Germany’s ‘Unpolitical’ New President

Could you become president of the Federal Republic of Germany if you told the Germans that they have a “repulsive” inclination to hysteria and overblown fears?

Or that they have a shallower, less instinctive relationship to freedom than Poles or Americans? Or that they live in a culture of dissatisfaction, with many of them behaving as if there were a secret German constitution whose first article enunciates the unassailable protection of their living standards?

Joachim Gauck has said just that over the last few years, and didn’t really let up Friday at his swearing-in as Germany’s effective moral arbiter: He described the strongest country in Europe as a place where “fear sometimes so diminishes our courage and self-confidence that we could completely lose both — even to the point that we take cowardice for a virtue and regard running away as a legitimate political position.”

On the scale of genuine political novelty, Mr. Gauck being given the job of becoming Germany’s official gadfly, conscience and consensual voice rates a 10-plus.

Happily, the former East German pastor, dissident and head of the commission that opened the files of the East German secret police after the fall of the Berlin Wall also retains a preacher’s gift for embracing his congregation. Still, he is a man unlikely ever to speak from the summit of Mount Righteous, Germany’s designated perch for its political class to scold the world on its armed interventions, economic frailties, or failure to separate its garbage correctly.

Mr. Gauck’s taking office represents remarkable possibilities that new notions of honesty, empathy, responsibility and solidarity become hallmarks of German leadership in Europe.

As chief of state, the new president’s powers are essentially verbal. But having no party affiliation, his will and legitimacy to speak out freely was emphasized by Chancellor Angela Merkel’s resistance to his candidacy after President Christian Wulff resigned in the midst of a corruption investigation. Ms. Merkel was described as finding Mr. Gauck too “unpolitical” for the job — read that as too forthright and unbending — and too much a contradiction to her inclination to play politics with German fears. Yet she had to abandon her opposition when his book “Freiheit” (freedom) was at the top of the national best-seller list and he won the backing of all but one party in the Bundestag.

Mr. Gauck’s message is clear. He stated in his inaugural speech that freedom was the central theme in his life. He has written that it is a conviction of a minority in Germany, where security, stability and social justice are more comfortable values. He insists that freedom is the most important element in democracy because “above all, freedom bestows culture, substance and content on our society.”

My reading is that Mr. Gauck believes that a lack of respect for and engagement in freedom has an overriding role in creating Germany’s anxieties and self-involved focus on precaution and regulation. He thinks the country is on a continual search for its next big angst, according to a Frankfurt Allgemeine Zeitung reporter, who listed them as including a microbe causing a severe strain of diarrhea, attack dogs and Europe.

Mr. Gauck also has important observations about recent German history. He has suggested West German notions of “détente” of the 1970s and ’80s resembled “appeasement” of Communist oppressors and a readiness via the “peace movement” to “disarm the democratic West mentally and militarily.”

Peace? Obviously in favor. But, he asserts in his book, “A refusal to use force in concrete situations can also mean smoothing the way for oppressors and aggressors, or tolerating their terror.”

In this light, if projected into the present, Ms. Merkel’s decision a year ago to refuse to let Germany fight alongside its allies for freedom in Libya would likely have run into a strong opposing presidential voice.

As for the chancellor’s sudden decision to abandon Germany’s atomic energy network, Mr. Gauck has been described as noting that it came in the context of German fears of a Rhine-Main version of the Fukuyama tsunami. (And just happened to occur, I’d add, on the eve of a major regional election.)

Would this president, who emphasized last week that Europe couldn’t survive without the “life-breath of solidarity,” say that real German solidarity with Europe would mean a growth program that tempers its creeds of austerity and advantageous trade imbalances? Or, as Klaus Naumann, a former German Army chief of staff, argues — and Ms. Merkel ought to — that Vladimir Putin’s behavior in relation to Syria means his Russia cannot be an acceptable partner for NATO?

It’s not impossible.

Two fears about Mr. Gauck come to mind here. One is his recent talk of regretting that as president he will be less spontaneous and less able to make positive use of his rough edges.

There is a second, greater concern. It is that as the world comes to know a man capable of creating real hopes of Germany emerging as a fair and brave leader in Europe, the Germans themselves will find less to their liking the awkward truths Mr. Gauck insists on bringing to the nation’s consciousness.

By John Vinocur , senior correspondent at The International Herald Tribune.

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