State and Politics in Germany

“Freedom and Responsibility” - The German Federal President Joachim Gauck

Joachim Gauck; Foto: J. Patrick Fischer, Creative Commons 3.0Joachim Gauck; Photo: J. Patrick Fischer, Creative Commons 3.0 UnportedRight in his very first speech after being elected the 11th Federal President of the Federal Republic of Germany Joachim Gauck named the two leitmotifs that are to dominate his period in office. He said he was a president who “cannot imagine being without freedom and who cannot and will not imagine his country without responsibility being put into practice.” This country is “worth every ounce of effort to ensure that when we entrust it to our children they, too, can call it ‘our country’.”

The people listening were completely won over - his words are “genuine”. The majority of commentators saw it the same way, saying that Gauck’s purity of intention and “warm-heartedness” were exactly the qualities missing among the younger generation of slick and sleek polit-players. And this is why the mood is very optimistic that he will be able to “reach out to people” with his words and trigger social debates that are urgently necessary. When it comes to the expectations placed on a German Federal President - this then is about as high as they go. According to the German constitution there is not much more required of him than the formal act of signing bills that have been passed by parliament and to represent the country both at home and abroad.

Learning from Poland

Schloss Bellevue – Berliner Amtssitz des Bundespräsidenten; © Lorenz ViereckeThe Federal President has chosen Poland for his first official trip abroad. He had already held a speech in the Polish town of Łódź a few weeks before his election, in which he praised the unshakability of the Polish belief in freedom. He said that in Poland people loved the country’s “rebels” more than the country’s “subjects”, whereas in Germany freedom was quickly equated with chaos. “Europe likes to identify with the West and the Germans, too. “This is where my country could learn a great deal.” For example, not immediately screaming for help from the state when something goes wrong, but refusing to be disheartened and tackling the problem oneself. For Gauck there can be no freedom without responsibility - he feels it is the citizen’s duty to make use of his freedom, also by taking responsibility for others.

Preacher man is his profession. Gauck was born in 1940 as the son of a sailor. In 1951 his father was arrested, tried before a Soviet tribunal accused of spying and was then sent to Siberia. He was released in 1955 and came home a broken man. This experience “immunised” young Joachim for the rest of his life. He grew up as he says himself “imbibed with a well-founded anti-communism” and refused to join any party-linked youth organisations. This of course put an end to his wish to become a journalist. He therefore studied theology from the years 1958 to 1965. Gauck became a youth pastor and in 1971 moved to a new housing estate in the East-German town of Rostock called Evershagen – a social trouble spot.

The first free elections

Joachim Gauck 1990; Photo: Peer Grimm; Bundesarchiv, Creative Commons 3.0 UnportedIn the 1970s the East-German secret police, the Stasi, got wind of the young pastor and had him spied on and shadowed by what were known as “unofficial collaborators”. He organised the Evangelical Church Congresses, which were also forums for dissenters and people who opposed the regime. For the East-German church that was just about tolerated by the East-German government these events were a balancing act between adapting to and resisting the system. The focus at the 1988 Church Congress was on the reforms initiated by the Soviet head of state, Gorbachev. The demands grew louder, the SED (the governing Party of Social Unity) should finally take a stance on environmental, peace and human rights issues.

The peaceful revolution of 1989 was a formative experience for Gauck. He joined the Neues Forum (New Forum) civil rights movement and in 1990 he became an MP in the Volkskammer (East-German parliament) for the constituency of Rostock. In his first speech as Federal President he reminisces about that day, 18th March 1990, with these words, “What a beautiful Sunday! For the first time in my life, at the age of 50, I was allowed to decide in a free, fair and secret election who was to govern in the coming years.”

The “Gauck Commission”

Cover of the book “Freiheit. Ein Plädoyer”, 6th edition 2012; © KöselAs a Volkskammer MP he managed the “Special Committee for the Inspection and Liquidation of The East-German Ministry of State Security” and as a result in 1990 he was appointed “Commissioner for the Records of the State Security Service of the former German Democratic Republic”. This commission that was under his control for the next ten years soon became known in common parlance as the “Gauck Commission”. Over and over again Gauck rejected demands to finally close the book on dealing with the East-German past. By the time he handed over this office to civil rights activist, Marianne Birthler, in 2000, he had become a much sought-after publicist and speaker both at home and abroad. Among other things he became Chairman of an association called Gegen Vergessen – Für Demokratie (Against Forgetting – For Democracy), he did a stint for a short time as a talk-show host on TV and became a member of the administrative board of the Vienna-based “European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia”.

Villa Hammerschmidt, Bonn residence of the federal president; Photo: Sir James, Creative Commons 3.0 UnportedIt was as early as in 1999 when politicians of the CSU party asked him for the first time whether he would like to be a candidate for the Federal Presidency. Gauck declined. Then however in 2010 he was nominated by the SPD and the German Green /Bündnis 90 parties to stand against Christian Wulff who had been nominated by Federal Chancellor Angela Merkel. The election went to the third round, but Gauck lost. It was a defeat that had been expected, but it still hurt. When Christian Wulff resigned in 2012 he decided to stand once again, this time however as the candidate of almost all the parties: SPD, Bündnis90/Die Grünen, CDU, CSU and FDP. He won against the only other candidate, Beate Klarsfeld, who had been nominated by the left-wing party known as Die Linke He gained 1,282 votes to her 991 votes right in the first round of voting.

Unpredictably protestant

Cover of he book “Winter im Sommer – Frühling im Herbst”; © SiedlerThe fact that Joachim Gauck and Angela Merkel, a pastor and a pastor’s daughter from the “new federal states” of the old GDR, are at the head of the German state and government may jar on a few people. According to journalist, Christian Bangel, however, in an article for the weekly newspaper, Die Zeit, Gauck is the first speaker who has managed to get people from both East and West Germany to listen. He describes himself as a “left-wing, liberal Conservative”, making it quite clear that he will not have any political labels stuck on him. A clever decision at a time when the whole spectrum of Germany’s political parties is in transition.

Germany, too, is no longer what it used to be. Despite all the nostalgia the old GDR is now at last dead and buried and there is not much left either of the old West Germany. Now is the time for generating new impulses for society and politics. Gauck just might succeed in doing this – after all he has already proven himself to be “resistant” in the best sense of the word and has never allowed himself to be impressed either by general political wheeling and dealing or by the Zeitgeist – the mood of the times.

Volker Thomas
is a free-lance journalist in Berlin and runs an agency there for copy and design (

Translation: Paul McCarthy
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Internet-Redaktion
April 2012

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Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Internet-Redaktion
April 2012

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