Germany's New Pastor-President

What the election of a prominent Atlanticist, storied anticommunist and tireless human-rights crusader means for Germany.

Germans should be proud. Europe may just have found a worthy successor to Vaclav Havel—a reliable U.S. ally who can strengthen cooperation between both sides of the Atlantic.

Joachim Gauck, Germany’s eleventh president, is a man formed in the crucible of the fight against communism. He has a moral compass and a spine. He does not fear addressing difficult issues. He knows where he stands.

For a good part of his career, Gauck, aged seventy-two, was a Lutheran pastor and an internationally renowned human-rights activist. The position of president of the Federal Republic of Germany may be ceremonial, but several occupants have used its bully pulpit effectively a over the last decades.

Gauck’s election may cause heartburn among those who knew and worked with the Stasi, the brutal secret police force of East Germany. Some of these people still occupy high positions in the former Eastern bloc. However, Gauck joins a spectacular lineup of anticommunist fighters who have reached high positions in their home countries since the collapse of the Soviet Union: Romania’s Emil Constantinescu, Czech Republic’s Vaclav Havel, Lithuania’s Vytautas Landsbergis, Estonia’s Lennart Meri and Natan Sharansky, eventually of Israel.

Gauck was raised in a deeply anticommunist family. His father was arrested by the Soviet security services on fabricated charges of spying and returned from a Siberian gulag crippled. Although the younger Gauck was often advised to escape to West Germany, he deliberately chose to remain in East Germany, or the German Democratic Republic (GDR) to confront the communist regime.

Branded an “incorrigible anticommunist” as a student and later as a pastor, he was closely monitored by the Stasi. After repeatedly preaching about individual responsibility, freedom and the errors of East German totalitarianism, his situation considerably worsened. His children were barred from going to college.

Attempts to force Gauck to cooperate failed, so the Stasi launched a systematic smear campaign against him. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, Germany’s Far Left press carried on with the campaign, which recently reappeared in the social media.

Often labeled a maverick, Gauck can look back at a successful career since reunification. A spokesperson for the East German New Forum during the peaceful revolution of 1989, he was elected to the last parliament of the GDR on the list of Alliance 90, a democratic union of opposition movements.

He was nominated special representative (custodian) for the Stasi archives, and later confirmed by the Federal Government of the Federal Republic of Germany for this position. This job required tremendous ethical understanding and judgment, as human fates could be destroyed when the documents in the files became public. As in many communist states, wives informed on husbands, children on parents. Gauck’s impact was such that Germans soon associated his name with the Office of the Custodian, which became known as the Gauck Behoerde.

His numerous books, especially the Black Book of Communism (coauthored with a number of other European academics and edited by Stéphane Courtois), have been guiding lights for many countries confronted with the problem of lustration—exposure of the former communist functionaries and secret agents and banning them from government posts. Failure to undertake lustration caused ambiguous outcomes in many post-Soviet countries, including Russia and Ukraine.

In recent years, Joachim Gauck’s activism has been focused on the Foundation against Oblivion and for Democracy, which he chairs. Germany’s new president is also a cosigner of the Prague Declaration on the Crimes of Communism.

The former pastor is the most popular political figure in Germany, but he has never joined any political party. Described as a Liberal-Conservative by the German press, he was picked as a presidential candidate by the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and the Green Party in June 2010, after the resignation of President Koehler (CDU). He lost that race to Chancellor Angela Merkel’s candidate, Christian Wulff (CDU).