President of Germany

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The Federal President (German: Bundespräsident, formerly Reichspräsident) is Germany's head of state. The president is elected by a specially convened body called the Federal Convention (Bundesversammlung) to serve a five year term. In accordance with Germany's parliamentary system of government the presidency is limited by a mixture of law and convention to being a ceremonial position. The office of Federal President was first established 1919, as Germany prior to that year was a monarchy. The official title was changed from Reichspräsident to Bundespräsident with the new constitution of 1949.

The first official residence of the Federal President is the Bellevue Palace in Berlin. The president's second official residence is the Hammerschmidt Villa, in Bonn. The current office-holder is Horst Köhler, elected in 2004.



The Weimar constitution created a semi-presidential system in which power was divided between the president, a cabinet and a parliament. The Reichspräsident was directly elected under universal adult suffrage for a seven year term. It was intended that the president would rule in conjunction with the Reichstag (legislature) and that his emergency powers would be exercised only in extraordinary circumstances, but the political instability of the Weimar period, and a paralysing factionalism in the legislature, meant that the Reichspräsident came to occupy a position of considerable power, capable of legislating by decree and appointing and dismissing governments at will.

The office was abolished by the Nazi government in 1934 and replaced by a new position of Führer und Reichskanzler ("Führer and Reich Chancellor"). It was later revived in the last days of the Third Reich when Karl Dönitz briefly became Reichspräsident in May, 1945. The modern office of Federal President, established in 1949, is the successor to the office of Reichspräsident.

List of Imperial Presidents (Reichspräsident)

No. Name Took office Left office Party
1.Friedrich Ebert11th February 191928th February, 1925SPD
2.Paul von Hindenburg12th May, 19252nd August 1934(None)
3.Karl Dönitz1st May, 194523rd May, 1945(None)



The Weimar constitution required that the Reichspräsident was directly elected by universal adult suffrage for a term of seven years, and could be re-elected. This is in contrast to the modern Federal President who is indirectly elected, by a Federal Convention, for a five year term. Nonetheless, during the Weimar Republic only two direct presidential elections actually occurred. The first Reich President, Friedrich Ebert, was indirectly elected by the National Assembly in 1919. The two direct elections were the election of Paul von Hindenburg in 1925, and his re-election in 1932. When Karl Dönitz briefly became Reichspräsident in 1945 it was because the title was bestowed upon him in Adolf Hitler's will. The two presidential elections of the Weimar period were the:

During the Weimar period the law provided that the office of Reichspräsident was open to all German citizens who had reached 35 years of age. The direct election of the president occurred under a form of the two round system. If no candidate received the support of an absolute majority of votes cast (i.e. more than half) in a first round of voting, a second vote was held at a later date. In this round the candidate who received the support of a plurality of voters was deemed elected. A group could also nominate a substitute candidate in the second round, in place of the candidate it had supported in the first.

The Reich President could not be a member of the Reichstag (parliament) at the same time. The constitution required that on taking office the president swore the following oath (although the inclusion of additional religious language was permitted):

I swear to devote my energy to the welfare of the German people, to increase its prosperity, to prevent damage, to hold up the Reich constitution and its laws, to consciously honour my duties and to exercise justice to every individual.

Duties and functions

  • Appointment of the Goverment: The Reichskanzler ("Reich Chancellor") and his cabinet were appointed and dismissed by the Reichspräsident. No vote of confirmation was required in the Reichstag before the members of the cabinet could assume office, but any member of the cabinet was obliged to resign if the body passed a motion of no confidence in him. The president could appoint and dismiss the chancellor at will, but all other cabinet members could, save in the event of a no confidence motion, only be appointed or dismissed at the chancellor's request.
  • Dissolution of the Reichstag: The Reichspräsident had the right to dissolve the Reichstag at any time, in which case a general election had to occur within sixty days. Theoretically, he was not permitted to do so more than once for the same "reason", but this limitation had little significance in practice.
  • Promulgation of the law: The Reichspräsident was responsible for signing bills into law. The president was constitutionally obliged to sign every law passed in accordance with the correct procedure but could insist that a bill first be submitted to the electorate in a referendum. Such a referendum could, however, only overide the decision of the Reichstag if a majority of eligible voters participated.
  • Foreign relations: Under the constitution the Reichspräsident was entitled to represent the nation in its foreign affairs, to accredit and receive ambassadors and to conclude treaties in the name of the state. However approval of the Reichstag was required to declare war, conclude peace or to conclude any treaty that related to German laws.
  • Commander-in-chief: The Reichspräsident held "supreme command" of the armed forces.
  • Amnesties: The president had the right to confer amnesties.

