Gauck charted his own path to the top | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 18.03.2012
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Gauck charted his own path to the top

It took some incredible twists and turns for Joachim Gauck to become the almost unopposed candidate for the German presidency. The one-time East German rights activist is not one to be pigeonholed.

Many of the talents of East German civil rights activist Joachim Gauck are no longer needed. The dictatorship he fought against for most of his life is history - it's been finished off - not least thanks to him. With Angela Merkel occupying the chancellor's seat, there is no urgent need to have an East German in high office. In spite of all this, Gauck won the German presidency with ease, at least at the second time of asking.

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Germany's new president

Gauck became a subject of public discourse in 1999. Back then, he was mainly known as a minister in Gerhard Schröder's still young government. For almost nine years, he was head of the Stasi archives, a collection of the East German secret police's records. Under his leadership, the office was simply known as the "Gauck agency."

About 2,700 people worked for him editing the Stasi's expansive files. Hundreds of thousands of people gained access to the Stasi's documents thanks to their efforts. Others applied for positions to review the Stasi archives for evidence of how the police interfered in people's lives - a process that turned Gauck's name into a German verb, "gaucken."

Politically independent

The head of the conservative Christian Social Union (CSU), Edmund Stoiber, tapped Gauck to run for the presidency against Social Democrat Johannes Rau in 1999. Gauck declined. In all likelihood, he stood little chance of success. The same went for an attempt at the presidency he did make in 2010, when the Social Democrats and Greens unexpectedly made him their candidate.

Joachim Gauck (left) congratulates Christian Wulff in 2010

Gauck (left) congratulates Wulff after he became president in 2010

In 2010, Gauck was not nearly as well-known as he used to be. He had been replaced as head of the Stasi archives by Green party member Marianne Birthler in 2000. He had limited success as host of a talk show. In 2003, he chaired an anti-racist association called "Against Forgetting - for Democracy" dedicated to raising awareness of Germany's past two dictatorships. During those years, Gauck's main roles were travelling lecturer and media commentator, and he enjoyed continued recognition in the civic realm.

It came down to him

By nominating Gauck in 2010, the Social Democrats and Greens were out to embarrass Merkel and her coalition. With the sudden resignation of President Horst Köhler, Gauck himself might have hoped that the ruling Christian Democrats and Liberals would take the opposition up on its offer.

As expected, Merkel passed. She wanted to see her own candidate to the presidency and send a message about her coalition's ability to govern, especially after it had gotten off to a rough start. Christian Wulff took office with a 625-494 vote in a third round of voting by the assembly charged with appointing the president.

Since then, Merkel's camp has reached a weaker position in the assembly. Still, the chancellor likely could have gotten her choice for the new president by a third round of voting, but her coalition had a hard time finding a candidate. Conservatives and Greens reintroduced Gauck as a presidential contender. When the Free Democrats, who are part of Merkel's coalition, announced their support for him, there was no choice but for Merkel and her Christian Democratic Union (CDU) to back him as well.

Merkel can live with Gauck

Angela Merkel and Joachim Gauck

Merkel may have been reluctant to pick Gauck for the presidency

Ironically, Merkel is on the way to getting a president she initially did not want but with whom she is more likely to get along with than the parties that nominated him in the past. Gauck once described himself as a "leftist, liberal conservative." But the core of his thinking involves an idea of freedom quite different from the traditional German liberal line.

Gauck criticized the Occupy Wall Street movement, which called for the strict regulation of banks, as "unspeakably silly." And Gauck has called former top banker Thilo Sarrazin, whose 2010 book drew criticism for controversial statements about Muslim immigrants, courageous.

The new president has mostly distanced himself from Sarrazin and his ideas. But Gauck still praised Sarrazin for breaking the rules of political correctness. That goes with Gauck's idea of freedom - rejecting all forms of restriction on thought.

Father's arrest

Gauck's childhood was shaped by his father's exile to a Stalinist prison camp in 1951. Gauck was 11 years old at the time. The East German government denied him his aspiration to become a journalist, so he studied Protestant theology instead.

Gauck was permitted a degree of freedom by way of his association with the church. He took things far enough to come to the attention of the Stasi, but was never arrested. One of many Stasi documents describes him as "an unteachable anti-communist who only sees socialism as a temporary phenomenon" and who "misuses his post in an adversely negative way."

Gauck with partner Daniela Schadt

Gauck with partner Daniela Schadt

As pastor in the northern German city of Rostock, Gauck repeatedly stood out through his critical sermons. In 1989, he led weekly services aimed at changing society. Those resulted in Rostock's mass demonstrations in the fall.

After running in East Germany's first free parliamentary elections in March 1990, Gauck represented one of the parties in the Bündnis 90 anti-communist alliance. In the East German parliament, he headed a special committee to dissolve the Stasi. On October 2, 1990 - the day before German reunification - the East Germany parliament chose Gauck to head the department in charge of the Stasi's documents. That department continued as a federal agency in reunified Germany.

Other East German civil rights activists have accused Gauck of having accommodated the regime more than he opposed it. Yet when he takes office, that phase of his life will no longer play a role. His term should be an interesting one.

Author: Peter Stützle / srs
Editor: Sarah Steffen

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