Horst Köhler, (pronounced [ˈhɔɐ̯st ˈkøːlɐ] ( listen); born 22 February 1943) is a German politician of the Christian Democratic Union; he was President of Germany from 2004 to 2010. As the candidate of the two Christian Democratic sister parties, the CDU and the CSU, and the liberal FDP, Köhler was elected to his first five-year term by the Federal Assembly on 23 May 2004 and was subsequently inaugurated on 1 July 2004. He was reelected to a second term on 23 May 2009. Just a year later, on 31 May 2010, he resigned from his office in a controversy over his comment on the role of the German Bundeswehr in light of a visit to the troops in Afghanistan.
Köhler is an economist by profession. Prior to his election as President, Köhler had a distinguished career in politics and the civil service and as a banking executive. He was President of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development from 1998 to 2000 and head of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) from 2000 to 2004.
Although the office of President is less influential than that of the Chancellor and is mostly concerned with ceremonial matters, Köhler became Germany's most popular politician during his tenure, with record-high approval ratings. He has called for more influence for the President and has suggested the President should be directly elected again, as was the case under the Weimar Constitution.
Köhler was born in Skierbieszów (then named Heidenstein), in the General Government area of German-occupied Poland, as the seventh child of Elisabeth and Eduard Köhler, into a family of Bessarabian Germans from Rîşcani in Romanian Bessarabia (near Bălţi, present-day Moldova). George Rischkan, the largest estate owner in northern Bessarabia, had founded this German village in 1860/65. Horst Köhler's parents, ethnic Germans and Romanian citizens, had to leave their home in Bessarabia in 1940 during the Nazi-Soviet population transfers that followed the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, which awarded Bessarabia to the Soviet Union. As part of the Generalplan Ost, they were resettled in 1942 at Skierbieszów, a village near Zamość, Poland (then part of the General Government). As the Wehrmacht was pushed back and the first parts of Poland had to be abandoned in 1944, the Köhler family fled to Leipzig. In 1953, they left the Soviet Zone – via West Berlin – to escape from the communist regime. The family lived in refugee camps until 1957, when they settled in Ludwigsburg. Horst Köhler hence spent most of his first 14 years as a refugee.
Studies and military service
A teacher recommended that the refugee boy should apply for the Gymnasium, and Köhler took his Abitur in 1963. After a two-year military service at a Panzergrenadier battalion in Ellwangen, he left the Bundeswehr as "Leutnant der Reserve" (reserve officer). He studied and finally earned a doctorate in economics and political sciences from Eberhard Karls University of Tübingen, where he was a scientific research assistant at the Institute for Applied Economic Research from 1969 to 1976.
Career in the civil service
Köhler joined the civil service in 1976, when he was employed in the Federal Ministry of Economics. In 1981, he was employed in the Chancellory of the state government in Schleswig-Holstein under Prime Minister Gerhard Stoltenberg. The following year, Köhler was made head of the Ministers office in the Federal Ministry of Finance, upon Stoltenberg's recommendation. He rose to head of department in 1987, with responsibility for financial policy and federal industrial interests. In 1989 he became head of the department for currency and credit.
Secretary of State in the Ministry of Finance
A member of the CDU since 1981, he was Secretary of State in the Federal Ministry of Finance from 1990 to 1993, and as such, the administrative head of the Ministry and the deputy of the Federal Minister of Finance (Theodor Waigel). In that capacity, he served as a "sherpa" (personal representative) for Chancellor Helmut Kohl, preparing G7 summits and other international economic conferences. He also served as the primary German negotiator in the Maastricht Treaty negotiations.
Career in banking 1993–2000
Between 1993 and 1998 he served as President of the association of savings banks in Germany, Deutscher Sparkassen- und Giroverband. In 1998 he was appointed president of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, and settled in London, where the headquarters of the bank is located.
Head of the International Monetary Fund
Köhler as head of the IMF, discussing debt relief for developing countries with the musician Bono
Köhler was appointed Managing Director and Chairman of the Executive Board of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in 2000. The government of Gerhard Schröder nominated him after their first nominee, Caio Koch-Weser, was rejected by the United States.
He lived in Washington, D.C., from 2000 to 2004.
President of Germany
Horst Köhler and Vaclav Havel, 2000
On 4 March 2004, Köhler resigned his post with the IMF after being nominated by Germany's conservative and liberal opposition parties as their presidential candidate. As these parties controlled a majority of votes in the Bundesversammlung (an electoral college consisting of the membership of the Bundestag and an equal number of delegates from the legislatures of each state), the result of the vote amounted to essentially a foregone conclusion, but was closer than expected. Köhler defeated Gesine Schwan on the first ballot by 604 votes to 580; 20 votes were cast for minor candidates, while one elector was absent because of a heart attack. Köhler succeeded Johannes Rau as President on 1 July 2004, for a five-year term. Germany's presidency is a largely ceremonial office, but is also invested with considerable moral authority. From 2004 until early 2006, Charlottenburg Palace was the seat of the President of Germany, whilst Schloss Bellevue was being renovated.
