Germany’s meteorological office had warned of severe rainfalls for today.
And while the rain was indeed pouring down outside all day, no one would have expected the political thunderstorm that hit newsrooms across the country just after the lunch break – including the one where I am on work experience at the moment.

Federal president Horst Köhler announced that he will step down, only a year after he was re-elected.
He says his decision is a consequence of the comments he recently made about the German mission in Afghanistan.

In May, Köhler visited a German base in Masar-i-Sharif and in an interview with a German radio station, he allegedly justified German missions abroad with securing the country’s economic interests.
This caused outrage all across the country. Köhler was quick to take his comments back and said he had been misunderstood and that his comment had been taken out of the original context. Going to war or sending troops for other reasons than humanitarian intervention would be against the constitution, as he put it.
But after all, his answer was a rather general one about foreign missions, and if one considers the European Atalanta mission off the Somali coast, then it is pretty obvious that the European forces are there to protect ships that carry goods. As a result, they also protect our economic interests – if ships had to take a different, longer route, German (and other) companies would have to pay more for shipping costs. Given the fact that our economy is largely built on exporting goods, that would be a disadvantage.
But Köhler’s comment, made on the return flight from Afghanistan, was bound to be misunderstood – and for critics of the war, it seemed perfect.

The issue has - understandably - become increasingly controversial in Germany, especially after the bombing in Kunduz which killed many civilians, and after an unprecedented number of soldiers lost their lives on Good Friday and the week after. The new defence minister, zu Guttenberg, was the first member of the government to call it a “war” instead of a “conflict”.
And now here we are, stuck with the question of how we can pull our troops out of there without making the situation worse and upsetting the other members of the ISAF mission. Obviously there are similar discussions in other countries – in the Netherlands for example, the issue even caused the coalition to break.
Germany's Left Party (the only party that had fought the 2009 campaign on a strict line regarding Afghanistan: they demanded that German troops leave right away) saw the president’s comments as a confirmation of what they had suspected all along.
But they were not the only ones who were shocked. Even the coalition parties showed no support for Köhler’s words at all, and so his decision to step down may seem logical in some aspects.
Still, until today, no one seemed to think about even the possibility of such a step.

In these times of crisis, Germany is now left without a head of state.
While it’s true that according to our constitution, the president exercises mostly representative powers, it is nevertheless devastating news for the head of government, chancellor Angela Merkel – yet rumours have it that he made his decision after a phone call with her.
Over the last years, the president has repeatedly made headlines when he for example refused to sign bills or with interviews in which he openly criticised the government and blamed politicians for neglecting Germany's social problems.
On the other hand, the president’s office is supposed to be independent and not an instrument of party politics. And while he did make a rather provincial impression most of the time (a reason for his popularity?), at least this seemed to be something he was good at and he initiated a debate on many issues, which is always healthy for a democracy.

But was it rather too much initiative this time around?
In 2004, when Köhler was first elected, he was backed as a candidate by the then opposition parties of the Christian Democrats and the Free Democrats – since last year’s general election, the black-yellow coalition government. And while especially the FDP focuses on the strengthening the economy, the distance between the highest and the lowest earners keeps increasing and problems such as child poverty keep getting more serious.

The last weeks have not been easy for the chancellor. It has been difficult enough to push through the plans for bailing out Greece, saving the monetary union (and with it the EU, as she promises) against the opposition’s criticism – and to defend these plans against the anti-Greek sentiment of many German voters fuelled by populist headlines of tabloid newspapers like BILD.
But now there have been several high-profile CDU politicians who have left her – the most recent one Hessen’s president, and the election in North Rhine Westphalia (black-yellow lost) proved that people are unhappy about her style of governing.

Köhler’s departure does not exactly contribute to cool down heated talks about the crisis in Germany – not just an economic one, but also a social one, and growing disillusionment about the current government. It was not necessary for Köhler to walk off right away - in his position, he should beable to take a stand and then defend himself against criticism instead of escaping when it becomes too difficult. In addition, it was definitely not very helpful to the situation this country finds itself in to do it now. The rain keeps falling on Germany at the moment, it seems, and we keep losing umbrellas - or was the president just so afraid to get wet that he didn't get out into the rain in the first place?

 

Comments

 Fascinating, Laura. Thank you for writing it. You have told me more than the BBC and C4 News combined. The Centre is fortunate to have its own dedicated correspondent in Germany. 

A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall