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How Germany’s electoral college was set up to prevent another Hitler

A crowd gives the Nazi salute as Adolf Hitler watches the United States team at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. (International News Photos)

When the U.S. electoral college meets Monday, many of its members will have experienced weeks of rising pressure to select someone other than Donald Trump as president. The role of the electors has been the focus of controversies for years, with some arguing that they are unnecessary and that the difference between the public vote and the composition of the electoral college is too big.

Other countries have had similar discussions. The most prominent example might be Germany, where an electoral college was introduced after World War II. The declared aim behind that decision: to prevent the rise of another Adolf Hitler.

Almost 70 percent of Germans would prefer to elect the president directly, according to surveys. The system's critics argue that the indirect election of the German president is undemocratic, but supporters point to the procedure's origins.

The electoral college is poised to pick Trump, despite push to dump him

German post-war politicians were horrified by the possibility of another fascist populist gaining widespread support among the public. So they decided to make the election of the German president a decision of a Federal Assembly, which meets only for that purpose. It consists of members of parliament and other electors who are nominated by their respective parties.

In total, more than 1,200 members are in Germany's electoral college. About half of them are nominated by their parties in a particular region of the country, based on the number of residents there.

The comparison between the United States and Germany is imperfect, of course: The German president's powers were largely curtailed following World War II. Today, German presidents mainly fulfill ceremonial tasks, although they can refuse to sign certain bills or are responsible for nominating the chancellor. Compared with U.S. presidents, their role is insignificant.

Before World War II, during the Weimar Republic, the German president was allowed to issue emergency bills and to mostly ignore parliament. In 1933, President Paul von Hindenburg used that leeway and made Hitler the chancellor of the republic — a decision that ultimately empowered Hitler to proceed with the dissolution of democratic institutions as well as government checks and balances.

It was Germany's first post-war president, liberal politician Theodor Heuss, who was the strongest advocate for indirect election and curbing presidential powers.

But as in the United States, pressure to adapt the electoral college has been on the rise in Germany. The country's recently emerged far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) party is demanding to reverse many of the changes that were designed to make German democracy more robust. Among the AfD's demands are to abolish the electoral college and to allow Germans to vote for their president directly.

For Germany's mainstream political parties, the current system is more predictable because it allows them to build coalitions and to agree on a president who represents the majority of people.

But as in the United States, this system has not come without surprises. One Republican elector in the United States has said he will not select Trump; Germany's Federal Assembly has witnessed similar moments. German electors also are not forced to vote for the preferred candidate of the party that nominated them.

In 2004, Bavaria's Christian Social Union asked Princess Gloria von Thurn und Taxis to elect Horst Köhler to become president. Von Thurn und Taxis, a prominent German business executive, decided to vote for another candidate.

Köhler became president regardless. Since then, however, the Christian Social Union has refrained from making VIPs members of the Federal Assembly — and has instead relied on more loyal supporters.

Read more: 

What Germans really think about those Hitler-Trump comparisons