Address by the President of the German Bundestag, Professor Norbert Lammert, at the opening of the 16th Federal Convention in the Reichstag Building, Berlin, on 12 February 2017


Federal President, Your Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen, I warmly welcome all of you, Members and guests, to the Reichstag Building here in Berlin, the seat of the Bundestag, for the 16th Federal Convention. I am also delighted that our former Federal President Christian Wulff and Heinz Fischer, President of the Republic of Austria for many years, are with us today. We warmly welcome you.

Ladies and gentlemen, the twelfth of February has never been a key date in the history of democracy in our country, but neither is it just a random date. Exactly 150 years ago today, on 12 February 1867, a Reichstag was elected under an electoral system that was in every way revolutionary in Germany north of the River Main in those days, namely universal, equal and direct suffrage. The polling to elect the constituent Reichstag of the North German Confederation was based on the groundwork executed by the German National Assembly in St Paul’s Church in Frankfurt. When that assembly was elected in 1848, the right to vote in the individual states was still linked to a person’s occupational independence. Labourers and messengers, like the poor, were therefore largely excluded from the franchise. The decision taken by Otto von Bismarck, of all people, in favour of universal suffrage – universal manhood suffrage, admittedly, and I am not making any recommendation here but merely drawing attention to historical developments – was driven by purely tactical considerations, as Bismarck later acknowledged. Publicly, however, he announced in 1867 that he knew of “no better electoral law” and hailed this universal suffrage as a “legacy of the development of the German quest for unity”. He was unwittingly more accurate in his assessment that universal suffrage was an inalienable legacy of the German quest for unity than in his personal expectation that the people themselves would one day become perceptive enough to rid themselves of universal suffrage. That, happily, has never come to pass.

Down to the present day, we – and of course women are now included – apply this principle when electing our representatives to city and municipal councils, to the parliaments of our Länder and to the Bundestag. And because our democracy is constituted on a representative basis, for reasons that remain convincing today, the mothers and fathers of the Basic Law, in a shrewdly balanced interplay between organs of the Constitution, quite deliberately entrusted the election of the Federal President to the Federal Convention, a body in which you, Ladies and gentlemen, are called upon to represent the whole of society.

This 16th Federal Convention, with 1,260 members, is the third-largest since the founding of the Republic; the only two larger assemblies took place in the 1990s following unification and the subsequent increase in the size of the Bundestag, which, for good reason, was trimmed back to 598 Members with effect from the 15th legislative term, beginning in 2002. I hope that the next Federal Convention can be held in the Reichstag Building again, which should at least be possible if the legislature amends the current electoral law in such a way as to ensure that the number of seats in the Bundestag and the total number of electors in the Federal Convention, amounting to twice that figure, cannot fluctuate on a limitless and unforeseeable scale.

Ladies and gentlemen, the very composition of the Federal Convention is indicative of the paramount importance of the election of the Head of State, for it meets for this one and only purpose, and we who are here today shall not assemble in this configuration on any other occasion. It is far from an everyday occurrence for the Bundestag and the representatives of the Länder to gather for a Federal Convention, and the expectations placed on a Federal President are equally out of the ordinary. Not infrequently, these expectations are unduly high. Richard von Weizsäcker, one of the former Presidents, along with Walter Scheel and Roman Herzog, to whom we have had to say our last farewells over the past two years, made the following observation in his inauguration speech as President of the Federal Republic in 1984:

Our Constitution speaks extensively of our rights as citizens. Duties, by contrast, are scarcely mentioned. The situation is reversed when the Basic Law comes to deal with the office of the Federal President …

In 2014, the occasion arose for the Federal Constitutional Court to spell out these rights and duties. According to its ruling, the Federal President, in his official function, must “act with a view to the integration of the community”. He may generally decide autonomously how to exercise that function, the Court stated; to borrow from Richard von Weizsäcker’s concisely formulated understanding of his office, he should be “non-partisan but not neutral and not opinionless”.

Today in this Federal Convention we are deciding on the new holder of this office, which, in the view of the guardians of the Basic Law, embodies the unity of the state and which, to quote the members of the Federal Constitutional Court, is “designed to have primarily an intellectual and moral impact”. You, President Gauck, have managed to do that convincingly over the past five years.

(Sustained applause; the overwhelming majority of the members of the Federal Convention rise to their feet)

- In the next two sentences, I would like to give some indication of what you have very visibly achieved.

Federal President, the solidarity of the people of this country has been very close to your heart, and so time and again you have emphatically urged society not to let itself be intimidated or divided, not even at a time of terrorist threats. You yourself have made a significant contribution to democratic cohesion by resolutely stressing the right and the need to engage in political debate, even in heated disputes, but insisting at the same time on respect for political adversaries and a sense of proportion. In the remaining days of your term of office, Federal President, there will be several more opportunities to honour your great service to our country, but on behalf of the Federal Convention, I should like to express to you in due form our thanks and our esteem.

Ladies and gentlemen, it has become more difficult to articulate the basic democratic consensus in a society containing more and more individual interests and in a public domain where the divisive is emphasised at the expense of the unifying and the particular at the expense of the general. That does not make the task of the Federal President any easier, to be sure, but it does make his importance in the constitutional structure all the greater, particularly at a moment that is already being dramatised by some observers as an ominous historical watershed.

Be that as it may, the future is by no means any clearer now than in the past. It has always been uncertain and has required regulatory configuration, all the more so in the 25 years that have passed since the restoration of the political unity of Germany, which we consider, in retrospect, to have been a period of particular challenges and of particular hopes and opportunities. At the present time, the future appears more unpredictable if anything, because supposedly self-evident truths, gradual revelations and mature convictions as well as rules that have applied for decades are being challenged or even wilfully cast aside.

