Main Page | See live article | Alphabetical index

President of Germany

The President of Germany (German: Bundespräsident) is the head of state of the Federal Republic of Germany. The office today is largely ceremonial, and to prevent the problems that occurred with the Weimar Republic, the Basic Law carefully limits the President's power.

Table of contents
1 Description
2 History
3 Office holders


In international relations, the president's duties include signing treaties, representing Germany abroad, and receiving foreign dignitaries. In the domestic sphere, the president has largely ceremonial functions. Although this official signs legislation into law, grants pardons, and appoints federal judges, federal civil servants, and military officers, each of these actions requires the countersignature of the chancellor or the relevant cabinet minister. The president formally proposes to the Bundestag a chancellor candidate and formally appoints the chancellor's cabinet members, but the president follows the choice of the Bundestag in the first case and of the chancellor in the second. If the government loses a simple no-confidence vote, the president dissolves the Bundestag, but here, too, the Basic Law (Grundgesetz) limits the president's ability to act independently. In the event of a national crisis, the emergency law reforms of 1968 designate the president as a mediator who can declare a state of emergency.

There is disagreement about whether the president, in fact, has greater powers than the above description would suggest. Some argue that nothing in the Basic Law suggests that a president must follow government directives. For instance, the president could refuse to sign legislation, thus vetoing it, or refuse to approve certain cabinet appointments. As of mid-2003, no president had ever taken such action, and thus the constitutionality of these points had never been tested.

The president is selected by secret ballot at a Federal Convention (Bundesversammlung) that includes all Bundestag members and an equal number of delegates chosen by the Land legislatures. This assemblage, which totals more than 1,000 people, is convened every five years. It may select a president for a second, but not a third, five-year term. The authors of the Basic Law preferred this indirect form of presidential election because they believed it would produce a head of state who was widely acceptable and insulated from popular pressure, while at the same time not giving the President the popular legitimacy which could be used to attack other institutions. Candidates for the presidency must be at least forty years old.

The Basic Law did not create an office of vice president. If the president is outside the country or if the position is vacant, the president of the Bundesrat fills in as the temporary head of state. If the president dies in office, a successor is elected within thirty days. As with many other provisions of the Basic Law, this provision was drafted in response to a weakness in the Weimar Constitution in which the Chancellor would act as President in his absence. This allowed Adolf Hitler to combine the two offices.

Usually one of the senior leaders of the largest party in the Bundestag, the president nonetheless is expected to be nonpartisan after assuming 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.


During the Weimar Republic (1919-1933), the Reichspräsident was elected by popular vote and intended to be a figurehead. However, in the later years of the republic, the difficulty in creating a workable parliamentary majority allowed President Paul von Hindenburg to rule by decree, bypassing both the Chancellor and the Reichstag (parliament).

In 1934, after the death of Hindenburg, Adolf Hitler, who had previously been appointed Reichskanzler (Chancellor) by Hindenburg on January 30, 1933, solidified his hold on power by merging the offices of Chancellor and President to form a new office called Führer und Reichskanzler (Leader and Reich Chancellor; see Gleichschaltung). After Hitler committed suicide on April 30, 1945, days before World War II formally ended in Germany, the office was briefly held by Karl Doenitz, who surrendered Germany to the Allies on May 5.

Office holders

Weimar Republic

1919-1925 Friedrich Ebert
1925-1934 Paul von Hindenburg

Nazi Era

1934-1945 Adolf Hitler
1945 Karl Doenitz

Federal Republic of Germany

1949 Karl Arnold (Acting)
1949-1959 Theodor Heuss
1959-1969 Heinrich Lübke
1969-1974 Gustav Heinemann
1974-1979 Walter Scheel
1979-1984 Karl Carstens
1984-1994 Richard von Weizsäcker
1994-1999 Roman Herzog
1999- Johannes Rau