Germany has elected its 11th president: Joachim Gauck (72), a Lutheran pastor and internationally renowned human rights activist. The position of President of the Federal Republic of Germany is merely ceremonial, but several German presidents have used it as a bully pulpit over the past decades.
The new German president became known to the public in 1990 as the principal custodian of the German Secret Police (Stasi) archives, a position he left in 2000. His impact was such that Germans soon associated his name with the Office of the Custodian, which became known as the Gauck Behoerde.
Gauck, whose father had been arrested by the Soviet security services on fabricated charges of spying and came back from a Siberian gulag crippled, has been raised in a deeply anti-Communist family. Although he was often advised to escape to West Germany in his younger years, he deliberately chose to remain in the German Democratic Republic (GDR, or East Germany) in order to confront the communist regime.
Branded an “incorrigible anti-Communist” as a student and later as a pastor, he was closely monitored by the Stasi. After repeatedly preaching about individual responsibility and freedom and criticizing East German totalitarianism during his Sunday masses, his situation considerably worsened. His children were barred from going to college.
Several attempts to force Gauck to cooperate with the Stasi failed, and he eventually became the victim of systematic smear campaigns by the GDR’s secret police. These campaigns have been carried on against him by the German far-left press ever since and recently reappeared in social media.
Often labeled as a maverick, Gauck can look back at a successful career since the reunification. A spokesperson for the East German New Forum during the peaceful revolution of 1989, he was elected to the last Parliament of the GDR on the list of Alliance 90, a democratic union of opposition movements. He was nominated Special Representative for the Stasi archives and later confirmed by the federal government of the Federal Republic of Germany for this position.
Author of numerous books, notably co-authoring Stephane Courtois’ Black Book of Communism, Germany’s most prominent political activist has been a guiding light for many countries confronted with the problem of lustration—exposure of the former communist functionaries and secret agents and banning them from government posts. Failure to undertake lustration caused ambiguous outcomes in many post-Soviet countries, including Russia and Ukraine.
In recent years, Joachim Gauck’s activism has been focused on the Foundation Against Oblivion and for Democracy, which he chairs.
The former pastor, who enjoys the highest rates of popularity among the German public, never joined any political party. Described as a Liberal-Conservative by the German press, he was picked as a presidential candidate by the Social-Democratic Party (SPD) and the Green Party in June 2010, after the resignation of President Koehler (CDU), but lost to Merkel’s candidate, Christian Wulff (CDU).
After Wulff himself was forced to resign in February over claims of various financial irregularities, it was Merkel’s coalition partner, the Free Democrat Party (FDP), which decided to unilaterally endorse Gauck, forcing Merkel to give in to avoid a greater coalition crisis.
Gauck, who is known for his Atlanticist views, is a member of the Atlantik Bruecke, which supports European–American dialogue and alliance, and he has also been a vocal advocate of a free-market economy. He criticized the “Occupy Movement” and the anti-capitalist debates for an “unspeakable daftness,” arguing that he “indeed had already lived in a country where banks were really occupied.”
Germany’s new president is also a co-signatory of the Prague Declaration on the Crimes of Communism.
Unlikely to stumble over a controversy regarding Afghanistan like one of his predecessors, Horst Koehler, and seemingly immune to personal attacks, he has clearly voiced his support for the military intervention in Afghanistan, which he views as a necessary fight against terrorism. In the eyes of German public opinion, it also helps that the mission in Afghanistan is backed by a U.N. mandate and therefore seen as justified. After incriminating reports of the Stasi Archives were leaked to WikiLeaks, Gauck strongly criticized that organization, calling it a clear violator of the law and a threat to society.
Germany’s new president is a man whose formative experience was the fight against communism. He has both a moral compass and a spine. He does not fear to address difficult issues, knowing where he stands and acting accordingly.
After the loss of Vaclav Havel, Europe might have found a successor and a reliable ally to perpetuate the freedom agenda and cooperation on both sides of the Atlantic.
Nathalie Vogel is a German analyst currently living in Washington, D.C.