If everything goes according to plan, on Sunday Germany will swear in Joachim Gauck as its 11th postwar president.
The choice of Mr. Gauck, a pastor known for his anti-Communist activism under the East German government, couldn’t come at a better time. Germany is playing the bad cop in the European Union’s efforts to manage the Continent’s debt crisis, and anti-German sentiment, particularly in southern Europe, is high. That in turn is pushing the German public away from spending more to help out its indebted neighbors, even as the country’s economy pushes it into a position of unrivaled power in Europe.
Germany is at a crossroads: become the Continent’s leader or be seen as the neighborhood bully. In a stroke of fortune, it is about to install, as its next president, a man known more for his integrity and moral leadership than for his political acumen, a man who can help make sure his country follows the first course.
Mr. Gauck’s election by the Federal Convention, made up of the lower house of the Parliament and representatives of the 16 German states, is a foregone conclusion, having been negotiated beforehand by the leading parties. The ceremonial nature of the vote underlines the impression that the president’s role is largely invisible.
But the president’s position inside Germany is unique: by design and tradition, it embodies the conscience of the nation. For over 60 years, the German president has often been a rudder in times of stress and, as frequently happens with the Germans, in moments of disorientation about their place in the world.
And yet the last two presidents, Horst Köhler and Christian Wulff, have resigned under clouds, Mr. Köhler over some ill-chosen words about Germany’s role in Afghanistan and Mr. Wulff in the face of corruption allegations.
Fortunately, there is Mr. Gauck. When he was 11 years old, he witnessed his father being hauled off by the secret police — the Stasi — to four years in Siberia. That episode made him hate the East German government, but it also made him politically suspect.
The only profession open to him was religion. As a Lutheran pastor, he used his pulpit to call out the crimes of the East German government, repeatedly comparing them to the Nazis. His outspokenness made him the universal choice when, after unification, Germany tackled the daunting task of opening the infamous Stasi files — a fraught undertaking that was sure to devastate relationships and sunder families. But instead of using his position to wreak vengeance, he ran his organization with such fairness that it was informally named for him: the Gauck Authority.
Despite his popularity, Mr. Gauck has largely eschewed politics. Whereas his predecessors have all been products of the highly structured German party system, he has never held office and does not even belong to a political party.
Nevertheless, he has a 69 percent approval rating, based largely on his reputation for personal integrity and his habit of speaking from the heart. Germans refer to him as a “mensch” rather than as a politician.
Mr. Gauck is, of course, not without his detractors. Some eastern Germans complain that he was late to join the 1989 revolution. Others find him egocentric and monothematic: he can talk only about freedom and responsibility, they say, and knows nothing about foreign policy.
Still, Mr. Gauck joins Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, in one of the most astonishing developments of all: only two decades after West Germany effectively swallowed the bankrupt East, two East Germans will be running the country. The symbolism of having two former victims of Communist oppression — one a pastor, the other the daughter of one — leading the country that was once the great oppressor will not be lost on Europeans with long memories.
And it comes at a critical moment for Germany’s development. Gone are the happy days of the cold war when, nestled beneath the American nuclear umbrella, Germany could play everyone’s second fiddle. Germany loved being the model student, not the model teacher — and its neighbors loved it that way, too.
That has changed. The centrifugal dynamic of the debt crisis — with Europe’s southern fringe flying toward insolvency as the northern center becomes economically more muscular — has put Germany at the fulcrum of decision making in the euro crisis.
This new pre-eminence has already created a predictable backlash. Hard-pressed Greeks have taken to blaming Germany for the reform pressures brought by the European Union. Both Ms. Merkel and the German finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, have been portrayed in the Greek media as the new Nazis, complete with Third Reich uniforms and swastikas.
Germans aren’t used to being kicked in the shins by those who are also shaking the tin cup, and yet as their American allies could tell them, this is the price of leadership: it’s damned if you do, damned if you don’t.
Following the revolutions of 1989, principled leaders like Vaclav Havel of Czechoslovakia and Adam Michnik of Poland reminded Europe where the moral center of gravity lay; thanks in large part to them, what could have been a difficult post-Communist era was smoothed out.
It may be asking too much to expect Mr. Gauck, another creature of 1989, to play a similar role. Europe today is more of a muddle than a revolution, and the drama lacks all romance.
Yet with stressful times ahead, and the old cultural demons raising their heads, a strong voice of simple principle can be only to the good. Germans need frequent reassurance that they are O.K. The rest of the world likes frequent reassurance that the Germans are O.K. Mr. Gauck is in a position to give both.
By Jackson Janes, the executive director of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies at Johns Hopkins University and Peter Ross Range, a writer who has reported frequently on Germany.