BERLIN (Reuters) - Joachim Gauck, a Protestant pastor and anti-Communist activist from former East Germany, was sworn in on Friday as Germany’s 11th post-war president, promising to use his experience of tyranny to stand up to the far-right and other extremists.
The election of 72-year-old Gauck last Sunday has raised hopes that a charismatic figure of such ethical stature can revive faith in a post which is largely ceremonial but symbolically important for Germany following his predecessor’s ignominious exit.
“I would like to ask you all for a gift: your trust,” Gauck said in a moving speech to the Reichstag, the German parliament which was set on fire on 1933 and bombed in World War II.
Chancellor Angela Merkel and lawmakers from across the political divide warmly applauded the president’s maiden speech.
Despite their shared history - Merkel is the daughter of an East German pastor and grew up under communism - she opposed his first candidacy in 2010 in favor of her conservative colleague Christian Wulff. Wulff quit last month in disgrace over a probe into his personal finances and favors from business contacts.
This time Merkel had to accept Gauck, who is not affiliated to any party but was put forward by the opposition centre left and supported by even the chancellor’s own Liberal allies.
Gauck poses no threat to Merkel’s domination of national politics, but his moral authority, independence of mind and lack of party affiliation could make him an awkward partner for her government as it struggles to overcome Europe’s economic crisis.
“Your election as head of state writes a new chapter in the history of German unity,” said Norbert Lammert, speaker of the Bundestag (lower house of parliament), who took Gauck’s oath.
Cutting a presidential figure with his thick silver hair, determined jaw line and the eloquence of a seasoned preacher, Gauck hailed West Germany’s post-war economic miracle and democratic vocation - but also alluded to failings such as “the suppression of guilt and lack of empathy with the victims of the Nazi regime”.
Identifying himself with the young people of 1968 who drew a line under the “hubris” of their parents’ generation, who “waged murder and war on their neighbors within and without”, Gauck said the reunification of the two Germanys in 1990 created “one people”, who now had to defend democracy with determination.
The neo-Nazi threat is back in the headlines after police stumbled across a far-right cell that killed nine immigrants last year, while German experience of Islamic extremism includes being the unwitting host to leaders of the 2001 al Qaeda attacks on the United States.
“Especially to the right-wing extremists who hate democracy we say clearly: your hatred is our motivation not to abandon our country. We will not present you a gift of our fear,” he said.
Germany would also stand up to “extremists of other political persuasions and those who, under the guise of religion, bring fanaticism and terror to our country”.
Writing by Stephen Brown, editing by Gareth Jones and Susan Fenton