BERLIN (Reuters) - Joachim Gauck, a former anti-Communist human rights activist in East Germany who is set to become the next German president, is a moral authority to be reckoned with.
Gauck, who has been called Germany’s answer to Nelson Mandela, was one of a number of Protestant pastors who helped bring down the communist East German regime, setting the stage for the fall of the Berlin Wall and reunification in 1990.
The 72-year old, who is married and has four children, ran the state-run archives on the Stasi after reunification and earned recognition for exposing the crimes of the dreaded East German secret police.
Even after his retirement in 2000, the author of many books continued his campaign for human rights. His new book, “Freedom -- A plea,” hits stores nationwide on Monday.
Perhaps Gauck’s very moral gravitas is one reason Chancellor Angela Merkel passed over him in 2010 for the presidency, before being pressured into nominating him on Sunday - he is a formidable rival for Germans’ affections.
Already two years ago and despite Merkel’s opposition, he was the public’s firm favourite for the presidency.
Media across the political divide backed him, with mass-selling daily Bild running a picture of him on its front page next to the headline “Yes we Gauck” -- a twist on the U.S. President Barack Obama’s campaign slogan “Yes we can.”
Gauck also presents a stark contrast to outgoing President Christiaan Wulff, a regional career politician who resigned on Friday in a scandal over political and financial favours.
Some 20 years older than Wulff, he is more the elderly statesman and is not affiliated to any political party, describing himself as “a left-leaning, liberal conservative.”
Indeed, before becoming the left-wing opposition’s presidential candidate in 2010, he had declined an offer from the conservatives to become president in 1990.
Supporters say the fact he is above party politics makes him the ideal candidate for the largely ceremonial but influential role of president.
Gauck has always struck an independent tone. Born in 1940 in the north eastern city of Rostock, he says he already knew socialism was an “unjust state” aged nine.
When he was just 11, his father was arrested by communist authorities and sent to a Siberian gulag.
The young Gauck wanted to become a journalist, but his career plans were thwarted because he refused to join communist youth associations. Instead he studied theology.
In 1965, he became a Protestant pastor, using the pulpit to preach on human rights.
He went on to become one of the founders of the New Forum, a civil rights movement formed in 1989 in the months leading up to the collapse of the German Democratic Republic (GDR).
“Let’s not forget that it was churchmen like Joachim Gauck who helped bring about East Germany’s peaceful revolution,” Merkel, herself the daughter of a Protestant pastor who grew up in the failed GDR, told a news conference on Sunday.
On the last day of the GDR’s existence, Gauck became the commissioner to oversee the Stasi archives.
He ensured that the sprawling files were used to root out former Stasi employees and collaborators in public service and to understand the country’s past. His commission was unofficially known as the “Gauck authority.”
More recently, he has had to defend his decision to keep former Stasi employees working at the archives, workers whose insider knowledge of the Stasi made them, he thought, “indispensable.”
Gauck, who appeared alongside Merkel on Sunday, himself warned he was neither a “superman” nor a “man without errors.”
The activist, who said he had just rushed into the capital city and had not even taken a wash before heading into the press conference, seemed genuinely overwhelmed, saying he was “a little confused” but was bound to feel happy later on.
Additional Reporting by Ralf Bode; Editing by Maria Golovnina