FEBRUARY 20, 2012 10:10AM

Stasi hunter chosen as new President of Germany

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Joachim Gauck (born 1940)

THAT SURE DIDN'T TAKE long. The ink under Christian Wulff's resignation had barely dried before a circle of top-level Christian Democrats, Free Democrats, Social Democrats, and Greens met yesterday to nominate a new Federal President of Germany. Their choice: Former East German Lutheran pastor and later Stasi hunter Joachim Gauck. In fact, he was the only realistic choice after the failed and curtailed presidencies of his two predecessors.

I have actually met Gauck personally. Back in the 90s, in what today seems like an earlier incarnation, I was working as an assistant professor of history at the Viadrina University in Frankfurt-on-the-Oder, some 100 km east of Berlin. The Office of the Federal Commissioner for the Stasi Archives, which manages and makes available the hundreds of thousands of secret police files on East German citizens, had just opened a new office in Frankfurt O. and I was asked to put in an appearance for the university. There I got a chance to shake hands and exchange a few words with Gauck, the agency's director. His influence was so strong both in the agency and society at large that his office became known as simply "the Gauck Agency."

This notoriety made him less than popular in the unconstructed provinces of former East Germany as I knew them back then. But Gauck has always been an uncomfortable figure. Born to Nazi parents in the northern port of Rostock in 1940, he experienced the firebombing of his home town and the last blood-soaked days of the Third Reich as a small child. When he was just eleven years old, Soviet agents spirited away his father from the Rostock shipyards without leaving a word with his family or even with the East German police. He would spend the next four years in a Siberian labor camp. From then on, the young Joachim Gauck despised the communist authorities, and cheered the anti-regime strike wave that hit Rostock and the rest of the German Democratic Republic in June of 1953.

Unable to study journalism and to work as a free writer due to the political situation, he - like so many other critical spirits in the GDR - chose theology, one of the few fields that were free of Marxist-Leninist doctrine. He assumed his first pastorship in 1967.

A consistent critic - but hardly a radical one - of the communist regime, Gauck used his pulpit to speak his mind, attracting the close scrutiny of the Stasi as early as 1974. They not only spied on him but also sought to recruit him as an informer. While Gauck did not sign on, a debate ignited soon after reunification as to whether Gauck may have been closer to the secret police than he wanted anyone to believe.

The pastor took active part in the 1989 revolution, and was elected to the People's Chamber for the reformist New Forum party in the GDR's first free elections. There he demanded the creation of a state commission to examine the dying state's Stasi past. Gauck not only got his wish, he was also made first director of his own agency. There he allowed ordinary citizens access to their personal files and essentially declared open season on former Stasi agents and informers.

Gauck retired in 2000 and worked as a free journalist and political activist. His political position is difficult to determine. He describes himself  as "a left, liberal conservative" and an "enlightened patriot" who is dedicated to "the love of liberty." In any case, there are two things he definitely is not: A racist and a communist, two mindsets he has spent his life combating. The Left Party, which is built on the ruins of the old GDR Socialist Unity Party, largely despises him, and it's no wonder the Left wasn't invited to the nomination meeting over the weekend.

The popular Gauck was already a candidate for the Federal Presidency once before: In 2010 the Social Democrats and Greens nominated him for the office after President Horst Köhler suddenly resigned under mysterious circumstances. He barely lost out to Angela Merkel's unfortunate choice of Christian Wulff.

But now Gauck is on his way to Bellevue Palace following a perfunctory meeting of the Federal Assembly in March. His trip there also has its bumps, since Philip Rösler, the head of the CDU's dwindling coalition partner, the Free Democrats, practically railroaded Chancellor Merkel into accepting Gauck as president. But the old Stasi hunter has experienced plenty of bumps over the last seventy-two years. One problem the protocol officers will face is how to present the new president in public: Gauck separated from his wife in 1991 and has been dating journalist Daniela Schadt since 2000. She will now go down in history as Germany's first "First Girlfriend."

The hope is that Gauck will provide the office of Federal President with the gravity it has lacked over the past few difficult years, and that the new man will act as an impeccable - and sustainable - independent moral authority. But not everyone will be happy about the choice. While I respect Gauck's work, I can't be happy with a former pastor as head of state. Of course, there's little in Gauck's theology that the typical American believer would even recognize as "Christian," and it is unlikely he ever would have chosen the ministry if he had grown up in a more liberal society. Even so, I echo Richard Dawkins in my belief that "moderate" Christians essentially provide a fig leaf for the authoritarian, inhuman kind. Nor will a hefty portion of the eastern German population be happy to see him at the helm. This letter to the editor in this morning's Neues Deutschland (the central organ of the Left Party) had this to say:

Congratulations, Frau Merkel. That hater of the Reds and the East, church dignitary and "friend of democracy" deluxe, fits perfectly into your clique of capital worshippers and history falsifiers. Although he's hardly likely to believe it, he continually alienates many honest former GDR citzens with his dirty and superficial attacks. But of course, that's all you can expect from someone like him. In any case, he in no way represents me in his new position.

Now Germany is in the bizarre position of having two former East Germans, both of them from an enlightened Protestant background, at the head of their government. Who ever could have imagined that? But as Jesus used to say, "So the last shall be first, and the first last: for many be called, but few chosen."


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Thank you. A FB friend told of his election. I really enjoyed the background. Germany amazes me in its flexibility. Really, such a short time for East Germans to lead. Do you think hardship of their upbringing make them more inclined to listen to the regular non-academic German worker?
You may well be right. The East Germans suffered a lot of material and psychological hardship (at least the non-conformists did), and necessity, as we know, is the mother of invention. By contrast, Generation X and Y types like Guttenberg and Wulff seem hopelessly decadent. It genuinely makes a difference.
Thank you for the news, Alan. He has a very interesting and complex background.
Interesting dynamic with the Left Party, Gauck & the Stasi Alan. I understand that West Germany's absorption of the East makes its politics unique, but usually progressives are the first to want a full airing of police state misbehavior. No so with German lefties?
Well, in the GDR the "progressives" (as the communists liked to call themselves) were actually the "reactionaries." You see, it's complicated...
Fascinating history, Alan. We are so lucky to have your perspective on things. I had no idea how the ministry functioned as a kind of brain trust in waiting during the bad old days. And it is amazing about the leadership status of two East German Protestants. More on this sometime, please.
Thanks, Steve. There's plenty more from where this came from, believe me! It's just one damn thing after another over here. But history is like that.
Thank you for the information and the interesting background. I do get all the party descriptors confused (and not just the German ones!) so I appreciate the explanations.
Thank you, Alan, for explaining the story; I must agree with some here that it is a bit different in Germany. Excellent post. R
That's certainly a plausible theory, although Merkel has always been dead-set against Gauck and had to be strong-armed into nominating him. It's a weird situation any way you look.

Now we'll have to see how the Germans like sermons for speeches. My own threshold is pretty low.

Interesting. And more informative than either the New York Times or Financial Times coverage of Gauck.