Emergency powers

The Weimar constitution granted the president sweeping powers in the event of a crisis. Article 48 empowered the president, if "public order and security [were] seriously disturbed or endangered" to "take all necessary steps to re-establish law and order". These permissable steps included the use of armed force and the suspension of many of the civil rights otherwise guaranteed by the constitution. Most importantly, the president could take over the legislative powers of the Reichstag by issuing Notverordnungen (emergency decrees) which had the same rank as conventional acts of parliament.

The Reichstag had to be informed immediately of any measures taken under Article 48 and had the right to reverse any such measures. Even so, during the Weimar period the article was used to effectively by-pass parliament. Furthermore, although the article was intended for use only in an extraordinary emergency the article was invoked many times, even before 1933. An additional special power conferred on the Reichspräsident by the constitution was authority to use armed force to oblige a state government to cooperate if it failed to meet its obligations under the constitution or under federal law.

Powers in practice

The Weimar constitution created a system in which, theoretically, the cabinet was answerable to both the president and the legislature. In particular, the fact that the president could appoint the cabinet, while the Reichstag had only a power of dismissal, created a high cabinet turn-over as ministers were appointed by the president only to be dismissed by the Reichstag shortly afterwards. Ebert and Hindenburg (initially) both attempted to appoint cabinets that enjoyed the confidence of the Reichstag. However, from 1930 onwards Hindenburg ruled by means of three Präsidialkabinetten or "presidential cabinets", which did not enjoy a majority in the Reichstag.

During the 1920s and '30s Hindenburg was able to use his power of dissolution to by-pass the Reichstag both with respect to presidential decrees and, eventually, the appointment of the cabinet. If the Reichstag threatened to censure his ministers or revoke one of his decrees he could simply dissolve the Reichstag, either pre-emptively or after it had acted, and be left able to govern without its interference for a maximum of ninety days until elections were held and the body reconvened. This use of the power of dissolution to effectively legislate by decree became known as the mechanism of Präsidialregierungen.

Removal and succession

The Weimar constitution did not provide for a vice presidency. If the president died or left office prematurely a successor would be elected. During a temporary vacancy, or in the event that the Reichspräsident was "unavailable", the powers and functions of the presidency passed to the chancellor. This mechanism was exploited by Adolf Hitler following the death of Hindenburg. As chancellor, the powers of the Reichspräsident devolved on Hitler, who merged the two offices by creating the position of Führer und Reichskanzler ("Führer and Reich Chancellor").

The provisions of the Weimar constitution for the impeachment or deposition of the president are similar to those found in the Constitution of Austria. The Weimar constitution provided that the Reichspräsident could be removed from office prematurely by a referendum initiated by the Reichstag. To require such a referendum the Reichstag had to pass a motion supported by at least two-thirds of votes cast in the chamber. If such a proposal to depose the president was rejected by voters the president would be deemed to have been re-elected and the Reichstag would be automatically dissolved.

The Reichstag also had authority to impeach the president before the Staatsgerichtshof, a court exclusively concerned with disputes between state organs. However it could only do this on a charge of willfully violating German law; furthermore the move had to be supported by a two-thirds majority of votes cast, at a meeting with a quorum of two-thirds of the total number of members.


The Reichspräsident was established as a kind of Ersatzkaiser, that is, a substitute for the powerful monarch who had reigned in Germany until 1919. The new president's role was therefore informed, at least in part, by that played by the Kaiser under the system of constitutional monarchy being replaced. Hugo Preuss, the writer of the Weimar constitution, is said to have accepted the advice of Max Weber as to the term of office and powers of the presidency, and the method by which the president would be elected. The structure of the relationship between the Reichspräsident and Reichstag is said to have been suggested by Robert Redslop, who believed that France's Third Republic had been brought down by a too powerful legislature.

