If politicians are not among the greats, such as chancellors with longer or even long terms of office, they are often associated in retrospect with a single event of their term of office. This can be as positive as it is negative, usually it is only a small part of the overall picture, but it is usually the moment that has attracted the most public attention. In the case of Horst Köhler, if his time as Federal President had been calm, one could have thought above all of how he worked to explain the importance of economic relationships or turned his attention to the development of Africa. Perhaps also to his decision to give in to the will of Chancellor Gerhard Schröder to let the legislative period end in 2005 instead of 2006, which ultimately led to a woman becoming chancellor for the first time, Angela Merkel.

Eckart Lohse

Head of the parliamentary editorial office in Berlin.

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But on May 31, 2010, it was clear in one fell swoop what would remain in the memory of Köhler, who was elected the ninth German Federal President in 2004. His surprise and immediate resignation just one year after his re-election. To this day, there remains a question mark, at least drawn in pencil, whether there were even deeper motives than those mentioned. But as long as this is not erased, the official explanation applies.

He lacked the "necessary respect"

Köhler had visited the Bundeswehr troops in Afghanistan in February 2010 on his way back from a trip to China. On the onward flight to Germany, he had given an interview to Deutschlandradio and said that a country with a strong foreign trade orientation like Germany had to protect its trade routes militarily in an emergency. As a result, a public debate broke out on the admissibility of military operations, in which the Social Democrats and Greens made serious accusations against the Federal President. Green parliamentary group leader Jürgen Trittin even tried to make a comparison with the gunboat policy of the 19th and early 20th centuries. The intensity of the debate was astonishing, especially since the SPD and Greens had not argued ideologically anti-military for years, but had been responsible for both the Kosovo war and the Afghanistan mission as governing parties. It can only be assumed that they wanted to use the opportunity to attack a federal president with a CDU party membership (whose party affiliation rested as usual during his time in the presidential office).

If that was a motive, the attacks would have been successful. Shortly after the interview, Köhler announced that he would resign immediately. He regretted that his statements on an "important and difficult issue for our nation" had led to misunderstandings. "But the criticism goes so far as to accuse me of supporting Bundeswehr missions that would not be covered by the Basic Law," Köhler explained his step. "This criticism lacks any justification. It lacks the necessary respect for my office." Said it and went.

Chancellor Angela Merkel was completely unprepared for the incident. She could not have had the slightest interest in having to deal with the presidential question four years ahead of time, which is always a balancing act between the major parties in the Federal Assembly. If she had known what adversity would arise from her decision to choose the Prime Minister of Lower Saxony, Christian Wulff, as her successor, she would probably have perceived the anger over Köhler as a mild breeze.

Gauck withstood the criticism

Köhler was born in 1943 in Heidenstein, southeast of Lublin, as the seventh of eight children of a Bessarabian German farming family. He came with his family after the Second World War via the GDR to Ludwigsburg. Köhler once said that he "does not feel like a displaced person." He completed his military service, studied economics and political science, held various positions in federal ministries, became President of the German Savings Banks Association and in 2000 Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund.

If Köhler had held out exactly at the point where he decided to resign, he could have given his presidency a focus that, especially from today's perspective, might have been valuable preparatory work for dealing with the turning point. Since the Kosovo war at the latest, Germany has had a lot of discussion about the importance of the military. But a Federal President could have made a contribution if he had promoted such a debate over a longer period of time with the authority of his office. This was taken over by Köhler's successor Joachim Gauck. When he spoke out at the Munich Security Conference in favour of a foreign policy of interference instead of looking the other way, he was also showered with criticism. But he stood firm and continued to fight for his opinion.

Horst Köhler came into office at the age of 61 as a politically interested person, but he had not been a politician until then. This may explain why he was less able to withstand harsh public criticism than politicians who are constantly exposed to such criticism do. Since his resignation, however, he has devoted himself to political issues, such as sustainability and the African continent. This Wednesday Horst Köhler will be 80 years old.