14th May 2021

German president resigns after millitary comments

Germany's discomfort with deploying its troops abroad was once more on display on Monday (31 May) after the country's president resigned following strong criticism for comments he made linking military intervention with defence of economic interests.

Becoming the first German federal president to resign from the largely ceremonial post, Horst Koehler in a televised press conference said he was resigning with immediate effect.

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  • The role of the German military is still a contentious matter (Photo: Guido Bergmann, Presse- und Informationsamt der Bundesregierung (BPA))

"It was an honor for me to serve Germany as president," he said. "I thank the many people in Germany who have put their trust in me and supported my work. I ask for you to understand my decision."

The move followed an interview he gave to Deutschland Radio Kultur on 22 May in which he underlined the importance of national debate on Germany's military presence in Afghanistan after visiting the war-torn country where Germany has 4,500 troops as part of a Nato-led force

He said that he believed Germany is on the way to understanding that a "country of (its) size with such foreign trade orientation and foreign trade dependency also must know, when it comes down to it, in an emergency, that military intervention is necessary to defend, for example free trade routes, or prevent whole regional instabilities which would certainly have negative effects on (Germany's) trade, jobs and income."

Later in the interview he said that it is important to "look at the reality" of life today noting that "nobody can exclude" that there will be more deaths of German soldiers at some point.

He also said it was "completely normal" for German soldiers deployed in the conflict-ridden country to refer the mission as a 'war.' German politicians do not use the word war and soldiers are officially on a mission of "networked security" - helping reconstruction with military means.

However, his comments provoked a strong backlash of criticism in Germany, particularly from opposition politicians.

Thomas Oppermann, speaker of the opposition Social Democrats (SPD) parliamentary group, told Der Spiegel weekly that Mr Koehler was "damaging the acceptance of the Bundeswehr's foreign missions."

Others said he went beyond the limits of his post.

"That is a thinly veiled expansion, through the constitution, of the acceptable grounds for a Bundeswehr mission for economic interests," Constitutional lawyer Ulrich Preuß of Berlin's Hertie School of Governance told the news magazine.

Mr Koehler later tried to clarify that he had not being talking about the troops in northern Afghanistan where Germany has no economic interests but rather about protecting ships from Somali pirates in the Indian Ocean.

The decision to take part in the Nato-led force in Afghanistan was hugely difficult for Germany, mindful of its own history.

And it has already prompted the resignation of one politician - former defence minister Franz Josef Jung - who stepped down after bungling the handling of a controversial airstrike in Afghanistan in September in which many Afghan civilians were killed.

More generally the Afghanistan conflict is a political problem for EU governments, which are seen as not as committed to the cause as the US, which regularly asks for more European help.

Germany, which has the third biggest contingent behind the US and the UK, has its troops mainly stationed in the less risky northern part of the country. Fighting is heaviest in the south.

Earlier this year, internal political disputes over further contributions to the Afghan mission prompted the fall of the Dutch government.

An earlier version of this article said Mr Koehler was 'forced to resign'. It has since been altered to say he resigned.

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