German President Horst Köhler said Monday he was stepping down, following criticism of recent comments he made about the country's military mission in Afghanistan.
"I announce my resignation from the office of the federal presidency with immediate affect," Köhler said in Berlin.
He said the decision came after withering criticism of comments he made connecting Germany's military deployment in Afghanistan with the country's economic interests.
"This criticism had absolutely no justification," said the 67-year-old former head of the International Monetary Fund.
His remarks just over a week ago prompted a furious debate about Germany’s military engagement – and whether Köhler had damaged the image of the NATO mission in Afghanistan.
Köhler began by saying that Germany was in the country, alongside its allies, to ensure its security and that it was good and proper for these issues to be openly and robustly discussed.
He then added: “But my estimation is that, on the whole, we are on the way to understanding, even broadly in society, that a country of our size, with this orientation toward foreign trade and therefore also dependence on foreign trade, has to be aware that when in doubt in case of an emergency, military deployment is also necessary to protect our interests.
For example, free trade routes, for example to prevent instability in a whole region, which certainly have an negative impact on our opportunities via trade, jobs and income. All of that ought to be discussed and I believe that we are not doing too badly.”
The remarks appear to be a major departure from the political orthodoxy on the Afghanistan mission, which says the Bundeswehr is there to protect Germany from terrorist groups who would use the country as a base were it to descend into lawlessness or Islamist theocracy.
This... is surprising. Note that the German President is largely a ceremonial figure, while the government is led by the Chancellor. The President has to sign laws, but should not be involved in party politics. A bit like an elected King/Queen, perhaps.
What he said was problematic and extremely badly put, so he should not have been surprised to be criticised.
ETA: I just looked it up, and the only time a President resigned before the end of a term was in 1969, when Heinrich Lübke resigned shortly before his term ended because of health issues and criticisms over possible involvement in Nazi crimes.
But this is a really different thing, because Köhler had still four years of his term left. Currently, the news is full of surprised people, and no one really knows what will happen with the office. Funnily, the commentators are not even sure toward whom he should have declared his resignation. There is no precedent for this.
The office will be filled for now by Jens Böhrnsen, who is the mayor of Bremen - he is the head of the Bundesrat, the upper house of parliament (Bremen is a state).
ETA: Any Germans watching ARD? The expert just said "Wahlmännerinnen... ähh, Wahlfrauen" (Sorry, non-German-readers, while this is hilarious, it is untranslatable.)