On 11th February, 1919 the National Assembly elected Friedrich Ebert of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) as the first Reich President by 379 votes to 277. While in office he used emergency decrees on a number of occasions, including to suppress the Kapp Putsch in 1920. His term came to an abrupt end with his death in 1925. In the election that followed Hindenburg was eventually settled on as the candidate of the political right, while the 'Weimar coalition' united behind Wilhelm Marx of Zentrum (the 'Catholic Centre Party'). Many on the right hoped that once in office Hindenburg would destroy Weimar democracy from the inside but in the years that followed his election Hindenburg never attempted to overthrow the Weimar constitution outright.

In March 1930 Hindenburg appointed Heinrich Brüning to head the first "presidential cabinet", which did not enjoy the support of the Reichstag. In July Hindenburg adopted the national budget by decree and, when the Reichstag reversed this act, he dissolved the legislature. The years that followed would see an explosion of legislation by decree, where previously this power had been used only occasionally.

In March 1932 Hindenburg, although suffering from the onset of senility, decided to stand for re-election. Adolf Hitler was his major opponent but Hindenburg won the election by a substantial margin. In June he replaced Brüning as chancellor with Franz von Papen and again dissolved the Reichstag, before it could adopt a vote of no confidence. After reconvening it was again dissolved in September.

After briefly appointing General Kurt von Schleicher as chancellor in December, Hindenburg responded to growing civil unrest and Nazi activism by appointing Hitler as chancellor in January, 1933. A parliamentary dissolution followed after which Hitler's government, with the aid of another party, were able to command the support of a majority in the Reichstag. On 23rd March the Reichstag adopted the Enabling Act, which effectively brought an end to the Weimar constitution. From this point onwards almost all political authority was exercised by Hitler. Hitler's government issued a law providing that upon Hindenburg's death the office of Reichspräsident would be abolished and replaced with the new position of Führer und Reichskanzler ("Fuhrer and Reich Chancellor"), occupied by Hitler as supreme leader.

Hitler committed suicide on 30th April, 1945, as World War II in Europe drew to a close. In his "Final Political Testament" Hitler stated that Karl Dönitz was to succeed him as head of state, with the revived title of Reichspräsident and propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels was to succeed him as head of government with the title of Reichskanzler. Goebbels committed suicide shortly after Hitler and within days Dönitz ordered Germany's military surrender on the 7th May, which ended the war in Europe. He then appointed Ludwig von Krosigk as chancellor and the two attempted to gather together a government. However this government was not recognised by the Allied powers and was dissolved when its members were captured and arrested by British forces on 23rd May at Flensburg. On June 5, 1945 the four occupying powers signed a document creating the Allied Control Council, that did not mention the name of the previous German government.



Federal Convention

Main article: German Federal Convention

The Federal President is elected by secret ballot, without debate, by the Federal Convention, a body established solely for that purpose. The convention consists of all Bundestag members as well as an equal number of delegates chosen by the legislatures of the länder (states). The delegates of each Land to the Federal Convention are elected by the members of the legislature of that jurisdiction under a form of proportional representation. However it is not required that Land delegates themselves be members of a legislature; often esteemed local citizens are chosen.

In total, the Federal Convention numbers more than one thousand people. The German constitution, the Basic Law, requires that it be convened no later than thirty days before the expiration of the term of office of the president. In practice it is convened every five years (in all years with year numbers ending in "4" or "9") on 23rd May, the date of the foundation of the Federal Republic in 1949. The body is convened and chaired by the President of the Bundestag.

The Federal Convention attempts to elect a president by an absolute majority of votes cast. If, after two votes, no single candidate has received this level of support, in the third and final vote the candidate endorsed by a plurality of votes cast is deemed elected. The process of electing the Federal President is usually determined by party politics, the office being in the gift of whichever party, or group of allied parties, can muster a majority in the convention. The authors of the Basic Law chose an indirect form of presidential election because they believed it would produce a head of state who was widely acceptable and yet at the same time insulated from public pressure and lacking in sufficient popular legitimacy to undermine other institutions of government.


The office of Federal President is open to all Germans who are entitled to vote in Bundestag elections and have reached the age of forty, but no one may serve more than two five year terms. The president receives an annual payment of approximately €213,000 that continues when he or she leaves office.

The president may not be a member of the government or of a legislature at either the federal or Land level. On taking office the president must take the following oath, stipulated by Article 56 of the Basic Law, before the assembled members of the Bundestag and Bundesrat (however he or she is permitted to omit the religious references if so desired):

I swear that I will dedicate my efforts to the well-being of the German people, enhance their benefits, avert harm from them, uphold and defend the Constitution and the statutes of the Federation, fulfil my duties conscientiously, and do justice to all. So help me God.

