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Germany

Joachim Gauck, Germany's one-term president of freedom

Joachim Gauck knows both Germany's former communist East and the reunified country of today. That might be why "freedom" was such a precious commodity to him during his single term as German president.

Joachim Gauck has not anchored himself in the public memory with a single speech, a catchy saying, or a legendary appearance. In this he differs from several of his predecessors. Richard von Weizsäcker declared that "May 8 [1945] was a day of liberation;" Roman Herzog appealed that "a jolt must go through Germany" in 1997, prompting economic and social reforms; while Walter Scheel made number 9 in the German charts with his rendition of the folk song "Hoch auf dem gelben Wagen," which is about riding a yellow horse-drawn mail coach. This is what's expected from the largely ceremonial position as German head of state - clear, memorable words, often concerning topics that directly-elected politicians might be too wary to address in front of voters.

However, Gauck's favorite word "freedom" might stick in many people's memories, even though his time in office politically was marked more by compulsion and security endeavors than by freedom.

The euro, Greece, refugees - the crises came thick and fast. Billions of euros had to be freed up, for there was "no alternative," as Chancellor Angela Merkel put it. In 2013, the liberal Free Democrats (FDP) even lost their place in the German parliament. Surely it's a tribute to Gauck that even in these turbulent times, he never let the value of freedom slip from his sight.

Gauck bei Erdogan 28.04.2014 Ankara

German presidents are expected to speak boldly, which Gauck did at home and abroad

His own curriculum vitae lent him much authenticity in these efforts. Gauck's past as a theologian and a member of the East German citizen's movement added weight to his appeals for civic values like candor, engagement and intervention. For 10 years, while heading the authority investigating the former files of the East German secret police, the Stasi, he fought to stop people from forgetting a dictatorship in which he and his family also suffered. He could not conceal his skepticism concerning the communist SED's successor party, the PDS, now known as Die Linke or The Left party. Shortly before a Left party politician was named state premier in the eastern region of Thuringia, Gauck voiced doubts about whether the party was to be trusted.

Little facade

During his single term, which began in March 2012, Gauck traveled the world and made a point via his itinerary. He kept his distance from Russia's autocrat Vladimir Putin. On a visit to Turkey he openly criticized Recep Tayyip Erdogan's politics, saying the then-prime minister was constraining freedom of speech and rights to peaceful protest. In China, he held a speech on freedom for students.

Gauck even practiced a kind of personal freedom during his time in office. Although all of Germany's presidents are nominally neutral, he was the first of 11 not to hold membership in a political party. Furthermore, the 76-year-old was not accompanied by a wife at his side, rather by his partner Daniela Schadt. Indeed, Gauck still has a wife he never divorced; four children bind them.

Whoever gets to know him encounters an occasionally vain man, one at peace with himself and his life's path. Living in a free country is a gift to him. This was why he appealed for the kind of patriotism modeled on Germany's post-war constitution. Even in office, he remained a contented person, fond of life's pleasures and happy in company. He's relaxed around the media and no stranger to the limelight as a former pastor.

Explored the office's limits

Gauck allowed himself some freedoms as president, too, testing the bounds of his position. Despite being Germany's head of state he can only wield influence within limits; namely, within the confines of his words. According to the constitution, his principal task is to act as a party-neutral figure of integration. He did not keep entirely to this when labeling a protest at a refugee home by the far-right National Democratic Party (NPD) the work of "nutcases." The case wound up at Germany's Constitutional Court, but the decision fell on Gauck's side. The court decided that the president has the freedom to decide on the form of his time in office.

Watch video 01:46

Gauck calls for EU refugee compromise, February 2016

Another controversy hit early in 2014. Gauck appealed for Germany to let go of its post-war reticence on military matters, to adopt a more self-confident foreign policy. His impulse sparked a broader debate that incorporated members of Chancellor Merkel's cabinet.

Ahead of the curve

On another issue, it was the German people who failed to take up their president's words: After his June 2014 visit to a refugee camp on the Turkish-Syrian border, more than a year before the "official" start of the so-called refugee crisis, Gauck wanted to trigger a debate on the topic.

Back then, he called for an "honest, pragmatic and sober debate" about the challenges for refugee policy. Gauck outlined the dilemma between protecting against uncontrolled immigration and upholding the rights of people whose lives were at risk. His analysis: politics should never be measured solely by humanitarian need, but rather also by what's politically attainable. He suggested something of a middle way "between the opening wide of the gates and the demands of those who say that what's possible has already been done." Also, Gauck advocated a European solution. He stayed true to this stance later, too. Germany might well have avoided some unfortunate later debates had Gauck's words resonated earlier.

Deutschland Türkei Joachim Gauck Besuch in der Türkei April 2014

Gauck and his partner Daniela Schadt visited a refugee camp for Syrians in April 2014

Now, Gauck has made use of the freedom to opt against a second term in office, despite signals from all sides that he should carry on. He knew he was assured of a broad majority among the special panel of politicians, celebrities, sports stars and other chosen representatives who elect the German President, but, at 76, it seems his age is catching up with him.

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