Eastern Inspiration: Gauck the Therapist Wants to Put Germany On the Couch

By Markus Feldenkirchen

Joachim Gauck, the main opposition party candidate for the German presidency in Wednesday's parliamentary election, inspires people because he embodies a yearning for a different kind of politics. Were he to become the German head of state, he would like the nation to undergo a therapy.

German presidential candidate Joachim Gauck holding a speech in Berlin last week. Zoom
REUTERS

German presidential candidate Joachim Gauck holding a speech in Berlin last week.

Joachim Gauck, the main opposition candidate for the German presidency, has an almost Messianic impact on people wherever he goes. Opinion polls show a majority of Germans prefer the former human rights activist to Chancellor Angela Merkel's candidate, Christian Wulff, a career politician who has spent the last seven years as governor of the northern state of Lower Saxony.

Across the nation, Gauck's face can be seen on posters attached to lampposts, sometimes in the style of an Andy Warhol artwork under the slogan "Go for Gauck."

The man who campaigned against the communist regime of East Germany and was spied on by the Stasi secret police seems out of place in the harsh world of party politics into which he has been thrust since the center-left Social Democrat Party and the Greens nominated him.

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Photo Gallery: Joachim Gauck Runs for the Center-Left
In his speeches, the former pastor talks about his feelings and provides glimpses of his soul. He is a human being in a realm of strategists. It seems he would like Germany to undergo the kind of therapy he went through himself at times in his life when he was plagued by doubt.

Rare Emotion and Sensitivity

The euphoria surrounding him has much to do with his language. No one in political office would dare to speak with such emotion and sensitivity because it would immediately be seen as weakness. But Gauck speaks like a human being, his sentences are nourished by a rich biography, a lifetime of reading and an intense exploration of his own soul.

These aren't bad qualifications for a head of state. As he tours the country giving speeches to regional parliamentary delegates who will be dispatched to Berlin for Wednesday's vote, he tells a story of the beauty of freedom. He talks about the powerlessness he felt as a citizen of East Germany, of "kneeling while walking, standing or sitting." He waxes lyrical about the German constitution and its "phenomenal catalogue of basic rights." His audiences listen in rapt attention. In Gauck's words, the constitution sounds fresh and fascinating.

German democracy is in a midlife crisis. Over the decades, many Germans have grown tired of politics and public debate. Gauck wants to shake western Germans out of their lethargy and reignite their enthusiasm for something they already possess. He's polishing faded brass lamps to give them their shine back. Gauck's lamps are democracy, constitution, justice and electoral law.

He also has a message for eastern Germans. He wants them to jettison their tainted view of the past. He deplores Ostalgie, nostalgia for the East German era. The eastern Germans should be proud of the revolution of 1989, he tells them. "We 89ers will be the last ones to strike our colors. When the others fall down, we will still be standing. I personally believe that I will spend longer having faith in freedom and the resilience of democracy than anyone else in Germany." Coming from anyone else, such lofty words would seem embarrassing. With Gauck they sound believable.

Worshipping Freedom

On a June evening in 1951, two men turned up at the front door of the Gauck family and took his father away in a blue Opel. Joachim Gauck was 11 years old. When he saw him again he was 15 and his father was an emaciated man. He had been sentenced to two times 25 years and had to fell trees in the Siberian gulag. The family hadn't been told where he was or even if he was still alive. Anyone who can see from the experience of his own father the damage that dictatorship can do is probably bound to worship freedom.

Gauck's language is peppered with terms from the realm of psychology. The man who wants to lead the nation out of its mental crisis knows about therapy. He talks openly about the crises he went through in his life, and how he overcame them. The first one came in the late 1980s, shortly before he turned 50. He no longer felt fulfilled by his position as pastor, and his marriage was failing. Gauck joined a therapy group in his church, he devoted himself to his inner life until the world started changing.

He ended his marriage and found a new role as freedom fighter, as revolutionary. He says the therapy he went through gave him the necessary strength. "In autumn '89, when I talked about people's fears of the regime in my sermons, I had deeper knowledge of the power of fears," Gauck says, speaking in a restaurant in Berlin.

Why did he accept the nomination at the age of 70 after having forsworn public office? He thinks and says: "It's so often that I feel what is going on in people even before they notice it themselves. And then my words are there for these feelings. I'm like a medium for people. It has often been that way in my life, and it's like that again now."

Sometimes he sounds a little strange. What he means is his ability to encourage people to follow their hearts and overcome their fears. Like in the autumn of 1989.

His contemplative nature and his passion, so different from the sober, controlled world of politics, is inspiring people. He seems incredibly honest and open. People who have been through therapies are usually more authentic than people who haven't, they are more likely to dare to be themselves, even though they can sometimes be irritating as a result.

"That's the way it sometimes goes in therapies," says Gauck at the end of the interview, taking a sip of red wine. "If it goes well, you end up stronger."

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