On May 23, 1949, the Federal Republic of Germany was founded – otherwise known as West Germany. A fledgling democracy, the new country was headed by a chancellor. This in itself wasn’t exactly new. Otto von Bismarck adopted the title Bundeskanzler (Federal Chancellor) after establishing the North German Confederation in 1867. In 1871, after significantly expanding the federation into an empire, the title was changed to Reichskanzler (Imperial Chancellor), which was also used later by Adolf Hitler. The title was changed back to Bundeskanzler in 1949, and remains in use today. Here’s a list of four former German chancellors you need to know – and some basic information about the German political system along the way.
- What does the German chancellor do?
- Four influential German chancellors
- The next German chancellor
What does the German chancellor do?
The German chancellor’s tasks are two-fold: they head the government of the Federal Republic of Germany and also act as the commander in chief of the German Armed Forces in times of war. During peacetime, this role is taken over by the Federal Minister of Defense.
Although the chancellor holds the most powerful and influential position, particularly in the eyes of the people, it’s important to note that it’s only the third-highest position in government. The two highest positions in order of precedence are the President of Germany and the President of the Bundestag. The President of Germany acts as head of state and holds a higher rank than the chancellor at official events. And then there’s the President of the Bundestag, whose position is similar to that of the speaker of the house (in the US) or speaker of the federal parliament.
For German chancellor elections, people vote for the party they would like to see in power rather than a specific candidate as they do in the US. In turn, the winning party takes the majority in the Bundestag and elects the chancellor officially proposed by the president. In close races, the majority party often enters into a coalition agreement with other parties, as is the case with Germany’s current “traffic light coalition,” which is made up of the “red” SPD (Social Democrats), “yellow” FDP (Free Democratic Party) and “green” Bündnis 90s/Die Grünen (the Green party).
One last important point to mention is term limits, or rather the lack thereof. While the US has limited each elected president to two terms since 1951, a German chancellor can remain in power for decades. That is, as long as their party is reelected and the Bundestag chooses to keep them in place.
Four influential German chancellors
To date, (West) Germany has had nine chancellors who served as little as three years to as much as 16. As is always the case, a few of these nine left a more lasting impression than others – sometimes because they happened to be in charge during turbulent times in history.
Here is a list of four German chancellors who particularly made their mark on the country.
The first chancellor of West Germany, Konrad Adenauer served in this position from 1949 to 1963. A founding member of the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU), Adenauer was known to be a fierce political animal who was staunchly anti-communist and in favor of creating a market-based liberal democracy.
Shrewd and uncompromising in his vision, Konrad Adenauer battled on until the end – literally. Nicknamed Der Alte (the old one), Adenauer remained chancellor until he resigned at 87, but he continued to head the CDU until he was 90, making him one of the oldest statesmen to hold elected office in history. Four years later, in 1967, Konrad Adenauer passed away at home. According to his daughter, his final words, stated in the dialect of his native Cologne, were “Da jitt et nix zo kriesche!” (there’s nothing to cry about).
Although he served only a little over four and a half years, Willy Brandt most definitely left his mark. The first member of the Social Democrat Party (SPD) to serve as chancellor since 1930, Brandt was a true blue friend of the US. His support of the Vietnam War, among other policies, made him unpopular with the left-wing movements, while his liberal Ostpolitik (Eastern Policy) was controversial among conservatives.
In many ways, Willy Brandt’s past was as interesting and impressive as his days as chancellor. A left-wing journalist during the Nazi era, “Willy Brandt” was initially a pseudonym he took to throw Nazi agents off his trail after fleeing to Scandinavia – he officially changed his name in 1948. Mayor of Berlin from 1957 to 1966, Brandt led the city through times of increasing tension and hostility between the East and West, including the building of the Berlin Wall in 1961.
Famous for his foreign policy, Brandt was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1971 for his efforts to strengthen cooperation in Western Europe as well as create bridges between West Germany and Eastern Europe. As chancellor, Brandt also implemented a wide range of domestic reforms in education, health care and workers rights, among others. Although he resigned in 1974, when the truth came out that one of his closest aides was a Stasi agent (East German Secret Service), he still remained active in politics. He served in the Bundestag as well as the European Parliament after stepping down as chancellor.
Helmut Kohl is another German chancellor on the list who looms large, both literally and figuratively. At six-foot-three, he was the second tallest chancellor after Otto von Bismarck. At 16 years and 26 days, Kohl currently holds the record for the longest consecutive chancellor terms in the Federal Republic.
A member of the conservative CDU party since the age of 16, Kohl went into politics after receiving a PhD in history and working briefly as a business executive. His political career took off from the start and he served as minister president of Rhineland-Palatinate from 1969 to 1976. Once appointed chancellor, he focused heavily on European integration and was an avid supporter and ally of the United States and then-president, Ronald Regan.
When the Berlin Wall fell, and with it the collapse of the East German communist regime, Kohl fought hard for German reunification. He met with then-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to receive assurances that he would not interfere. In May 1990, he signed a social and economic union treaty with East Germany. At midnight on October 3, 1990, East Germany officially ceased to exist and a reunified Federal Republic of Germany was reborn.
On a somewhat lighter note, Kohl was a big fan of a Palatinate specialty called Saumagen (stuffed pig’s stomach). And he made sure his distinguished guests and world leaders got to sample this, some may say, questionable delicacy.
This list of influential German chancellors would not be complete without the country’s only Kanzlerin (female chancellor) up to now: Angela Merkel.
Although born in Hamburg, West Germany, Merkel’s father took a position as pastor in East Germany when she was still a baby. Merkel excelled at school, where she received awards for her skills in Russian and mathematics. She went on to receive her PhD in quantum chemistry in 1986 and worked as a scientific researcher until 1989.
After the reunification in 1990, she joined the CDU and was voted into the Bundestag that same year. By the end of the decade, she became the party’s first female leader. When she became chancellor in 2005, the race was so close both she and her opponent, then-SPD chancellor Gerhard Schröder, initially declared victory. The “queen” of coalitions, Merkel’s first cabinet was a grand coalition between the CDU and SPD, which occurred three more times while she remained chancellor. Before stepping down in 2021, Merkel was chancellor for 16 years and 16 days, just ten days behind the record held by her mentor, Helmut Kohl.
Considered by many to be the de facto leader of the European Union while chancellor, Merkel weathered many crises, including the 2015 European migrant crisis, the Eurozone crisis and the Covid-19 pandemic.
The next German chancellor
Now that “generation Merkel” has come to an end, there is a new German chancellor in town: Olaf Scholz of the SPD. Will he someday be among the most memorable and influential of Germany’s leaders? It’s still too early to say. However, since taking office, he has already seen some crises of his own, such as the enduring Covid pandemic and the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Rebecca Dean is a freelance writer originally from California who specializes in writing about travel, education, culture and language learning. A long-time Wahlberlinerin (Berliner-by-choice), Rebecca became a dual US/German citizen in 2019. In her free time, she writes fiction, makes jewelry, sings and hangs out with family and friends. You can find Rebecca professionally on LinkedIn and personally on Instagram.