Former anti-Communist human rights activist and pastor Joachim Gauck is to become the next German president after President Christian Wulff, a career politician and lawyer, resigned on Friday amid allegations of political and financial favors.
In December, reports emerged that Wulff had accepted a personal loan of 500,000 euros (roughly $650,000) from the wife of a wealthy friend while he was the governor of Lower Saxony. More recently, his relationship with a film executive, David Groenewold — whose company had received loan guarantees from Lower Saxony — has come under fire. This past Thursday, prosecutors requested that the Bundestag strip Wulff of his immunity from prosecution, charging that there are “factual indications” of “long-suspected improprieties.” Wulff has denied the allegations, saying that, while he had “made mistakes,” he “was always honest.”
The office of Germany president is largely ceremonial but still heavily influential.
Described as a “moral authority to be reckoned with,” Gauck presents a striking contrast to his predecessor. Born (like Chancellor Angela Merkel) in East Germany, Gauck’s father was sent to a Siberian gulag when he was 11. Gauck aspired to become a journalist but ended up studying theology because he refused to join communist youth organizations. He used his pulpit to promote human rights and was a founder of New Forum, a civil rights movement created in 1989, in the months prior to the collapse of the German Democratic Republic (GDR). Gauck became the commissioner to oversee the archives of the East German secret police, the Stasi, on the last day of the GDR’s existence and turned the secret police files into a “transparent archive” to find former Stasi employees and collaborators working in public service. His commission became known as the “Gauck authority,” though he has been more recently questioned for allowing former Stasi archive employees to continue to work there, on the grounds that their “insider knowledge” is irreplaceable.
The choice of Gauck is a blow to Merkel who reportedly “bitterly opposed” his appointment and only did so to avoid political infighting within her government. Merkel has now lost two conservative presidents: Wullf’s predecessor, Horst Köhler, resigned in May 2010 after being heavily criticized for saying that German soldiers deployed in Afghanistan or on other peace-keeping missions were there to protect Germany’s economic interests.
Gauck was a popular choice for president in 2010. Merkel must now acknowledge that she made a “serious mistake” by not appointing him in the first place. Her decision not to support his candidacy is somewhat surprising given that they are described as friends, having both grown up in East Germany and being both the children of Lutheran pastors.
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