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Right life in the wrong life

Joachim Gauck talks about Ossis and Wessis, opposition, conformism, and the long-term psychological effects of a dictatorial regime. An interview with Joachim Güntner

Joachim Gauck rose to international fame after 1990 as "Lord of the Stasi Files". Born 1940 in Rostock, at the age of eleven, he witnessed the deportation of his father to a Russian Gulag. Typical for opposition figures under the SED regime, he studied theology and became a pastor: His political sermons in the spirit of the civil rights movement contributed to the fall of the Wall. As a member of Bündnis 90, he became a member of the first freely elected East German Volkskammer, in the final chapter of GDR history before German reunification. His autobiography "Winter in Sommer – Frühling in Herbst" was published in 2009. Since the publication of this article, Joachim Gauck has been nominated as the candidate for the SDP and the Greens to replace Horst Köhler as the next German president in the Federal Assembly elections on June 30.

NZZ: Herr Gauck, as a oppositional pastor in the GDR in Rostock, you gave a voice to the civil rights movement, between 1990 and 2000 you were the first Federal Commissioner for the Stasi Files. Now, at 70, you are something of a travelling democracy teacher. The eternal activist?

Joachim Gauck's autobiography, published by Siedler in 2009

Joachim Gauck
: I cannot retreat quietly and enjoy my retirement. I need to be engaged in dialogue, otherwise I can't enjoy life. Then there's the political element. I lived most of my life under a dictatorship, I played a role in bringing it to an end, and then, as a member of our first freely elected parliament, I was assigned the job of working through the past. So political discourse became very important to me. I love freedom and I live in a country which certainly likes freedom but, as Heinrich Heine said in his day: while the Frenchman loves freedom like his betrothed, the Englishman like a demure wife, the German loves freedom like his old grandmother. It is this rather limited affinity for freedom that I must grapple with.

Have you experienced hostility at your lectures or when you talk in schools as a witness of the time?

Especially in the East, people react very differently to me. They either expect almost too much of me or they want nothing to do with me. It it not necessarily hurtful to be fought by the counter-Enlightenment. Sometimes things can get very emotional but I don't encounter that much hostility because my enemies rarely attend my events.

You must meet a lot of young people who know almost nothing about the history of the GDR, and who don't want to know.

There is a certain ignorance among the young. For them I am an old man talking about something they know nothing about. Before, when I was still with the federal commission, I focussed my energies almost exclusively on the Stasi. Repression, arbitrariness, corrosion were the key words. I would talk about political justice and I used plenty of data and life stories to illustrate my point. Of course people were shocked, but the learning process was limited. To create more empathy, I started to use different examples and now I only talk about everyday life situations. How does one become part of a society like that? In the West I say somewhat bluntly: I will now tell you how to become an Ossi. I list all the steps towards socialisation in a completely intransigent system. First school, and the party's Pioneer organisations, the Young Pioneers with their blue kerchiefs, the Thälmann Pioneers with their red kerchiefs, and the Free German Youth (FDJ) with their blue shirts. Then I explain where it goes from there, how you get a degree or not, as the case may be, how you get into high school, or not – like my children who never belonged to these organisations.

Permanent education in conformism.

Which did not end with school. I talk about compromises and humiliating gestures of deference. What it is like to have to join a party just to become a foreman in a industrial plant, or a head engineer on a boat or a forester in the woods. Then silence engulfs the room, and I feel an intensity among the people which was not greater when I was talking about Stasi brutality. People can relate very closely to these life stories. None of them will have been in a secret police prison but all of them went through school or have pursued a profession or a job. Suddenly the people can imagine themselves as part of a uniform society. Everyone can accommodate to a dictatorship.

You are excusing the Ossis.

Not excusing them. I just want people who have not gone through these experiences to understand how people can change. We have two political cultures in Germany: the culture of a society in transformation in the East, and a halfway stable structure of a civil society in the West. When the two meet, of course misunderstandings occur. In my opinion, these differences stem more from the way mentalities are shaped than from participation in the communist ideology. Only a few people really believed in communism. But many people still feel that a free society is something very alien.

Even after three years in Leipzig, as someone born in West Germany I still come up against differences in habit, and I feel I stick out like a sore thumb.

You are immediately recognisable because you talk differently. You look at things differently too. Why is this a problem? A attitude that says, the world is my oyster. And this manifests itself in an open-mindedness and a readiness to chat about anything at any time. And lots of people here cannot relate to that.

Perhaps these are nothing more than differences between Friesians and Swabians.

