Joachim Gauck: the making of a technocrat

Germany’s next president might believe in personal freedom, but his parliamentary colleagues seem less keen.

Matthias Heitman

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Topics Politics

Last month, German president Christian Wulff was forced to resign following a financial corruption scandal relating to his days as governor of Lower Saxony. His case was not helped when it emerged that he had tried to pressurise the editor of the Bild newspaper into not breaking the story. Still, this being Germany, Wulff’s travails have at least inspired the creation of a new German verb: ‘Wulffing.’ It means to not tell the truth while simultaneously trying not to be exposed as a liar.

Replacing Wulff will be the septuagenarian Johannes Gauck, a former East German priest and an opponent of the Communist regime in the run-up to the collapse of the GDR in 1989. Up until 2000, Gauck was best known for his work as the federal commissioner for the Stasi archives, a role which involved allowing people access to the files which the secret police had kept on them. Since then Gauck, a great believer in personal freedom, has never been far away from frontline politics in Germany, albeit in a politically independent capacity. In the presidential elections of 2010, for instance, he stood against Wulff as the Social Democratic and Green parties’ candidate, despite not being a member of either party. While he may have lost in 2010, Wulff’s Wulffing has given Gauck a second chance. So it was, following Gauck’s cross-party nomination, that chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative coalition government finally, and reluctantly, agreed to nominate him as the common candidate of all ‘democratic parties in the Bundestag’.

The German public is already ironically experimenting with the new verb, ‘to Gauck’, although its meaning does not seem to be clear yet. It could be interpreted as follows: escaping into the consensus in order to then claim the consensus position as one’s own idea. This, after all, is exactly what Merkel did: she ‘Gaucked’. After severe rows with her party’s coalition partners in government, the Free Democrats, over their lack of support for conservative candidates, she gave in to the safe, consensus choice of Gauck, and claimed it was what she wanted all along. She even hailed Gauck as ‘a true teacher of democracy’.

That a person with no party affiliation is praised as ‘a true teacher of democracy’ by both government and opposition parties (except the the Left party) reveals something of the crisis facing Germany’s political class. On the face of it, Gauck does appear as the ideal candidate in these times of anxious consensus-building. Describing himself as ‘a left-wing liberal conservative rooted in the grassroots democratic East German movement’, he seems to be acceptable to everyone – apart from dyed-in-the-wool Stalinists, that is.

However, before Gauck has even set foot in office, the consensus around him is already starting to fracture, with Social Democrats and Greens digging out any controversial claims and statements made by him that might be deemed politically incorrect. It seems that some in the Bundestag are not prepared to allow a former civil-rights campaigner, considered an intellectual, to actually use these civil rights to express his thoughts. (The conservatives, it has to be said, have been little better, with some openly urging Gauck finally to get divorced from his long-estranged wife and to marry his long-term girlfriend.)

The problem with this desperation to cleanse Gauck of his opinions, not to mention his private life, is that it is only by dint of saying what he believes that a politician is able to make himself heard and recognised. If he is not able to do this, if he is not able or prepared to argue what he believes in public, he will be transformed into a bland technocrat. And, as a technocrat, he will lose any relationship with the people he supposedly speaks for. After all, there is no such thing as a popular grassroots technocrat.

It is remarkable how successfully the striving for consensus in Germany has replaced the democratic principle of trying to win popular support for ideas. However, it doesn’t come as a surprise. In order to gain clarity in political debates, you have to be prepared to accept and tolerate dissenting views. To be able to do so, you need to trust yourself and others to be able to win arguments in open debates. And to do that, you have to have arguments and positions. And it is here, in terms of strong arguments and positions that Germany’s political culture is severely lacking. This is why the striving for consensus has nothing in common with a truly democratic political culture, one in which dissenting or controversial views are grasped not as a threat but as a vital intellectual challenge.

It is ironic that Gauck personally worships democratic values such as political independence and the right to speak out freely. In his new role as president it seems Germany’s political elite is determined to turn him into a living symbol of the decline of democratic culture.

Matthias Heitmann is a freelance journalist and an editor at Novo-Argumente. Visit his website here.

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