Frank-Walter Steinmeier has shown that he wants to act as a bridge-builder and mediator, as someone who seeks dialogue in times of crisis. Who exactly is Germany’s newly reelected president?
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, President Frank-Walter Steinmeier invited people from all walks of life and across political divisions for talks. In early 2022, the topics for such discussions were the pros and cons of compulsory vaccination.
In his opening statements, Frank-Walter Steinmeier said: “As federal president, I will not take a position for or against a general vaccination obligation.”
This was seen as typical for him: Once again he had failed to make a bold statement that the republic could argue about. Instead, Steinmeier moderated the round in a routine manner, not wanting to cause a stir, not wanting to provoke. It was representative of his first term in office. Watch video 08:16
German president calls for solidarity during pandemic
Stepping into the limelight
Frank-Walter Steinmeier experienced the high point of his political career at the beginning of 2017. In February, he was elected to the office of president for the first time after one round of voting. He smiled his trademark broad, mischievous Steinmeier smile, and was visibly pleased. Then, he outlined what would be his main areas of focus in office: to prevent Germany forgetting its history, and to fight modern right-wing populism.
Without explicitly mentioning the far-right populist Alternative for Germany (AfD), which had just seen resounding success in elections on all levels, Steinmeier said in his inaugural speech: “We must not only talk about democracy, we must learn to fight for it!”
His first test in the new post came a few months later. Angela Merkel’s center-right Christian Democrats emerged victorious from a general election in the fall of 2017. They sought to form a coalition with the neoliberal Free Democrats (FDP) and the environmentalist Greens, but party leaders were unable to hammer out a deal. Fresh elections seemed the only option. At the time, Steinmeier’s party, the SPD, was determined not to enter into another “grand coalition” with the conservatives, as they had identified that previous alliance as the reason for their own poor performance in the election.
Steinmeier appealed to his own partyto consider joining the conservatives to form a functioning government — and proved successful. In March 2018, the new Merkel government took shape with the participation of the SPD. In the history of post-war Germany, such an intervention by a president was unique. Watch video 03:00
Remembering the deportation of Berlin’s Jews 80 years ago
A president from a humble background
Fittingly for his party —the SPD, which was founded to represent the working class— Steinmeier himself is the son of a carpenter and a factory worker from the small town of Detmold in western Germany. He graduated from high school, studied law and later earned a doctorate. In 1975, Steinmeier joined the SPD. At university, he met his future wife, Elke Büdenbender, also a lawyer. They have one daughter.
Steinmeier won the sympathy of the German public with a very private decision: In 2010, he donated a kidney to his wife. Steinmeier said at the time that it was not “a heroic act”.
Unobtrusive, discreet, loyal, selfless — that’s how friends and coworkers described Frank-Walter Steinmeier.
Supporter and friend: Gerhard Schröder
Frank-Walter Steinmeier’s political talents were discovered early on by future ChancellorGerhard Schröder (SPD), who appointed Steinmeier to head the state chancellery when the latter was still premier of Lower Saxony. When the SPD won power in 1998 with Schröder at the helm, Steinmeier moved to the center of power in Berlin, first as state secretary and later as head of the chancellery. He took over the foreign ministry for the first time in the first grand coalition under Chancellor Merkel in 2005.
In the 2009 federal election, he ran against Angela Merkel as candidate for chancellor — and failed miserably. The SPD achieved only 23%, their worst polling since the end of the war. “The result is a bitter day for German social democracy,” Steinmeier admitted at the time.
- Germany’s postwar presidents Frank-Walter Steinmeier (2017-current) Frank-Walter Steinmeier, a former foreign minister and chancellor candidate for the Social Democrats (SPD), was supported in his first election by the grand coalition of his party and Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU).
At age 66, Steinmeier is entering his second term in office. Tirelessly, he has traveled the country and represented it abroad almost a hundred times.
He enjoys a wide range of support. In a poll conducted in mid-January, 86% said that he “does his job well.” 81% said he should remain in office. His composure is his strength. Steinmeier’s skills as a mediator and moderator are now well-honed, and he will now have another five years in office to put them to use.