Joachim Gauck, Lutheran pastor from the East, elected Germany’s president

March 18, 2012

(Joachim Gauck stands in front of a TV screen with a picture of Germany's Federal Assembly after being elected by the assembly as president, in Berlin, March 18, 2012. REUTERS/Thomas Peter)

Germans resoundingly elected Joachim Gauck, a former Lutheran pastor and human rights activist from communist East Germany, as president of the European Union’s largest country on Sunday, posing a potential headache for Chancellor Angela Merkel.

In the largely ceremonial office of president, Gauck presents no threat to Merkel’s domination of national politics. But his moral authority, independence of mind and lack of party affiliation could make him an awkward partner for her government as it struggles to overcome Europe’s economic crisis. Gauck, 72, won 991 votes in the federal assembly comprising members of parliament and regional delegates. His main rival, veteran anti-Nazi campaigner Beate Klarsfeld, got 126 votes.

Germans hope Gauck, a prominent player in the peaceful protests that led to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, can restore dignity to the presidency, tarnished by financial scandals that felled his predecessor Christian Wulff.

“I take up this post with the endless gratitude of a person who, after a long trek through the political desert of the 20th century, has finally and unexpectedly found his home again and was able to witness in the last 20 years the joy of shaping a democratic society,” he said after taking the oath of office.

Gauck has a rich life story shaped by the Cold War. When he was 11 his father was sent to the Siberian Gulag for alleged espionage and did not return for four years. That experience fostered an abiding aversion to totalitarianism, and he has said freedom will be the leitmotif of his presidency.

After the fall of Communism and Germany’s reunification, Gauck oversaw the archives of the dreaded Stasi, the East German secret police, earning recognition for exposing their crimes. He ensured that the sprawling files were used to root out former Stasi employees and collaborators in public service and to understand the country’s past.

See also Eastern activist tilts Germany’s political landscape and How East Germany‚Äôs communists misunderstood its Protestants.


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