During his final major appearance, outgoing President Joachim Gauck spoke about Germany, Europe and the world. It was a speech befitting a true statesman, whose career reflects the country's many upheavals since 1945.
In a few days, Joachim Gauck will celebrate his 77th birthday. It is truthful, then, to say (respectfully of course) that the outgoing president is an old man. On Wednesday, he gave his final speech before giving up the office he has held for five years. Numerous high-ranking representatives from Germany as well as many international guests attended the event at Bellevue Palace in Berlin.
Gauck spoke for 40 minutes about the state of his homeland in the midst of a dramatically changing Europe, in a dramatically changing world. A common thread throughout: the fact that the former pastor is more worried about the situation today than he was when he became president. One thing, however remains unchanged. "The Germany of today is the best and most democratic Germany we've ever had. I believed that then, and I still believe it now," Gauck said. On the other hand, he said that after five years he is "more conscious than ever of the dangers that threaten this democratic, stable Germany."
Modern music, thought-provoking words
Some of these threats took the form of newspaper headlines projected onto the wall of the venue, accompanied by jazz-inspired arrangements of music by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Maurice Ravel and Erik Satie: "Europe turned upside down" read one headline. "New arson attack causes alarm" read another, reflecting the ongoing discord in the European Union and the debate about Germany's policy on refugees. Donald Trump's election to president of the United States was also a topic. His inauguration, Gauck said, will present "challenges to the current international order, as well as trans-Atlantic relationships, especially with regard to NATO."
He took a global view when speaking of "our societies" where nationalist movements are growing and immigration and free trade are spurned. These movements favor "cultural cohesion" over diversity. Liberal democracy is "under fire," Gauck said.
Writing on the wall: Freedom makes us strong
But this president also believes in the powers of good. This was also evident in the headlines projected onto the wall: "Our freedom makes us strong" or "Strong values."
He spoke of the strength he felt in the thousands of meetings he had with people. Gauck also praised the "energy and the initiative that the citizens of this country have developed for each other, for democracy, freedom and progress."
Powerful fear has often accompanied historic times of upheaval, Gauck said, citing the example of the industrial revolution, which created "enormous wealth as well as desperate suffering." That led to opposition against Manchester Capitalism and eventually, the social market economy. "Why would we not take seriously historic experiences such as these?" Gauck asked. And while he made no mention of it, most of the people in the room knew that his own life has been an answer to this question.
He was just a child in the former East Germany when his father was arrested by Soviet occupation forces and sent to a gulag in Siberia. His experience of injustice sharpened his ability to think critically. During the peaceful revolution in East Germany, he became a civil rights activist, and starting in 1990 in reunified Germany, he worked for 10 years as the first Federal Commissioner for the Stasi records, sifting through the documents left behind by East Germany's secret police.
Praise for German constitution
The mothers and fathers of the German constitution wanted a democracy that was based on the values of freedom, justice and protection of human dignity. The second part of Gauck's speech was an elegy to the German constitution, or Basic Law, with its universal undertones. This was followed by a final appeal for Germany to take more responsibility in the world - a topic that has increased in significance over his five-year term.
Peace and prosperity in this country has become "inseparably linked to peace and prosperity elsewhere in the world, with international organizations and military alliances," Gauck said. Given the immense challenges facing us, "we Europeans, we Germans cannot and must not shrink away from this responsibility."
'Ode to Joy'
Despite all the fears, his message was hopeful. "We will preserve, develop and defend that what we have achieved and what is dear to us," he said. And with that, Gauck ended his last speech at the Bellevue Palace. His remarks were followed by a modern piece of music arranged by Sinem Altan that borrowed from Ludwig van Beethoven's "Ode to Joy." It was a symbolic nod to the idea of a unified Europe, which has taken the ode as its hymn.