was communist East Germany's only elected prime minister for a few months in 1990, Joachim Gauck , the East German dissident who was Wulff's rival in the presidential election, and opposition leader Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the Social Democrats' floor leader.

Wulff even met with Friedbert Pflüger, a CDU politician who is an erstwhile colleague of former President Richard von Weizsäcker. Weizsäcker gave a truly great speech on May 8, 1985, the 40th anniversary of Nazi Germany's capitulation.

Pflüger and Wulff spent three hours talking together at a Berlin restaurant. "This could be your May 8," Pflüger apparently said to Wulff, though it did little to allay the president's fears.

That's partly because Wulff won't be the only person making speeches around the anniversary of Germany's reunification. Two master wordsmiths will also be speaking: Joachim Gauck and Bundestag President Norbert Lammert, who was also seen as a possible candidate for the German presidency.

Upstaging the Official Event

Gauck will be giving his speech on Oct. 2 as the guest speaker in the parliament of the city-state of Berlin. Lammert has organized his own party for himself and the rest of the German parliament at the Reichstag in Berlin, the seat of the Bundestag. The plan is to hold a celebration in front of the Reichstag building, "a public festival accessible to all," according to an internal memo. The idea is to stage a grand show, complete with a helicopter bearing the German flag, and a fireworks display.

The problem is that Lammert's unofficial guest list includes the names of all those who've been invited to the official celebrations in Bremen that very day: state governors, the German cabinet, former presidents and members of parliament. A shuttle service is therefore being considered to ferry the guests between Bremen and Berlin, a distance of around 195 miles (315 kilometers) -- an absurd idea if ever there were one.

Several weeks ago, Lammert promised Bremen Mayor Jens Böhrnsen, who is currently also president of the Bundesrat, that he would not stage an event that clashed with the official jamboree in Bremen. A similar message was also conveyed to Wulff's office. Now it seems as if Lammert wants to have a go at playing German president after all. Wulff certainly doesn't have it easy in Berlin.

The German president has appeared nervous in these first few weeks of his time in office. In one interview, he admitted that the job was even more demanding than he had feared. He is currently searching for the kind of self-confidence that will prevent him from making mistakes out of fear of making mistakes.

A Brave Fox

On Aug. 6, Wulff's official first day at his presidential desk, photographers clamored around, desperate to get a good photo of the new president. Their eagerness prompted the master of ceremonies to calm them down, saying: "You'll get your pictures. The president will take the time to sit at his desk and read something." A few well-chosen books had been laid out on the desk, suitably weighty tomes dealing with German history and the future of the country.

Wulff went to the window that looks out over the gardens of Bellevue Palace. "This really is a beautiful view," the president said. "You should at least take a photograph of this view." And he added, "We have lots of foxes in the garden. They aren't afraid of anything."

Perhaps Wulff wants to be like one of these foxes that trot across the well-trimmed lawns of Bellevue Palace -- a Berlin fox that isn't afraid of anything.


Translated from the German by Jan Liebelt
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