The Presidential Office in Germany is a unique product of German history. It is a curious mixture of past monarchies and postwar symbolism of the Federal Republic. The office seeks to be above the political fray but still very much capable of influencing it.
Joachim Gauck is the eleventh such President —one of two who never held a governing political office before. And his path to Schloss Bellvue is the story of Germany pre- (but primarily post-) 1945 and in particular the story of Germany’s division and then unification. His story, splendidly presented by Johann Legner, is also that of an individual confronting challenges and choices in one political system followed by another very different set of circumstances and finding a path through both.
It is a path full of twists and turns shaped in no small manner by the force of Gauck’s personality. It is a path through and after a revolution in 1989 in which his role evolved within a unified Germany. That role was marked by a decision by the federal government giving him a unique historical role in guiding the country through the uncharted territory of coming to grips with the legacy of the GDR. Amid all the difficulties of creating that institution and its process, Gauck accomplished something that neither East nor West Germany was capable of doing after World War II, something that no other country had been able to organize in dealing with the past.
Legner tells this story in a way that embeds the path Gauck took in many different circles, starting from his early years in northern Germany. Along the way, he manages to convey both the drama and the environment in which events took place not only around Joachim Gauck, but also around the many other figures and events particularly shaping post-1989 Germany, many of whom would accompany Gauck as friends and sometimes foes.
One feels the tensions among East Germans feeling their way in unfamiliar territory and the competition among political forces. Legner defines Gauck’s efforts to create bridges between east and west with his unique talent to connect with his audiences. He also does not avoid pointing at both the strengths and weaknesses of Joachim Gauck, personal and professional, as he struggled with his ambitions, obstacles, and the consequences of his decisions.
Legner, who was Gauck’s press spokesman during part of his tenure as Federal Commissioner for the STASI Records, has the ability to put the reader “in the room” as Gauck faces his opportunities and limitations. He focuses in particular on speeches Gauck delivers, which defined his role and image well before he became Federal President and in retrospect why he became President.
Gauck’s full legacy as President still lies ahead to be written. But Legner’s book signals what we should look for already. It is beautifully written in German. It ought to be available in English for those who are interested in Gauck and in Germany twenty-five years after the Wall came down.