Whatever your opinion of the man, Joachim Gauck cannot be said to be short on guts. Rewind to April 2014, when he pays an official visit to Turkey for talks with his counterpart, President Erdogan. The atmosphere is somewhat tense because, according to a recent retrospective on Gauck’s presidency by the German broadcaster ARD, Gauck is always harping on about ‘freedom’, while Erdogan has his own interpretation of the concept. And this is still long before the coup attempt of summer 2016 and the ensuing, increasingly harsh repression of anything that fails to please the Turkish leader.
The next day Gauck gives a lecture at the Middle East Technical University in Ankara. He praises the Turkish government for its role in the refugee crisis, but adds that “Recently we have also heard voices of disappointment, bitterness and outrage at a style of leadership which many see as a risk to democracy.” He alludes to concerns about tight control by the secret service, about the violent suppression of street protests, about people dying.
Erdogan is furious. With the German president still in the country, Erdogan reproaches him for meddling in internal affairs and playing fast and loose with the truth. But Gauck remains stoic. He tells the German press that he was merely doing his duty, “dealing in reality”. In fact, he says, “I actually held back.”
Back in Germany, he patiently revisits the affair in a TV interview. He explains that he often receives messages from people living under an “authoritarian regime”, and he wants to stand up for them. For, he says, “I still recall how people were oppressed under communism, and how enormously important it is that they have ‘advocates’ on the outside.”
It’s a crucial statement. Gauck indeed knows first-hand what things were like under the communist regime of the German Democratic Republic. He was born in Rostock, Mecklenburg, in January 1940. His father, a ship’s captain who worked as a naval officer during the war, was taken prisoner by the British. By the time he returned in 1946 Mecklenburg was part of the Soviet occupation zone, which was proclaimed the GDR three years later. What followed was nothing short of a horror scenario.
It is June 1951 and Gauck’s father is working as a safety inspector at a shipyard. While visiting family he is taken by two men claiming there has been an accident at the shipyard. He disappears without a trace. With no information forthcoming from the authorities, two full years pass. Then Stalin dies and the oppression of the Eastern bloc thaws somewhat. The family finally learns of the whereabouts of their father: he is in a Siberian labour camp. Another two years later, in 1955, he is released, greatly weakened. At this point Joachim is 15 years old, with a father supposedly guilty of espionage and anti-Soviet demagogy – nonsense accusations both.
For the Gauck family, the experience was a watershed. From then on it was the family against the system. “We are the decent people, not them”, Gauck describes how he felt at the time. Naturally, he refused to join the communist youth organisation FDJ. As a result he was later turned away from the study programme of his choice, journalism. Theology was acceptable, however, and the programme turned out to be something of a sanctuary, relatively free of state interference. After a personal crisis that he overcame when it dawned on him that doubt and faith need not be mutually exclusive, he became a Protestant minister. By the late 1980s he was, like other East German pastors of the time, becoming increasingly involved with oppositional circles.
After the fall of the Wall, Gauck ran as a member of the dissident party Bündnis ’90 in the free elections of 1990 for the East German People’s Chamber. He was narrowly elected and, six months later, following the reunification of Germany, he was appointed as Federal Commissioner for the Stasi Records (see box on Martin Paul). As such he was responsible for archives of the East German secret police, the Stasi. It was during this period that he gained the experience and the reputation – after five years he was elected for a second term by a large majority in the Bundestag – that made him a suitable candidate for the presidency. He was first nominated as early as 1999, but it was not until 2012, after the apparent financial irregularities of his predecessor Christian Wulff came to light, that he was elected president with a massive majority by the Federal Convention of representatives of the Bundestag and the state parliaments.
In that role he grew further still into what many, both at home and abroad, call the moral conscience of the Federal Republic. This can partly be attributed to his being an independent. In 1999 and the ensuing years he ran on behalf of the Christian Democrats and the Liberals; later he was nominated by the Social Democrats and the Greens. He calls himself a left-liberal conservative: an unusual, if not unlikely ideological mix.
But does being an independent place him above party politics? It does – just not when it comes to the extremes. Die Linke, the successor to the East German communist party SED, can always count on arousing his suspicions, and the feeling is mutual. Then there are the populists: the loose movement known as Pegida, and the more tightly organised, emerging party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD). The president does not like them, and they like him even less.
On the latest Day of German Unity, 3 October 2016, Gauck is in Dresden. He is being booed by protestors who feel the time is up for Germany’s leaders; demonstrators waving placards reading Ausgemerkelt, Ausgegauckelt. The signs at least have a little humour in them. The chants do not, and this makes Gauck angry. He is a staunch advocate of entering into dialogue with populists. But it needs to be a normal discussion, he says. “With people who want to talk, we’ll talk. But cussing at democratically elected leaders – I find that despicable.”
