President Gauck, from behind Iron Curtain to Germany's centre stage

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President Gauck, from behind Iron Curtain to Germany's centre stage

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Joachim Gauck, the 11th President of the Federal Republic of Germany, is the first to personify 70 years of history – the stresses of division and reunification.

While he will now reside in a presidential palace, he comes from a family of sailors.

Gauck was born in 1940 when Hitler’s armies were devastating Europe. Gauck’s birthplace, Rostock, fell under Soviet control. He grew up in a time when many Germans were confronted with what had been done in their name. Awareness varied in both Communist eastern Germany and in democratic western Germany.

Gauck’s father had been a captain in Hitler’s navy during World War Two. In 1951, now a shipyard inspector, the Soviet occupation forces arrested him, and a military tribunal sentenced him as a pro-western spy and sent him to the Siberian gulag where he remained for four years. Joachim and his siblings therefore nurtured strong feelings against the regime.

At 19, Gauck was looking for ammunition against Marxist state doctrine. Being a young anti-communist narrowed one’s study options, but theology was a rare area in which the ruling ideology did not prevail. In 1967 he became a parson in a small village in Mecklenburg.

The officially atheist Democratic Republic of Germany, or GDR as it was called, was built without churches in mind. But Gauck was one of the young pastors who developed the religious community in spite of this, later expanding his efforts regionally.

Church leaders made compromises with the state but remained critical. Like many clergymen, Gauck was under constant surveillance, but he was never imprisoned. Former opposition activists have said Gauck came into the open very late, when it was no longer dangerous.

The first time Gauck preached strongly against the East German government was after mass demonstrations had broken out and the head of state Erich Honecker was replaced by the Communist party late in 1989.

When free parliamentary elections were held in the spring of 1990, the pastor from Rostock won a seat, ending his church career at this point.

At the parliament’s final session later that year, it appointed him special commissioner for Stasi files on individual persons. After he had moved into politics, securing the records amassed by the ministry for state security – or ‘Stasi’ – had become his cause celebre.

He held the post for ten years, after East and West Germany reunified. Millions of people in the next decade asked to see their own files. Laws were enacted, combining privacy protection and opening a window on a dark side of life behind the former Iron Curtain.

Gauck became a slang verb: “to be gaucked” was taken to mean checking in the old Stasi files whether a candidate for public service had ever filled such a post under the discredited regime.

On a personal, a-religious and modern note, Gauck has been separated from his wife for 20 years. For the past ten he has lived with journalist Daniela Schadt, who will be Germany’s First Lady.