Fractured Germany seeks symbolic leader

December 25, 1993|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,Berlin Bureau

BERLIN -- How do you choose a spokesman for the national conscience in a country with a split personality?

That's the dilemma facing German Chancellor Helmut Kohl as he ponders whom to nominate to be the country's next president. The job has virtually no power, yet has evolved into a sort of national father figure.

It is a role that shouldn't be underestimated. Because if anyone needs paternal counseling now, it is the Germans, who in the wake of reunification are squabbling among themselves more than at any time since World War II.

So far, Mr. Kohl hasn't been up to the task, bungling his first try with an unpopular choice in September. Meanwhile, his governing coalition has lurched toward collapse on the eve of an election year. In some parts of the former East Germany, his party is even less popular than the recycled Communists.

This might all be nothing but grist for international political junkies if the idea of German instability didn't still make the rest of the world nervous.

With German democracy sliding into a mid-life crisis, the pessimists fear, what's to stop the country from returning to its pre-war nastiness?

And that's where the importance of the no-power presidency comes in. The man now holding the job, Richard von Weizsaecker, 73, has soothed his own countrymen as well as worrywarts around Europe and the rest of the world during his nine years in office.

He has done so by speaking frankly and deftly about his nation's most divisive problems, setting a moral course when other leaders have shied from the task. He has managed to probe old wounds -- including some of his own -- without rubbing them raw.

"Von Weizsaecker has always been much closer to the feelings of the people and known the importance of issues better than Mr. Kohl," says Dieter Roth, political analyst with the Mannheim Opinion Research Group.

"It's part of the role as a father figure, that of being a spokesman not only for the national conscience but also for the fears and problems of the people. And the government especially doesn't speak about these problems very often, because they want to keep that under wraps."

One example: When a neo-Nazi arson attack killed five Turkish women and girls last May, Mr. Kohl's representatives hastily characterized the embarrassing episode as the work of "misguided, crazy individuals." Mr. Kohl did not attend the funeral.

Mr. Weizsaecker did attend, and his remarks reached down to the darkest German insecurities. The killing and other similar recent acts, he said, were "not unrelated, isolated atrocities. Rather, they spring from a climate generated by the extreme right. Even criminals acting alone do not emerge from nothing."

Nazi memory fresh

He has also repeatedly told Germans that they must not forget their past role in World War II and the Holocaust, and he is able to do this without seeming overly pious because of his own past.

He was an infantry officer in the Wehrmacht, wounded while serving on the Russian front.

His brother was killed at the Polish front in the first days of World War II.

His father, a German aristocrat and senior diplomat in the Nazi regime, spent 18 months in prison after his conviction at the Nuremberg War Crimes Tribunal.

In addressing those around the world who fear the strength of a reunified Germany, Mr. Weizsaecker has stressed Germany's role as a cooperative partner in the new Europe.

"By the way he represented the country, he ensured that Germany was accepted by the rest of the world's democracies," says Ignatz Bubis, another tough critic of German politicians and head of Germany's Jewish community. "He has done an excellent job."

Nowadays, Mr. von Weizsaecker's brand of counsel seems more valuable than ever. With resentment over unemployment and climbing taxes widening the nation's east-west gulf, polls show that German self-esteem has sunk to its lowest level in years.

But polls regarding Mr. Weizsaecker's popularity remain high in both the east and west, and his appeal cuts across every party affiliation except the radical right wing.

Nor is it an empty popularity. Germans regard him as influential, despite the mostly ceremonial nature of his job.

"In our polling we ask people an open question every three months: 'Who are the most important politicians in Germany right now?' " Mr. Roth says. "And even though he has no power to speak of, he is still looked at as one of the most important figures in Germany, behind only Kohl and [opposition leader Rudolf] Scharping."

Kohl holds key

But national law doesn't allow Mr. Weizsaecker to serve another term, meaning Mr. Kohl must nominate someone for election this May. Because the voting for the presidency is done by national and state legislators, where Mr. Kohl's coalition holds the majority, it has always been assumed that Mr. Kohl's choice will win.

Mr. Kohl cast doubt on that assumption with his first nominee. Hoping to ease the pain of reunification by picking an east German, he chose little-known Steffen Heitmann.

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