Still, he understands the criticism, especially when it comes to immigration and the refugee crisis. Gauck played down Chancellor Angela Merkel’s motto Wir schaffen das (‘We’ll manage’) by saying that charity, too, has its limits. “We want to help, but our options are limited.” A Willkommenskultur supported only by the political elite is inadequate, he says. But when he later visits a Berlin refugee centre and showers the volunteers with praise, calling them representatives of “the light Germany” – as opposed to “the dark Germany” associated with the attacks on refugee centres – he loses touch with the very group that has difficulty swallowing the new developments. Moreover, he gives ammunition to the right-wing populist opposition. An older woman at a Pegida demonstration complains, “He’s talking about the light and the dark Germany. A president shouldn’t do that. He should keep the people together, he has to be conciliatory.”
Which is not to say he doesn’t try. Gauck is no stranger to swallowing his pride. His predecessor, Christian Wulff, once made the controversial statement that “Islam belongs to Germany”. Gauck’s response? First he says he doesn’t endorse it. But he does think that “the Muslims belong to Germany”. The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung makes short shrift of this: is he saying the trees do belong, but the forest doesn’t? Gauck returns to the incident during an integration party for immigrants in his official residence, Bellevue Palace. He speaks honestly, explaining that he struggled with the issue. He comes from the provinces, not from “a metropolis like Berlin”, and where he comes from “everyone looks alike”. He continues, “I had to learn this. I learnt that in just a few years you can change the image of ‘I’ and ‘we’. I experienced that as an enrichment.”
Things are going well in Germany, Gauck believes, and he has faith its democracy in spite of the dangers that threaten it. In his last major speech, on 18 January at Bellevue Palace, he describes his country as “the best and most democratic Germany there has ever been”. At the same time, there is fear among certain sections of the population. Hate even – directed at him too. He gets messages via social media, but he doesn’t read them. “Germans of my generation saw how hatred was turned into state policy”, he told Der Spiegel last November. But here, too, Gauck is optimistic. “In this country, with its majority of peaceful, civilised citizens, those who hate shall not prevail.”
As his speech in Maastricht on 7 February will no doubt testify to, Joachim Gauck has a way with words. He is an extremely talented speaker – note the improbable number of addresses he has given since taking office as president. What’s more, his training as a church man doesn’t just go away. The current German minister of defence, Ursula von der Leyen, praised his sensitivity in the ARD-documentary: at a time when she was under severe pressure, Gauck was able to give her courage – a true pastor.
Yet that same trait also sparks resentment. A former editor of Die Welt, Thomas Schmid, recalls Gauck’s visit in 2013 to Oradour-sur-Glane. He is the first German president to visit the French village, whose inhabitants were massacred in a reprisal action by the Waffen-SS on 10 June 1944. More than six hundred people were killed; women and children trapped in a church and burnt alive. The village, now a collection of ruins, has been left intact. There are still a few survivors; old men by now. Gauck is there, standing hand in hand with the French president Hollande. A short while later Gauck lays a fatherly arm around the shoulders of one of the survivors. However well-intentioned the gesture, Schmid writes, it was inappropriate for the president of the country responsible for the massacre. This was the pastor at work, Schmid concludes, not a head of state.
But what did the old man himself think of the move? In a later interview the embrace goes unmentioned. But there is something – a sense of satisfaction, or rather, of atonement. “Finally an important German has come to Oradour. Finally.”
Gauck is not without his frivolous side. According to an old girlfriend quoted in a 2013 biography, he is an “incredible flirt. And it makes no difference how old a woman is.” He is also somewhat unorthodox when it comes to women. On Tuesday he will make his appearance in Maastricht in the company of not so much the ‘first lady’ as what is referred to in Germany as the ‘first girlfriend’. Gauck is in fact still married to Gerhild (‘Hansi’) Radtke, whom he wed in 1959. But the couple split in 1991, by which time he was already in a relationship with a journalist that would last eight years. In 2000 he met yet another journalist, Daniela Schadt, who has been his partner ever since.
The question remains as to why such a popular president is choosing not to run for re-election. He would, as both friend and foe agree, be re-elected with an overwhelming majority. Were he a younger man, he might dare to take on the challenge of tackling the “period of unrest” in which his country, and the world, now finds itself. “If I were the same age as Angela Merkel, I’d do it.” But he is now 77, and the risk is too great that his strength will fail him. That’s the reason, he says.