Roman Herzog, Germany’s President in 1990s, Is Dead at 82

Roman Herzog, former president of Germany, in 2015. Credit Markus Schreiber/Associated Press

Roman Herzog, who as Germany’s second president after reunification called for “confidence and joie de vivre” during a time of economic malaise, died on Tuesday. He was 82.

The death was announced by the current president, Joachim Gauck, who did not provide further details.

“His forward-looking courage was combined with a charming skepticism,” Mr. Gauck said. “This combination was as unmistakable as his independent spirit and his love of direct speech.”

Like his predecessor, Richard von Weizsäcker, Mr. Herzog used the presidency, which is largely a ceremonial post, to serve as a moral guardian for liberal and democratic values. He spoke often about Germany’s moral responsibility for the crimes of its past.

But at home, Mr. Herzog was best known for a 1997 speech in Berlin in which he spoke with striking candor about the structural reasons for economic malaise.

“In Germany, anyone who shows initiative or — above all — wants to do things differently is in danger of drowning in a morass of well-intentioned regulations,” he said, adding that “the German mania for red tape” meant it was much more expensive to build a single-family home in Germany than in the neighboring Netherlands, even though wage levels were comparable.

“A society plagued by fear becomes incapable of reform and can no longer shape its future,” he said. “Fear stifles the spirit of invention, the courage to go it alone, the hope that problems can be overcome. The German word angst has actually entered the vocabulary of the Americans and the French as symbolic of our mind-set.”

He declared, “What will decide our fate is our ability to innovate.” He criticized “special interests” that he blamed for hobbling overhauls. And he faulted elites, a message that might resonate today as Western democracies confront a wave of populist anger.

“Our political, business, media and social leaders may recognize what is right,” Mr. Herzog said. “But I do not have the sense that they are able or willing to put their insights into practice.”

He called for overhauls of the labor market, the taxation system, health insurance and the management of public works; reductions in regulations; and reducing unemployment among low-wage workers.

“The world is on the move; it will not wait for Germany,” he said. “Germany needs a jolt.”

Noting the country’s many strengths — its well-educated populace, its infrastructure and capital, and “an almost unparalleled degree of social security, freedom and justice” — Mr. Herzog called for a Germany “that is making a comeback, one full of confidence and joie de vivre, a society of tolerance and personal commitment.”

The remarks — now seen by many in Germany as prescient — gave a short-term lift to Chancellor Helmut Kohl, a fellow Christian Democrat, who nominated Mr. Herzog in 1994 for the job of president. But ultimately it was Mr. Kohl’s successor, Gerhard Schröder, who pushed through some of the most unpopular measures: cuts in unemployment and pension benefits, combined with labor market overhauls and reductions in the income tax rate.

The changes have been credited with a boom that has transformed Germany, which during Mr. Herzog’s presidency was often called the “sick man of Europe,” into one of the most robust economies of the developed world.

Roman Herzog was born in Landshut, Bavaria, on April 5, 1934, the son of an archivist. He studied law at Ludwig Maximilian University from 1953 to 1957 and later taught law and politics at the University of Munich, the Free University of Berlin and the University of Administrative Sciences, in Speyer. He joined the Christian Democratic Union in 1970. He served as its chairman from 1978 to 1983.

From 1973 to 1978, he represented the state of Rhineland-Palatinate in Bonn, the West German capital, and from 1978 to 1980 he was minister of culture and sports in the state of Baden-Württemberg. From 1980 to 1983 he was a member of the Baden-Württemberg Legislature. As the state’s interior minister, he developed a hard-line reputation by introducing the use of rubber bullets and forcing arrested demonstrators to pay police costs as a condition of their release.

As the chief justice of the Federal Constitutional Court in Karlsruhe, from 1983 to 1987, Mr. Herzog upheld the right of protesters who had converged on a nuclear power plant in Brokdorf, in northern Germany.

He was not especially well known when Mr. Kohl nominated him to succeed Mr. von Weizsäcker, who had been president of West Germany since 1984 and served on after reunification in 1990. Mr. Kohl’s original choice, Steffen Heitmann, pulled out after he was criticized for making impolitic comments about foreigners, the role of women in the work force and Germany’s past.

At a number of historic anniversaries, Mr. Herzog recalled Germany’s painful past.

At a ceremony remembering the 50th anniversary of the 1944 Warsaw Uprising, he laid a wreath and said: “I ask for forgiveness for what Germans did to you. What we need is trust and understanding, and that can only grow when our peoples put the dark aspects of their recent history completely into the open.”

The next year, Mr. Herzog attended a ceremony commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Allied firebombing of Dresden, which killed thousands of people and nearly leveled a city once renowned for its beauty. His decision to attend was controversial, but he told an interviewer, “For me, Dresden is an occasion to radically reject war.”

Among the other painful episodes that Mr. Herzog publicly addressed were the massacre of the Herero tribe of modern-day Namibia by German soldiers in the first decade of the 20th century, an episode that Germans have recently begun to acknowledge as a genocide; the 1937 aerial bombardment of the Basque town of Guernica, during the Spanish Civil War; and Kristallnacht, the pogrom against German Jews on Nov. 9 and 10, 1938. He decried far-right violence, including an arson attack on a home for asylum-seekers and the destruction of the gravestone of a German Jewish leader.

Mr. Herzog stepped down from the presidency in 1999 and was succeeded by Johannes Rau, a moderate Social Democrat. In 2002, Mr. Herzog helped found the Roman Herzog Institute, which works to improve public policy.

A Protestant and long active in the Evangelical Church of Germany, Mr. Herzog took part in biotechnology debates, defending embryonic stem-cell research and lamenting that a lack of domestic support for the biotechnology industry had caused a brain drain from Germany.

Mr. Herzog’s first wife, Christiane Herzog, died in 2000. He is survived by his second wife, the former Alexandra Freifrau von Berlichingen; two sons; and several grandchildren.

Source: NYTimes