Upon his election, Köhler, a conservative German patriot, said that "Patriotism and being cosmopolitan are not opposites". "He appeared an enlightened patriot who genuinely loves his country and is not afraid to say so", the newspaper Die Welt wrote. Presenting his visions for Germany, Köhler also said that "Germany should become a land of ideas", and emphasized the importance of globalization, and that Germany would have to compete for its place in the 21st century.
In July 2005, he suspended the Bundestag at Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's request, after the latter had lost a motion of confidence in the Bundestag. This led to early election for the Bundestag in September 2005.
Horst Köhler in Brackenheim after unveiling a bronze statue of Theodor Heuss
In October 2006, he made a far-reaching decision by vetoing the bill which would transfer Germany's Air Safety Administration Deutsche Flugsicherung into private ownership. The Bundestag passed this legislation but as President, Köhler was authorized to not sign it into law if, in his opinion, it contravenes the constitution. In December 2006 he did not sign the Consumer Information Law (which intended to make information collected by public food safety agencies available to consumers), because the constitution does not allow the federal government to instruct municipal authorities. This can only be done by the German states. There had only been six previous occasions when Germany's president had chosen to reject bills, in most instances less important legislation was involved. His vetoes were the first notable examples in recent German history.
In his 2007 Christmas address to the nation, Köhler urged the government to push ahead more quickly with reforms. He was also critical of the introduction of the minimum wage in the postal sector (which had led to the loss of 1000 jobs at Deutsche Post rival PIN Group), stating that "a minimum wage that can not be paid by competitive employers destroys jobs".
On 22 May 2008, Köhler announced his candidacy for a second term as president. On 23 May 2009 he was re-elected by the Federal Assembly, and was sworn into office for a second term on 1 July 2009.
In November 2009, Köhler refused to sign the "Zugangserschwerungsgesetz" (Access Impediment Act) into law without further information. The law, which aims to make it more difficult to access sites on the World Wide Web with child pornography, is considered by many legal experts to be unconstitutional.
On 31 May 2010, Köhler announced his resignation as President of Germany. This came after German politicians criticised comments made by Köhler in relation to overseas military deployments:
"Meine Einschätzung ist aber, dass insgesamt wir auf dem Wege sind, doch auch in der Breite der Gesellschaft zu verstehen, dass ein Land unserer Größe mit dieser Außenhandelsorientierung und damit auch Außenhandelsabhängigkeit auch wissen muss, dass im Zweifel, im Notfall auch militärischer Einsatz notwendig ist, um unsere Interessen zu wahren, zum Beispiel freie Handelswege, zum Beispiel ganze regionale Instabilitäten zu verhindern, die mit Sicherheit dann auch auf unsere Chancen zurückschlagen negativ durch Handel, Arbeitsplätze und Einkommen. Alles das soll diskutiert werden und ich glaube, wir sind auf einem nicht so schlechten Weg."
"In my estimation, though, we—including [German] society as a whole—are coming to the general understanding that, given this [strong] focus and corresponding dependency on exports, a country of our size needs to be aware that where called for or in an emergency, military deployment, too, is necessary if we are to protect our interests such as ensuring free trade routes or preventing regional instabilities which are also certain to negatively impact our ability to safeguard trade, jobs and income. All of this should be discussed and I think the path we are on is not so bad."
– Horst Köhler, Interview with Deutschlandradio, 22 May 2010
After coming in for criticism, he stated at a later time that in the interview he was referring to piracy off the coast of Ethiopia. In his assessment of the national discourse and mood about military deployment this nuance was frequently left out in news reporting. Köhler stated that there was no substance to accusations that in the interview he had overstepped his formal role by favoring an unconstitutional position. After no measurable support from his allies was forthcoming in the dispute, he drew his own consequences from the controversy and on 31 May 2010 stepped down, issuing a statement saying, "I declare my resignation from the Office of President, with immediate effect."The resignation was considered a "surprise",and both pundits and opposition politicians labelled it "an overreaction".
As stipulated by the Grundgesetz, the powers of the vacant office are now executed by the President of the Bundesrat, currently Jens Böhrnsen, until a new president is elected on 30 June 2010.
Horst Köhler is married to Eva Köhler, who teaches German. They have two children, a daughter Ulrike (born in 1972) and a son Jochen (born in 1977).His daughter, who suffers from retinitis pigmentosa, became blind as a teenager. Horst Köhler is a member of the Evangelical Church in Germany.