Joachim Gauck's Mission: Future President Wants to Rid Germany of Angst

By Markus Feldenkirchen

Joachim Gauck, 72, the former pastor and civil rights activist about to become Germany's next president, wants to reinvigorate the nation with his passion for freedom and democracy. His emotional, at times unguarded rhetoric will liven up German politics -- but could backfire if he isn't careful. 

The morning begins with a classic dilemma posed by freedom. Joachim Gauck pays a second visit to the breakfast buffet at the Hotel Andel's in the Polish city of Lodz and walks along the array of smoked salmon, bacon and trout, Cabanossi sausage, muffins, muesli and egg salad, the entire smorgasbord of modern breakfast culture in all its excess. Gauck shakes his head.

So many options, so many decisions. Muesli or a muffin, trout or cold cuts -- freedom can be exhausting, unless you know what you want. Gauck knows what he wants.

"There's no jam," he murmurs. "And eggs. Ordinary eggs. I like eggs and jam for breakfast." He scans the buffet one more time. "No jam. Or have you seen jam anywhere?" He shakes his head. "I can't believe it."

He turns away from the buffet and approaches a waitress. "Do you have eggs?" he asks. He knows how to handle freedom.

After breakfast, Gauck gives a speech called "Freedom: Its Promise and Ongoing Challenge" at the University of Lodz. Later on he attends a dinner with Polish freedom fighters and, in the evening, back at the bar of his hotel, he wonders whether German Chancellor Angela Merkel was right when she said that he is a man with only one issue: freedom.

That had been Merkel's reason for her initial refusal to back Gauck for the presidency on that Sunday, before she was finally forced by her junior coalition coalition partner, the Free Democratic Party, to accept the former East German civil rights activist for the job. Freedom wasn't enough to qualify him for the position of president, she had argued in a teleconference with the steering committee of her party, the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU). "One thing is clear," Merkel said. "It won't be Gauck."

"I can't determine whether she said that," Gauck says at the bar in Lodz. "It would like reading coffee grounds," he says, pointing into his capuccino. He smiles. Of course he knows what was being said about him. "What can I say? My main issue happens to be freedom. That's the way it is. And do you know what?" He pauses for a moment. "It's going to stay that way. I can promise that to my dear fellow Germans."

Gauck slams his right fist onto the bar. But he isn't banging on the table in an aggressive way. It's more of a soft, gentle, reflective gesture, which makes it all the more decisive. "It would stop the moment everyone started talking about freedom and personal responsibility. At that point I would focus on the neglected issues. But the debate over the social welfare state and the justice debate are not underserved in Germany."

The Nation's Psychiatrist

On Sunday, Germany will get a new president who will be refreshingly different for some but a slap in the face for others. Gauck is someone who wants to challenge the country, and who believes that he knows more about the mental state of the Germans, about their fears and desires, than the Germans themselves. He is someone who will place Germany on the psychiatrist's couch in his speeches, who has already undergone psychotherapy twice himself and, as a result, has become even more self-confident and independent than he already was. Finally, he is someone who claims that he often senses what is going on inside people's heads before they know it themselves.

Gauck is sitting on the stage at the Comödie Fürth theater in Bavaria, talking about what he is about to experience himself. He is reading from his biography, his last public reading before moving into the presidential residence at Schloss Bellevue. He tells the audience that he will probably start crying at any moment. "This chapter cost me a lot of tears," he says. "And, as always, it will be difficult for me to read it."

Then he steps back into a time when he was a pastor in the northeastern German city of Rostock. It was December 1987, and his two sons had finally been given permits to leave East Germany. Gauck was standing on the platform with a stony expression on his face, hiding his true emotions, when his wife pointed at her chest and asked: "This is where other people have a heart. What do you have?"

Gauck breathes heavily into the microphone. He is so moved by his own story that every sentence is a challenge, and eventually the tears flow. "It was Christmas Eve of 1987, and we were missing two children, two daughters-in-law and three grandchildren. Seven of the people we loved most were gone, with only four remaining in front of the Christmas tree."

An Emotional President

He swallows audibly and the tears well up in his eyes. He takes a sip of water to help fight back the emotions. It isn't entirely clear whether he is so moved by the sad events of the past or the joy of having overcome them. He pauses for a full 16 seconds.

