February 2012, Week 3


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Mon, 20 Feb 2012 22:33:52 -0500
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Presidents Come and Presidents Go

By Victor Grossman

Berlin Bulletin No. 38 February 18, 2012

Berlin and its surroundings have had plenty to keep it
occupied: an airline strike, a short strike of the bus,
streetcar and subway lines, the euro crisis and price
increases. Or, on the happier side, warmer weather and
the film Berlinale, with visits by many stars and an
interesting, international mix of films often by young
and new film-makers. And 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, 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
remove his immunity to charges on bribery cases by the
legislature of his original state of Lower Saxony. He
quit, angrily, claiming he had made some mistakes but
done nothing illegal. He must now worry about the
charges and possible loss of his government pension.

And the politicians must now scurry around to find a
successor, very quickly, in fact, since constitutional
rules demand a new president within thirty days - by
March 18th. But first, here are some of the basic
facts, even though this means repeating things written
in earlier articles.

First it was disclosed that Wulff had used the good
graces of a very wealthy friend and supporter to borrow
money at an unusually favorite interest rate to
renovate a home for himself - actually a modest-looking
building, no fancy villa or semi-palace. Then it was
found that he tried to get the newspaper BILD, the
rottenest but most influential rag in Germany, like the
NY Post in many ways, not to publish this story, or at
least to wait till they met. He used voice mail and his
words were angry, though not obscene, but ended with a
veiled "or else". That "or else" was immediately
publicized by BILD (and all the others) as proof that
he was against freedom of the press.

Then the media hunted for all possible misdeeds, often
from the years before he became president.  And
whaddayaknow, they found things. Like almost every
major party politician (and others as well) Wulff took
occasional advantage of offers to spend pleasant
vacations here and there at the expense of wealthy
friends. In the most noted case it had been a film
entrepreneur who invited him for a few days to his
small vacation hotel on a fancy island in the North

In one case, while he was minister president 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 reprehensive - but 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
them or (illegally) their party's war chests amounting
to tens and hundreds of thousands and even millions by
major trusts and monopolies.

Indeed, and far more seriously, among Wulffs 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, 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 of a topNazi
legal expert who had remained a leading professor long
after the war.

As I see it, Wullf'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 the mass rag BILD and then all the others
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 part of
the German scene as legitimately as Christianity or
Judaism. This view is anathema to right-wingers
generally, and BILD is a main purveyor of the opposing
hate-the Muslims plague. Indeed, BILD printed
installments of the book by a major proponent of such
hatred, the politician and banker Thilo Sarrazin.

In my view this is one likely possibility for the
philippic campaign against the otherwise relatively
harmless Christian Wulff.

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 1240 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 Christians and the Free Democrats, will
have a slim  majority of one to three votes; since the
vote is secret and there are often renegades, this
means that 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.

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: the East German pastor and Red-
hunter who administered the archives about the Stasi
(State Security apparatus of the East German Democratic
Republic) and made a name for himself as conservative,
extremely anti-Left, who used Stasi-files in ways
reminiscent of FBI files during the McCarthy period to
criminalize thousands, including many because of
unavoidable and often totally innocuous contacts of one
kind or another with the Stasi,  totally destroying
their careers and often their lives. Gauck smiles in a
friendly way, he even cries when discussing supposed
terrors in the bad old days (although he was treated in
a very benign manner even though he was a very pro-
western pastor. Some claim he himself had Stasi ties).

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


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