Plea for unity from a failed candidate: The east-west split is still an issue, Steffan Heitmann tells Steve Crawshaw

Sitting in Dresden in near-obscurity once more is the spectre at the feast - the man who became the symbol of Chancellor Helmut Kohl's determination to get his way, against all the odds, and whose defeat as presidential candidate provided Mr Kohl with one of the worst humiliations in his 12 years as German leader. Steffan Heitmann, Justice Minister of the east German state of Saxony, is the man who Mr Kohl, the man who never loses, would dearly love to forget.

In addition to the 'loser' tag, the embarrassment is twofold. On the one hand, Mr Heitmann's perceived 'go- soft' approach on the Nazi era damaged Mr Kohl, who continued to insist that Mr Heitmann was the best possible president. And, on the other hand, he represents a broken promise. Mr Kohl repeatedly insisted that the next German president should come from the east, to help the process of social healing. He has now abandoned that commitment, and does not wish to be reminded of it.

Mr Heitmann's comments, when he was in the presidential race, have left a legacy of uncertainty and bitterness. When Mr Heitmann talked, in a newspaper interview, of 'dealing with' or 'coming to terms with' the Nazi legacy, the result was national uproar. Many saw this as an attempt to shrug off the horrors of the past. His talk of allowing the 'normal citizen' to be heard was interpreted, too, as legitimising racist bar-room talk.

The soft-spoken and slightly nervous Mr Heitmann seemed to wander into controversies, almost unawares. As he himself now admits, 'maybe sometimes I expressed myself clumsily. I am not a professional politician. I came from outside, like all of us here (in the east).' And yet, he talks with repugnance of the far-right Republican Party, and of the 'stupid attempt not to face up to Nazi crimes, or to make them seem harmless'. In some respects, the blanket rejection of Mr Heitmann at the end of last year may reflectGermany's own insecurities and complexes, as much as any intrinsic unpleasantness of his views. Deeply conservative, yes; Nazi apologist, no. In Germany, more than anywhere else in Europe, huge areas of debate have been roped off, for fear of where unfettered discussion might lead.

Mr Heitmann emphasises that the 'spiritual split' between east and west is still strong, and rejects any thought of a volte-face on the question of an east German candidate. 'It was a question of my own credibility. After vehemently supporting the idea that an east German candidate is important for the growing together of east and west, I cannot suddenly abandon that position.' But that is precisely what Mr Kohl did? Mr Heitmann, politely: 'That's what you must judge.'

After all this, Germany's next president is now certain to be a westerner. Thus, in the words of Mr Heitmann, 'The old federal republic (West Germany) will be continued. That, for me, is the problem.'