"I used to think I was cool," he says, gazing at the audience with a watery look in his eyes. "At least I acted as if I were pretty cool. But in this book I dig deeply into memories that take me to the limits of my emotional capacity. At any rate, I encountered tears that were once foreign to me." Germany has never seen a president who exposes his inner emotions so readily.

He explains to his audience in Fürth that there was a point at which he realized how important it was to write the book. "Once I had made my way through those tears, something wonderful happened. I realized that, as a 69-year-old man, I could change once again. It helped me get a little closer to myself, to my emotions and to my hidden, buried sadness about life in a place where we were not free."

After German reunification, Gauck spent 10 years as head of the agency that managed the files of the Stasi, the East German secret police. The agency provided the nation with a kind of therapy. It gave eastern Germans a gentle push to confront their past instead of suppressing it, and to face up to the suffering, the injuries and the filth to which a system of repression had subjected them.

When Gauck left the agency in the fall of 2000 -- by that time it was known as the Gauck agency -- he was no longer at peace with himself. Driven by a thirst for recognition, he waited for job offers from political leaders, but his hopes were in vain. "I would have liked to see politicians invite me to do something interesting," he says today.

A Lost Father

He became introverted and depressive, says his eldest son. Christian Gauck greets us wearing espadrilles and begins the conversation by apologizing. "I just had to raise a toast of beer to myself," he says. Life is good at the moment. His father is about to become president, and he himself has just had an offer accepted for an old house in Blankenese, a Hamburg suburb. Since he left East Germany by train in the winter of 1987, leaving his father behind, Christian Gauck has lived in Hamburg. In West Germany, he was able to achieve his dream of studying medicine, which he was prohibited from doing in East Germany for political reasons. Today he works as a specialist in orthopedics.

Gauck's son serves Budweiser beer and potato chips and points out the photos under the glass cover of the coffee table. There is one picture of him as a baby lying on his father's stomach, another of him surrounded by the family on the beach at the Baltic Sea resort of Wustrow and, finally, a snapshot of father and son meeting in the United States, the land of freedom. Their history is the history of a lost father.

For a long time, says the son, his father was far less empathetic and affectionate than he is today.

"The warm-heartedness that characterizes him today is something we could have used as children," says Christian Gauck. Germany's soon-to-be president used to find it hard to praise his children and to be happy with them, says the son. "Parental expressions of love were rare in our family. The best we could hope for was the occasional pat on the shoulder." To him, it felt like his father was wearing a suit of armor.

He hastens to add that his parents also got little affection from their own parents. When Joachim Gauck was 11, his father was arrested, sentenced to two 25-year terms in a gulag and sent to Siberia. The family was not told where the father was, or if he was even alive anymore. The authorities advised the mother to get a divorce, pointing out that her husband was, after all, a spy.

Four years later, after Stalin's death, the father returned home, emaciated and chilled in every respect.

Gauck is 'A Completely Different Person'

Christian Gauck says he is pleased that his father has addressed his problems. When he had completed this process, Joachim Gauck wrote letters to his children, hoping to start a dialogue. This gesture brought their own father closer to them, says his son. When he compares the earlier Joachim Gauck with the man he is today, the son adds, he is forced to conclude that his father is now "a completely different person."

Intensive self-examination sometimes stems from exaggerated self-confidence. Today Gauck is fairly satisfied with himself and his qualities, and he likes to point that out to others. At the beginning of his reading in Fürth, he tells his listeners what they can look forward to: "I have given many readings in the last two years, none of which went wrong. Today's reading won't go wrong either. "

After the initial euphoria that accompanied his first candidacy for the presidency in 2010, Gauck traveled through his country as a happy citizen. He was reconciled with his family, and he was finally receiving the attention and affection he had craved for so long. He read from his book, accepted awards and gave many speeches. It seemed as though he was accepting every invitation, from all kinds of of companies, from banks and even from alverde, the dm drug store chain's customer magazine, which featured him on its January cover.

"I enjoy the readings and lectures because I have such an erotic relationship with education. I want people to understand things," says Gauck. When he says things like this, it becomes easier to understand why Merkel didn't want this man, whose biography has so much in common with hers, to become president. An erotic relationship with education isn't exactly her cup of tea.

"Whenever I had those encounters in which people suddenly open their hearts, understand things and become empathetic, moments of great intensity are created," says Gauck. "Or, to put it in emotional terms: something that nourishes our souls."

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