For an American of my generation, the Cold War—especially the division of Germany—was an intimate and powerful experience. I grew up with the Berlin wall—it was born on the day I first set foot on German soil and I was there for its death. The subjugation and depression I saw on many trips into East Germany generated a profound sympathy for a repressed people, now finally free. No one has better captured the emotional quality of that liberation than President Gauck.
And today, no one seems more acutely aware of Germany’s enlarged role in Europe than the new German president. I’ve met Gauck a few times in the past. His background as a resistant preacher in the GDR, and his sensitive management of the records of the Stasi’s 39 years of repression, made him one of my favorites. I thought Germany was well served in choosing him for president.
In the Federal President’s Office, a modern glass structure hidden in the woods near Schloss Bellevue, I have an appointment to meet with David Gill, Gauck’s chief of staff. Inside the oval building, the four-story atrium seems as quiet as a monastery between prayers. All the doors are closed, German style. It seems almost Kafkaesque; I wait for a door to open—but where? With its black railings and long balconies, it looks like the inside of a prison, says a German friend.
Finally a door pops open and I meet Gill. He is all energy, charm and smarts. Gill laughs quickly, appreciates irony, grasps questions intuitively.
Like Gauck, Gill grew up in East Germany, a man of the church. Following unification, he and Gauck became a tandem team, with Gill serving as press spokesman of Gauck’s agency to manage the old Stasi files. Gill went on to study at the University of Pennsylvania and even spent a few weeks at Harvard. No one better understands the conflict and synergy between Citizen Gauck and President Gauck than David Gill.
Gill is, of course, fully in tune with President Gauck’s themes of freedom and empowerment of the individual as an engaged political actor. The president also understands that while Germany must never again become too powerful, the country has a responsibility—because of pure size and economic success—to play a certain role in support of Europe. He tells his counterparts in other countries that they are better off dealing with a self-confident country than one that is still unsure of itself, but that Germans may not be quite as self-confident as they may look.
Gauck’s ability to be the good face of Germany, internally and externally, always seemed to me his strength. In The New York Times, last March, we wrote: “Germans need frequent reassurance that they are O.K. The rest of the world likes frequent reassurance that the Germans are O.K. Mr. Gauck is in a position to give both.”