The coronation of the new German president

By Ulrich Rippert
21 March 2012

On Sunday, the Federal Assembly in Berlin elected 72-year-old Joachim Gauck as the new president of Germany. Gauck enjoyed the support of nearly all the parties represented in the German parliament, i.e. the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), Christian Social Union (CSU), Free Democratic Party (FDP), the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and the Greens. The only dissenting voice came from the Left Party, which put forward it own candidate, Beate Klarsfeld, thereby providing a democratic gloss to the all-party consensus for Gauck.

Gauck received 991 of 1,228 valid votes, representing an approval rating of more than 80 percent. However, at least 103 delegates from the pro-Gauck camp refused to vote for him. His rival, the 73-year-old veteran anti-fascist Klarsfeld, received 126 votes. This meant she received three votes from other delegates, in addition to the 123 votes of the Left Party.

The election was accompanied by a bizarre campaign in the media and political circles. Following the agreement of all five major parties to support Gauck, the vote by the Assembly on Sunday was just a formality. Nevertheless, the reaction of the political elite in Berlin resembled the preparations for the coronation of an emperor.

Gauck studied theology in former East Germany and became a Protestant pastor in the city of Rostock before joining the pro-capitalist organisation New Forum (Neuen Forum) in 1989. Now he is being treated as a kind of political messiah. On Monday the Berliner Zeitung ran the headline: “Gauck be with us”. In the Süddeutsche Zeitung, Heribert Prantl wrote that “President Moses” could unite a severely divided nation, and become the “spokesman of civil society”.

One subject dominated the talk shows and television programs for days: Joachim Gauck. In one influential talk program on Sunday evening, host Gunther Jauch justified the euphoria surrounding Gauck by declaring him the “people’s president”.

The attempt to style the reactionary philistine Joachim Gauck as a fatherly figure standing above the parties and society as a whole, as a man far removed from “everyday political horse-trading” and thus capable of representing the entire nation, is a reflection of the deep conflicts in German society. The very fact that all of the main parties agreed on a single candidate is extraordinary and almost unique. Apart from the re-election of Richard von Weizsacker in 1989, the SPD and CDU-CSU have invariably stood their own opposing candidates.

The all-party President Gauck is a product of the closing of ranks between the various parties against a background of growing social tensions. The policies of successive governments beginning with the SPD-Green government led by Gerhard Schröder (1998-2005), its successor, the coalition of the CDU and the SPD headed by Angela Merkel (2005- 2008), and the second government led by Merkel (CDU-CSU and FDP), have produced social polarisation and the growth of a huge reserve of cheap-wage labourers condemned to precarious forms of work.

These growing divisions have broken up the consensus that predominated in the Federal Republic in the post-war period. The German system of social partnership and “social market economy” have now been replaced by savage cuts in social spending aimed at debt reduction. This is why the media is emphasizing that the new president must stand above parties and restore confidence in the state. They openly welcome the fact that the politically non-aligned Gauck fervently supports the government’s austerity policies and defends extremely conservative and right-wing positions on many social and political issues.

In his brief acceptance speech to the Federal Assembly on Sunday Gauck limited his remarks to platitudes about democracy and freedom. He began by pointing out that the date of March 18 had been chosen with care for his election. After all, “exactly 22 years ago today we voted. We were the millions of East Germans who could finally take up their rights as citizens after 56 years of rule by dictators”.

Gauck’s equation of the GDR with rule by the Nazis is typical of his demagoguery. He always writes and speaks of the GDR as a criminal state and dictatorship. His hysterical anti-communism is bound up with a trivialization of the crimes committed by the Nazi regime.

He then followed with a remark about the “happiness of liberation” 22 years ago and quoted philosopher and political scientist Dolf Sternberger (1907-1989), whom he described as a man who had taught democracy to the Germans. Sternberger was not an opponent of nationalism, but was opposed to the Hitler dictatorship. As a consequence he struck the “A” from his first name. He went on to coin the term “constitutional patriotism”, which argued that Germans should base their national pride on the country’s constitution.

This argument has been used in the past to suppress political opponents, in particular socialists, by declaring them to be enemies of the constitution. The same reasoning was used by the former SPD-Green government and its foreign minister, Joschka Fischer, to justify German participation in the NATO war against Serbia in the late 1990s.

Gauck has explicitly campaigned for international military operations by the German army on several occasions. In the summer of 2010 he gave a speech in Berlin in which he appealed for more public support for the Afghanistan war, which he regarded as “correct and necessary”.

In the course of his unsuccessful candidacy for the presidency in the autumn of 2010 and in recent weeks, Gauck has made plain his support for the anti-social policies of the government. In the manner of “moderate” US Republicans, he speaks of “caring conservatism”, and the need for “social responsibility”, key phrases to justify the systematic dismantling of welfare provisions.

His call for more freedom and civic engagement corresponds to the positions of the free-market Free Democrats and goes hand in hand with his denunciation of a social insurance system based on parity of contributions and treatment. Gauck deplores such a system as state paternalism and an intolerable affront to individual initiative.

In October 2010 he gave an extensive interview in the Süddeutsche Zeitung designed to justify the current social decline. Under the heading “People have to get up out of their hammocks”, Gauck combined appeals to patriotism with attacks on all forms of government welfare. “People should ditch their notions that there is an easy way to happiness based on pleasure and prosperity. They should not expect others to act on their behalf”, Gauck intoned.

In Gauck’s conception, democracy does not mean the majority expressing its will, but rather the imposition of the interests of the ruling elite who call themselves democrats. At every opportunity, he praises the merits of statesmen who have had the courage to follow a policy that “opposed the will of the majority of the population”. In this respect, he explicitly endorsed the labour market “reforms” introduced by Chancellor Gerhard Schröder (SPD), as well as the decision by Chancellor Helmut Schmidt (SPD) to allow NATO to set up military bases in Germany in the early 1980s—in the face of intense opposition. Both men lost their posts as a result. Gauck prefers politicians prepared “to risk not being re-elected”.

Gauck has both expressed his support for the “courage” of the racist pamphleteer Thilo Sarrazin, while vigorously denouncing those who protest against the power of financial markets. In the autumn of last year he described the Occupy movement as “indescribably stupid”.

The election of Gauck as president now means that two former East Germans are at the head of the national state. Both figures, the pastor’s daughter and physicist Angela Merkel and the pastor from Rostock, Joachim Gauck, led unremarkable lives in the GDR and had evidently adapted to the Stalinist system. They were first politically mobilized by the reintroduction of capitalist exploitation. Their calls for democracy and freedom were steeped in anti-communism and directed against all of the social reforms and gains made in the East despite the Stalinist regime.

Gauck’s entry into the presidential palace signifies that the offensive against the working class is to be stepped up. The fact that he was chosen by an all-party coalition should be taken as a warning. It ushers in a new stage of fierce social and political conflicts.