President Joachim Gauck: a pastor for the German soul

Born into the Third Reich and having lived through hard times in East Germany, Joachim Gauck now presides over the unified federal republic. As he prepares for a state visit to Ireland, the German president talks about his country’s role in Europe at a testing time

The German word Seelsorger has no precise English equivalent, but it most commonly describes a priest or pastor who cares for someone's emotional state or soul. President Joachim Gauck, who arrives in Ireland on Monday for a three-day state visit, has a largely ceremonial role as Germany's head of state. In reality Gauck is his country's Seelsorger-in-chief.

Born in 1940 into one Germany, the Third Reich, Gauck was raised in another, the vanished German Democratic Republic – or East Germany, as it was also known – and today presides over a third: the unified federal republic that emerged in 1990 after east and west were rejoined.

Gauck's early life was lived in unhappy opposition to the East German regime, after his father was disappeared in 1951 on trumped-up espionage charges, returning only after four years' hard labour. As a student Gauck was drawn to the free space offered by theology and "a truth that can neither be ordered nor taken by anyone". And as a Lutheran pastor in the northeastern city of Rostock he emerged, in 1989, as a Seelsorger in East Germany's hour of hope and uncertainty.

After unification a new role came for him as custodian of East Germany's most toxic legacy, the files of the Stasi secret police. Opening rather than sealing the files was a popular, not a political, decision – and one that could have gone badly wrong. But Gauck, a calm but thorough Seelsorger, set the gold standard for dealing with historical burdens.

Nostalgic lens

As an eastern German the president says that his view of Ireland is projected partly through the western German nostalgic lens of Heinrich Böll’s

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. Through this lens, he says, Ireland was seen by postwar generations as a “kind of dream land” where “wild coasts and joie de vivre” combined with an “inner melancholy” and a love of literature.

But East Germans have an additional shared understanding, he says in responses to written questions from The Irish Times. Both peoples know the suffering caused by division as well as what Gauck calls "the heavy question of whether to stay or to leave".

“For us in the GDR, where I’m from, this was also a crucial question and a particularly dangerous one,” Gauck, whose two sons left East Germany in 1987, says.

Recent years saw bilateral relations swamped by a crisis that put "all of Europe to the test". After hard domestic decisions and European solidarity, he says, Ireland passed the test.

“I am fully aware of the enormous personal sacrifices and tough cuts the people of Ireland have been forced to accept in order to overcome economic and social difficulties and a high level of unemployment,” he says. “Yet the Irish can now look back on real successes.”

Even European solidarity needs rules

While President Michael D Higgins and others in Ireland have described as unacceptable the social cost of the crisis to Europe’s people, Germany has come in for criticism that its approach has been overly technocratic, insisting on adherence to the rulebook of monetary union. Gauck disagrees, saying that even European solidarity needs rules.

“The rules of the economic and monetary union, which we set out together, don’t stipulate any concrete social policies or, indeed, any cuts in social budgets,” he says. “If there have been very painful cuts in this sphere it has been to prevent further difficulties and to overcome the crisis.”

Ireland, he recalls, shared a worldwide problem of lax banking supervision, leaving social reforms as one way of re-establishing sustainable public finances.

Alongside the euro crisis, Europe’s standoff with Russia on Ukraine on Gauck’s watch has revived a source of historical tension, one that many believed had been buried under the rubble of the Berlin Wall in 1989. The German question updated for the 21st century, it has three main facets: what is Germany’s relationship with itself, a quarter-century after unification?; how does it relate to its European neighbours, after seven years of crises?; and how does Germany view its place in an uncertain world of global trade, terrorism and refugee crises?

Last year Gauck's partner, Daniela Schadt, who accompanies the president in Ireland, boiled down Germany's challenges into a question that she says interests Gauck the most: "How do I define myself?"

This question underpinned his landmark speech last year that the terrible historical shadow of Germany's unilateral Sonderweg, or special path, was no longer a valid excuse for ducking global responsibility – including military action – in the present. "We should not trust in ourselves because we are the German nation," he said, in a nod to disastrous über alles hubris of the past, "but because we are this German nation".

This red thread runs right through his speeches: that Germans’ new-found ease in their own skins is only a means to an end, as well as strength to drive the causes of freedom and human rights.

With the gentle, persistent nudges of an experienced Seelsorger and gifted orator, Gauck wants to bridge the continuing gap between what Germany's partners believe it is able – even obliged – to do and what Germans feel comfortable doing.

Foreign policy

Although Germans are still wary of a larger role in the world, Gauck welcomes the debate he sparked. And although he would like “even more clarity” on German foreign policy in the future, he points with satisfaction to German involvement in challenges as diverse as the Ukraine conflict and combating Ebola.

“These completely divergent scenarios show how comprehensive our conflict-management skills and resources already are,” he says. “Even if there is room for improvement, I’m very glad that we’re so involved in many fields.”

On his three-day visit to Ireland Gauck will visit both houses of the Oireachtas and Trinity College Dublin, where he will see the Book of Kells. After a State dinner on Monday, and a reception at Farmleigh on Tuesday, he heads west on Wednesday to the Cliffs of Moher, the Burren and NUI Galway’s Irish Centre for Human Rights.

The German president says his trip is about underlining a “shared commitment to human rights, peace and development” and to underline “close and trusting exchange” between governments and parliaments. “When it comes down to it, the crisis has not changed that.”

It is a point rarely uttered but worth remembering. Even during the darkest crisis days, and the uproar at Bundestag previews of Ireland’s bailout budgets, Irish public opinion of Germany rarely dipped as low as published opinion of “the Germans”.

In fact a 2012 Irish Times poll found that 64 per cent of Irish respondents felt Germany was either doing enough or being asked to do too much in the crisis. Today, a quarter-century after EU leaders backed German unification at their Dublin summit, that country's head of state and its head of government are both leaders from the former east.

Gauck and Chancellor Angela Merkel are very different personalities, and much speculation surrounds their relationship. Three years after he took office, following the resignation of his predecessor, Christian Wulff, Gauck and Merkel have found a modus operandi as complementary, popular figures rather than as competitors.

And in times of tragedy, such as the Germanwings crash last March, the chancellor learned that in Gauck she has someone who intuitively sensed, and passed on, what the nation needed to share with grieving families: wordless, dignified empathy.

Combining intellectual gravitas with the common touch, Germany's Seelsorger-in-chief is always worth listening to.

Derek Scally

Derek Scally

Derek Scally is an Irish Times journalist based in Berlin