East Germans unite: Joachim Gauck elected president

Both Germany's new President Joachim Gauck and Chancellor Angela Merkel hail from the former communist East Germany, marking a turning point in the country's reintegration efforts.

Thomas Peter/Reuters
Joachim Gauck.

When members of the federal assembly in Berlin cast their votes today, Germany not only elected a new president but marked a turning point in the country's post-cold war struggle for integration of East and West Germany. 

With Joachim Gauck as president and Angela Merkel in the chancellery, the country's two top political positions will for the first time be held by people from the former communist East Germany.

The shift in German society is one that some argue has long been overdue, while others are surprised at its early arrival. 

“While the Catholics in Germany’s south and west celebrated carnival, East German protestants took over power in far-off Berlin,” wrote former German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer in an Op-Ed in Süddeutsche Zeitung after Gauck’s candidacy was announced in February. 

After reunification in 1990, career politicians and civil servants from the West took over most influential positions in government on both the federal and state level. Then-Chancellor Helmut Kohl shunned the East German civil rights campaigners who had driven the protest that led to the fall of the Berlin Wall. His party colleague Max Streibl, prime minister of Bavaria at the time, recommended the “amateurs” should return to their former jobs.

Few East German executives 

Today, in Ms. Merkel’s 15-member cabinet, there is still not a single minister from East Germany. This situation is mirrored in wider society: In 2010, East Germans inhabited only 9 percent of top business positions, according to a study by the German Institute for Economic Research in Berlin. None of the top 30 German companies traded at the Frankfurt stock exchange are run by an East German, neither are any of the big national media organizations.

Against this backdrop, Der Spiegel magazine hailed Gauck’s election as “A revolution.” The influential weekly Die Zeit writes, “We have reached the goal – future generations will look back at this event as the moment German integration was completed."

Merkel and Gauck seem to have a lot in common. Neither of them is a career politician: Merkel is a scientist by profession, Gauck was a Protestant pastor. Both were critical of the East German regime, but did not join anti-government protests until very late. Both were members of the last – and only democratically elected – East German parliament in 1990. Merkel went on to rise quickly in the Christian Democratic Union party, while independent Gauck became the first federal commissioner for the Stasi records, heading the agency that deals with the files of the former East German secret service.

Highly popular politicians

Both have high approval ratings. Almost 70 percent of Germans surveyed in February thought Merkel was doing a good job as chancellor, the same number of people regarded Gauck as a good replacement for Christian Wulff, the CDU politician who stepped down from the presidency in February amid allegations of corruption.

“There is a part in German society that longs for authenticity and a bit of exotic flavor,” says Alexander Cammann, columnist for Die Zeit. “But what Merkel’s and Gauck’s ascent shows most of all is the remarkable permeability of Germany’s political system today. A similar event in British or French politics is almost inconceivable.”

Joachim Gauck’s central message is freedom. A gifted orator with a tendency to melodrama, he is sometimes accused of ostentatiously taking the moral high ground – much in contrast to the very pragmatic Merkel. For Jana Hensel, an East German author, Gauck is the right choice at the right time.

“He shares with his East German compatriots the experience of radical change,” she says. “In times of crisis such as these, he can convey the thought that it is always worthwhile to look for new ideas.”

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