Ladies and gentlemen, a hundred years ago, towards the end of the First World War, the entry of the United States into the war on the side of the liberal democracies in Europe marked the creation of what we call today, as a matter of course, ‘the West’, a global community of shared values. If we go along with historian Heinrich August Winkler, the history of this normative process, to which our country finally subscribed with the founding of the Federal Republic after having gone horribly astray, has always been a history of offences against the West’s own values as well as a history of productive self-criticism and self-correction. Both of these – self-criticism and self-correction – are needed more than ever today within the Western community of nations and within our liberal societies. It is not the values of the West that are in doubt, for these have lost none of their validity, but rather our attitude to human rights, the separation of powers, the rule of law and the principles of representative democracy.

Whoever calls for isolation rather than openness, whoever literally walls himself in, opts for protectionism in place of free trade and preaches isolationism in preference to international cooperation, whoever proclaims a manifesto of ‘this country first’, should not be surprised if others do likewise, with all of the disastrous consequences for international relations that should be sufficiently familiar to us from the 20th century.

It would be good if we, too, took note of this.   

In the circumstances of globalisation, none of the truly great challenges can be met any longer by nation states acting alone – not in the financial world, not in dealing with the global migratory movements and not in the war on terror or the fight against climate change. That certainly applies to every country in Europe and even to our great partner nation across the Atlantic, in which a Head of State directly elected by the people also took over the reins of government only a few weeks ago. Any attempt to tackle these challenges alone will create at least as many new problems as it would allegedly resolve.

Only by sharing sovereignty shall we Europeans be able to preserve the largest possible vestige of that capability which nation states once successfully demonstrated and to which only our backward-looking contemporaries wrongly lay claim today, namely the ability to regulate their own affairs independently of anyone else. This is why we need the Union of European states.

And if neither the President of the Russian Federation nor the President of the United States evinces any interest in a strong Europe, that is an additional indicator of the need for us to take this interest in a strong Europe ourselves.

Ladies and gentlemen, in Germany more than anywhere else, democratic attitudes are rooted in knowledge of history and its dark hours, in responsible confrontation with our own past. Our Federal Presidents, beginning with Theodor Heuss, have made important contributions to that process as seismographs of society’s historical awareness and as motivating forces: Richard von Weizsäcker with his momentous speech on the eighth of May, Roman Herzog proclaiming 27 January as the Day of Remembrance for the Victims of National Socialism, Horst Köhler and Christian Wulff with their pointed reminders of the importance attaching to Africa and Islam as keys to the future prospects of the world and of Europe in particular and, most recently, you, President Gauck, with your warning not to use historical guilt, as you put it, “as a shield for laziness or a desire to disengage from the world”.

Coming to terms with our own past is never a comfortable undertaking, but it is a democratic virtue. “Only someone who is at peace with himself can be truly constructive. I believe the same applies to any state”. That was written to me after this year’s commemoration ceremony in the Bundestag on 27 January, the Day of Remembrance for the Victims of National Socialism, by a 24-year-old student, moved and “proud too”, as he wrote, to see that evidence of the will to address our history. Some saw it as a weakness, but he regarded it, he emphasised, as “the exact opposite – one of our greatest strengths”.

And indeed the amazing prestige that Germany enjoys in the world today owes much to our responsible approach to our own violent history. Those who would undermine that approach, for whatever reason, must know that they are endangering our country’s reputation and are opposed by the overwhelming majority of Germans.

Another aspect of the historical genesis of Germany, moreover, is its chequered but impressive history of freedom and democracy. Commemorating it appropriately and worthily is not only indispensable but is also an integral part of the mirror through which our nation sees itself. Accordingly, a monument to freedom and unity at one of the sites at the heart of our Republic still remains a necessary addition to our rich monumental landscape in Berlin. A decision to do this, incidentally, has long been inscribed in the records of the Bundestag, having been adopted on the highly symbolic date of the ninth of November, since when almost ten years have passed.

Ladies and gentlemen, I have one more remark about today’s date for those of you with an interest in history, to whom I gave particular pleasure at the last Federal Convention with my notes on the eighteenth of March and its significance as the date on which the Republic of Mainz was proclaimed, the date on which the 1848 uprisings began in Berlin and the date on which the GDR People’s Chamber was freely elected in 1990. The twelfth of February has repeatedly been a day of enthronement in German history, a date on which previous heads of state have taken office. In 881, exactly 1,135 years ago today – no one is left who remembers that day – Charles the Fat received the imperial crown in Rome and so came to rule over a great deal of the territory from which Germany would develop much later. Then, 861 years later, on 12 February 1742, Charles Albert of Bavaria, from the Wittelsbach dynasty, was enthroned as Holy Roman Emperor in a magnificent ceremony in Frankfurt – once again, Aachen was not the chosen location. As Charles VII, he not only interrupted the sequence of Habsburg emperors but was also the last Bavarian in the top post – until Roman Herzog came along and all was right with the world again.       

The fact that the crowning of Emperor Henry V in 1111, which had already begun, broke up in chaos following protests by the assembled bishops and rioting among the Roman population should not serve as a model for us today, and this Federal Convention will surely not follow that example.

A united, liberal and democratic Germany based on the rule of law did not exist at any of these periods in our chequered German history, nor do we today have an anointed monarch at the head of our reunited country. We have assembled to elect our Head of State for the next five years, a Head of State who will not rule by the grace of God but serve as the representative of the German people.

I have a few formal announcements to make regarding today’s proceedings. May I request the same attention and patience that you kindly accorded me during my welcoming address.