Duties and functions

Missing image
Bellevue Palace in Berlin: first official residence of the Federal President. The president is currently using Charlottenburg Castle pending reconstruction work at the palace.

The degree of power actually conferred upon the Federal President by the Basic Law is ambiguous. However, in practice, holders of the office treat it as a ceremonial, non-political one, and act in accordance with the advice and directives of the Federal Government. Unlike many constitutions the Basic Law does not designate the head of state as the commander-in-chief of the military (ceremonially or otherwise). This role is vested in the Minister of Defence by Article 65a. The Federal President carries out the following duties:

  • Appointment of the Federal Government: The Federal President proposes an individual as Federal Chancellor and then, provided they are subsequently elected by the Bundestag, appoints him or her to the office. However the Bundestag is free to disregard the president's proposal and elect another individual to the post, who the president is then obliged to appoint. The president appoints and dismisses the remaining members of the Federal Government "upon the proposal of the Chancellor". The President can dismiss the chancellor but only in the event that the Bundestag passes a Constructive Vote of No Confidence. If this occurs the president must dismiss the chancellor and appoint the successor requested by the Bundestag.
  • Other appointments: The president appoints federal judges, federal civil servants and military officers. All such appointments require the counter-signature of either the chancellor or the relevant cabinet minister.
  • Dissolution of the Bundestag: In the event that a vote of confidence is defeated in the Bundestag the Federal President may dissolve the body within 21 days, but only on a proposal from the incumbent chancellor. In the event that the Bundestag elects an individual for the office of chancellor by a plurality of votes, rather than a majority, the Federal President can, at his discretion, either appoint that individual as chancellor or dissolve the Bundestag. So far, this power has only been applied twice in the history of the Federal Republic. In both occurences it is doubtful whether the motives for that dissolution were in accordance with the constitution's intentions. Each time the incumbent chancellor called for the vote of confidence with the stated intention of being defeated, in order to be able to call for new elections before the end of their regular term. The same thing is likely to happen on 1st July 2005, when Chancellor Gerhard Schröder is expected to ask for a vote of confidence.
  • Promulgation of the law: All federal laws must, after counter-signature, be signed by the president before they can come into effect. Ordinances must be signed by the agency which issues them, and then by the president.
  • Foreign relations: The Federal President takes part in foreign visits and receives foreign dignitaries. He or she also concludes treaties with foreign nations, accredits German diplomats and receives the letters of accreditation of foreign diplomats.
  • Pardons and honours: The president grants pardons if the person concerned had been convicted under federal jurisdiction (which is rare) and confers decorations and honours.
  • State of emergency: In the event of a national crisis, the emergency law reforms of 1968 designate the president as a mediator. If the Bundestag rejects a motion of confidence, but neither the chancellor is dismissed nor the Bundestag is dissolved, the president may, by request of the cabinet, declare a "legislative state of emergency", which is quite different from a conventional state of emergency: If it is declared, during a limited period of time, bills proposed by the cabinet and designated as "urgent", but rejected by the Bundestag, become (with the consent of the Bundesrat) law nonetheless. But it does not suspend basic human rights nor does it grant the executive branch any exceptional power.

Impartiality and influence

Though usually chosen as the candidate of a political party or parties, the president nonetheless is expected to be non-partisan after assuming office. Every president to date has let his or her party membership rest dormant during his or her term of office. Although the formal powers of the president are limited, the president's role can be quite significant depending on his or her own activities. The very fact that the president usually doesn't interfere with day-to-day politics means that if he or she does choose to speak out on an issue, the event is perceived as one to take note of. There have been a number of occasions when certain presidential speeches have dominated German political debate for a year or more.

Reserve powers

There is disagreement about whether Federal Presidents have, in fact, greater constitutional powers than they customarily choose to exercise. Some argue that the Basic Law does not require that the president must follow government directives in all circumstances. It is suggested, for instance, that the president could refuse to sign legislation, thus vetoing it, or refuse to approve a cabinet appointment. Because no Federal President has ever attempted to take either of these actions the constitutionality of these points has never been tested.

In the few cases in which a bill was not signed all presidents claimed that the bill in question was manifestly unconstitutional. Also, in some cases, a president has signed a law whilst asking that the political parties refer the case to the Federal Constitutional Court in order to test the law's constitutionality. The most recent case of such an occurrence was the controversial 'passing' of an immigration law in the Bundesrat in 2003. This law was ultimately declared invalid by the court for reasons of procedure.


