As I write, Joachim Gauck has been elected with a large majority as the new president of the Federal Republic of Germany. He becomes his country’s head of state, second in line behind Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Gauck’s predecessor, Christian Wulff, recently resigned amid controversy and criticism over his alleged personal ties with business leaders. Gauck had been a popular favourite candidate against Wulff in 2010, but the Christian Democrats, Christian Social Unionists and Free Democrats had promoted Wulff, who won on the third ballot by only 50.4 per cent.
Now, however, Joachim Gauck has become the candidate not only of the Social Democratic and Green Parties, but also of Merkel’s ruling coalition. Only the united Left offered a counter-candidate.
For a long time, the leadership of Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union, as successors of the prewar Roman Catholic Centre Party, were a potent expression of political Catholicism. Times have changed, so that now two Protestants from the former East Germany provide leadership to Germany’s Federal Republic: Chancellor Angela Merkel, daughter of a Lutheran pastor in the former East Germany, and President Joachim Gauck, a Lutheran pastor and human rights activist in the former communist country.
Suffering and injustice
Gauck’s record of independent thinking and a faith-based quest for freedom and self-determination is remarkable, even though some critics have noted that other church and human rights activists were even more courageous and risked more during the era of communism.
Yet what makes Gauck so credible to many Germans today is that he led by action at a time when, confronted by state pressure, others compromised and retreated.
Gauck was born in the Baltic port city of Rostock, where his father was a captain and officer in the German Navy. He experienced early the injustice of an oppressive totalitarianism when his father, who worked in a shipyard after the war, was snatched by Russians, tried in secret on trumped-up charges of espionage, and sent to Siberia. For a long time, Gauck’s family knew nothing of their father’s whereabouts, and more time passed before he returned from his Siberian Gulag.
This institutional disregard for human rights produced in Gauck what he calls an “educational cudgel,” a strong resistance against any fraternizing with unjust structures. In his own experience he came face to face with the indecency of repressive totalitarian systems. As a consequence, Gauck at an early age “rejected any courting of the regime for the acceptance of its moral and political goals, for it had brought us suffering and injustice.”
Two of his career choices after high school, to study literature or to become a journalist, were closed to him by the system due to his father’s imprisonment and his own critical stance toward the regime. So, Gauck chose theology, not to become a pastor, but primarily as a means to clarify his own religious position and to understand intellectually the ideology he was fighting.
“The theological faculties were the only place that was not directly exposed to the grip of the state and party.”
Theological study provided, Gauck writes in his autobiography, “a place in which independent thinking was possible and one’s existence was not tied to subordination.”
Faith and doubt
Direct contact with his congregation made Gauck more certain of his ministerial vocation. His pastoral engagement offered him the surer footing he needed for dealing with the doubts that his religion of the head continued to pose.
“In meeting with members of the congregation,” Gauck remembers, “I lost my fear to be consumed by doubt. I learned that faith is actually a despite-faith, a faith contrary even to any appearance, and that it is permissible to enter the circle of believers with doubt, also to live and preach with doubt.”
Despite remaining intellectual doubts, his faith experience grounded him even in most trying times. “Even if my faith does not achieve for me unquestionable certainty,” Gauck writes, “I share with other believers the experience that the spiritual and relational truth, which meets us sometime and some place in our life, transcends the disparate truths of life and the glossiness of logic.”
Such faith amid doubt also moved him to demand publicly more freedom in the 1980s. In the heady days that led to the fall of the Berlin Wall, Gauck preached a sermon in October 1989 at Saint Mary’s Church in Rostock titled “Self-righteousness kills, Righteousness saves,” in which he observed how life and the quest for freedom can and have sometimes turned into deadly opposites.
To maintain freedom and to secure a living dialogue in society, while never forgetting the oppression and fear that had so long gripped East Germany, Gauck resigned his pastorate after reunification of Germany and headed the administration that maintained and made available countless files that had been kept on people by the East German secret police.
On March 18, Joachim Gauck became the 11th federal president of the Federal Republic of Germany.
Hans J. Rollmann is a professor of religious studies
and can be reached by email: firstname.lastname@example.org.