Regional differences certainly play a role, but the East-West divide dominates. There is a reason why I like talking about schools so much. Very little repression remained in the education system in the West. Teaching methods in the communist countries, however, can only be described as black pedagogy in red. Add to this, that no school encourages its pupils to be individuals. The ones that still risk saying "I", that stick their necks out, that question everything "only have themselves to blame" when they are not allowed to take their school leaving exams. This is why, among the generation which went to university in the GDR, people so readily exercised immense self control. It was all internalised. This constant observation of one's social surroundings results from something I call the fear-conformation syndrome, a signal system which tells the individual: don't let yourself be too easily recogniseable, it could be dangerous.

The amazing thing is how long it takes, even in conditions of freedom, to shake off the GDR mentality.

This is a result of what historians refer to as the longue duree phenomenon. The brown dictatorship lasted 12 years in the West, but the red one continued in the East for a further 44 after that. The length of the period of powerlessness plays a role. The complete absence of communication forms normal to civil society, the absence of discourse, the absence of individual autonomy. The strongest imprint left by a dictatorship is not the "seduced thinking" that Czeslaw Milosz talked of, it is in the attitudes. We can talk about a different East Germany when everyone who lives in it has gone through a school where they vote for class representatives instead of FDJ secretaries. It will all change with time.

Your parents were members of the Nazi party. And in your autobiography it says that you come from an anti-communist family. But aren't these completely unrelated?

Yes, absolutely. My parents were tacit supporters of the Nazis. Life made us anticommunists. Perhaps I should say here that there aremany different types of anticommunism in Europe and throughout the world. One type comes into being far away from communism, in the heights, for example the Bavarian heights of conservative life and a confidence of thought. It is an attitude. But it does result in an intellectually well-founded form of anticommunism. The other type to which I am referring, is one that grows out of communism. It is born of suffering, of the absence of justice and freedom. It is a form of humane thinking. In South America or South Africa I would never have become an anticommunist, because I often felt very sympathetic to the communists who fought injustice there.

In 1951, the Russians packed your father off to a Gulag and he did not return for four and a half years. In your autobiography you write that it is not easy for a teenager to challenge his parents when the father has been a victim.

Later, when I came into contact with the families of opposition figures, I learned how difficult it is for families who have built an altar to their patriarch. In my case, it delayed the generation conflict. I didn't talk to my parents about the Nazi era until I had started studying theology and was already developing my own form of anti-fascism. I wanted nothing to do with the anti-fascism of the regime. They had lied to me and betrayed me to such an extent that I did not want anything of theirs. It was through the church that I learned about anti-fascist issues, the persecution of the Jews and the endless murdering, and it was then that I retreated emotionally from everything, my parents included. It was very strange. It was not till much later that it all came out. I was an adult, a pastor already, I went to visit them one evening in their home and they were sitting in front of the TV, weeping. They had just been watching "Holocaust", a sort of soap opera series about a Jewish family which was most effective at the time.

You were a pastor, but it was not piety, it seems, that brought you to the church, it was more to do with civil rights activism and the protected space for free speech that the church provided in the GDR.

This was certainly the layer of motivation that I find easiest to pinpoint. Below that was the longing for a spiritual home, which even a child can sense is not of this earth, and it longs for something beyond the worldly horizons. This is just the conditio humana. This sort of yearning religiosity existed independently of any experience of suffering. My book describes my first encounter with biblical texts, listening to the Christian teachings of a man in a chilly garage somewhere on the outskirts of town, who told incredibly moving stories, some of which lodged themselves firmly in my childish dreams and imaginings. But it's true that my decision to study theology was ultimately based on my experience of the church as a place of greater freedom – and of Christians as more trustworthy that the people who had the say in my country.

The Evangelical pastor Joachim Gauck, a thorn in the side of the SED (Socialist Unity Party) state, founded a community in a pre-fab housing estate in Rostock-Evershagen. With remarkable success.

People can do more than they believe. There is power to be gained in distancing yourself from the system. It gives you the sense of being somebody, if you stay true to your values. You might not get very far in society, but you will be your own person and other people will recognise that you "have something". And they will thank you for this because they also dream about being someone. Young people in particular – young people ask about the meaning of life much more than the older generation, who have already learned what you have to do to get ahead in this world – and they believe in alternatives, in "living in truth" as Vaclav Havel put it. One of the accepted dictates in Western political-philosophical discourse says "there is no right life in the wrong one". But Adorno was wrong when he wrote this.

A question of perspective.

It was a foolish statement, or at least confusing one. There are many forms of right life in the wrong life. It is an experience shared by lots of people in situations where, in worldly terms, it is counter-productive to stay true to your values or beliefs or – in another sphere – your art. Artists who refuse to compromise their view of the world or, in the case of composers, their music. Others made a living with their Stalin cantatas, but they refused. This reconnecting with one's core can be quite infectious.


This article originally appeared in German in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung on 22 May, 2010.

Joachim Günter is the Berlin cultural correspondent for the Neue Zürcher Zeitung.

Translation: lp

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