The Basic Law did not create an office of vice president. If the president is outside of the country, or the position is vacant, the President of the Bundesrat (this position is rotated among the state governors on a yearly basis) fills in as temporary, acting Federal President. While doing so he or she does not continue to exercise the role of chair of the Bundesrat. If the president dies, or is removed from office, a successor is elected within thirty days. However since the establishment of the office this has never occurred.

While the president is abroad on a state visit the President of the Bundesrat does not assume all of his responsibilities but may "deputise" for the Federal President, performing on the president's behalf merely those tasks that require his or her physical presence, such as the signing of documents.

As with many other provisions of the Basic Law, the mechanism for presidential succession was introduced in response to a perceived weakness in the Weimar constitution, under which the chancellor would act as head of state in the president's absence. This made it easier for Adolf Hitler to combine the two offices of president and chancellor and make himself dictator.

List of Federal Presidents since 1949

See also: List of German presidents since 1919

No. Name Took office Left office Party
1.Theodor Heuss13th September, 194912th September, 1959FDP
2.Heinrich Lübke13th September,195930th June,1969CDU
3.Gustav Heinemann1st July,196930th June, 1974SPD
4.Walter Scheel1st July,197430th June, 1979FDP
5. Karl Carstens1st July, 197930th June, 1984CDU
6.Richard von Weizsäcker1st July, 198430th June, 1994CDU
7.Roman Herzog1st July, 199430th June, 1999CDU
8.Johannes Rau1st July, 199930th June, 2004SPD
9.Horst Köhler1st July, 2004(Incumbent)CDU

Impeachment and removal

While in office the Federal President enjoys immunity from prosecution and cannot be voted out of office or recalled. The only mechanism for removing the president is impeachment by the Bundestag for willfully violating German law. Once the Bundestag impeaches the president the Federal Constitutional Court is charged with determining if he or she is guilty of the offence. If the charge is sustained the court has authority to remove the president from office. To date no Federal President has ever been impeached.


Missing image
Hammerschmidt Villa in Bonn: official residence of the Federal President from 1951-1994. Today it is the president's second official residence.

The office of Federal President was established in 1919, and the title then was Reichspräsident, meaning approximately the same as the current Bundespräsident. The title of Reichspräsident existed during the Weimar Republic 1919-1933 and continued until the death of Paul von Hindenburg on August 2, 1934. Under the Weimar Republic the Reichspräsident was elected by popular vote and intended to be largely a ceremonial figurehead. However, in the later years of the republic, the difficulty in creating a workable parliamentary majority allowed President von Hindenburg to rule by decree and bypass the Reichstag (parliament).

In 1934, after the death of Hindenburg, Adolf Hitler, who had previously been appointed Chancellor by Hindenburg in 1933, solidified his hold on power by merging the offices of Chancellor and Federal President to form a new office of Führer und Reichskanzler ("Leader and Chancellor") (as part of the process of Gleichschaltung). After Hitler committed suicide on 30th April, 1945, days before World War II formally ended in Germany, the title of Reichspräsident was revived and held by Karl Dönitz, until the end of World War II in Europe.

During the first four years of Allied occupation of Germany there was no active German president or head of state (de jure, Dönitz however may be considered the President). When the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) was created from the western occupied territory in 1949 Theodor Heuss was chosen as the first holder of a new position called the Bundespräsident or "Federal President". With this event the presidency once again assumed the largely figurehead status that had existed during the Weimar Republic until about 1929. However the presidency now had clarified and in some cases more limited constitutional powers. Most Federal Presidents have been people perceived to be of moral authority. For example most have been active Christians.

When the territory of the German Democratic Republic was reunited with the rest of Germany in 1990, the country continued to operate under the constitution of 1949. In 1994, as part of the movement of Germany's seat of government from Bonn to Berlin, the president's official residence was moved from the Hammerschmidt Villa, in Bonn, to its current location at the Bellevue Palace in Berlin.

See also

External links

es:Presidente de Alemania fr:Président fédéral de l'Allemagne ja:ドイツの大統領 ka:გერმანიის პრეზიდენტები nds:Bunnspräsident (Düütschland) ru:Федеральный президент Германии vi:Tổng thống Đức


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