The nomination of 72-year-old former East German anticommunist activist Joachim Gauck to be the next president of Germany came as a surprise -- not least to Gauck himself.
"I cannot give you a keynote address now in the confusion of my feelings. That is impossible. I'm just off the plane and was in a taxi when the chancellor got a hold of me. I'm not even showered," Gauck said. "It doesn't matter that you see that I am overwhelmed and a little bit confused."
But the consensus is that the longtime human rights activist -- who has been called Germany's Nelson Mandela for his role in bringing down the communist regime in East Germany and exposing the activities of the former East Germany secret police, the Stasi -- brings a much-needed moral authority to an office that has been tarnished by the resignation last week of Christian Wulff under a cloud of corruption allegations.
The popular Gauck is an elder statesman in Germany who is not affiliated with any political party and is untouched by political scandals. He was given an additional boost by the fact that the governing coalition headed by Chancellor Angela Merkel came together and endorsed him as a unity candidate.
From RFE/RL's Archives: An Interview With Joachim Gauck (2007)
The German parliament must vote on the nomination before March 18, but Gauck already has the support of all represented parties except for Die Linke, the successor party to the former East German Communists.
Born in 1940 in the northern city of Rostok, Gauck grew up in East Germany (GDR) and was 11 years old when his father was arrested by the communist authorities on vague charges of ties with the West and sent to a Siberian labor camp. Gauck was later denied the opportunity to study journalism because he refused to join communist youth organizations. Instead, he became a Lutheran pastor and, as his Stasi file noted, "an incorrigible anticommunist."
Rooting Out Communists
He was a leader among the Christian pastors who demonstrated relentlessly and hastened the end of the communist regime. After the fall of the GDR, Gauck took over the Stasi archives and undertook the treacherous process of rooting out former secret police employees and collaborators.
He was the guiding authority of Germany's truth and reconciliation process from 1990 to 2000. In a 2007 interview with RFE/RL's Georgian Service, Gauck was categorical about the need to expose and move beyond the communist past.
"We have to deligitimatize [the communist era] not only because of the many victims and criminal acts, but [also because] modern politics in the entire Soviet empire was basically taken backward," Gauck said.
Edward Lucas, editor of the international section of "The Economist," sees the Gauck nomination as a significant opportunity to bolster German unity and to deepen ties between Germany and the countries of the former Soviet bloc.
"You've now got the two top people in Germany both coming from the East -- although [Chancellor Angela] Merkel was actually born in the West, but she was raised in the East," Lucas said.
"And I think that is symbolically, psychologically very important. I think it will be good for relations with Poland, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia because this is a guy who understands what they went [through]."
Lucas adds that Gauck has a keen appreciation of the legacy of the long division of Europe and of the "moral obligation" of the rich West to reach out to the peoples who lived for decades under occupation.
Throughout his life and his career, Gauck has emphasized personal responsibility, an emphasis that he repeated in his first remarks after being informed of the nomination on February 19.
"My main task will be closeness with the people who say 'yes' to responsibility -- and who are everywhere in our country, not only on the political level," Gauck said.
"And I want to work in a way that people take on this responsibility and don't just stand on the sidelines of public life as visitors and critical observers."
Josef Joffe, editor and publisher of the "Die Zeit," told RFE/RL by e-mail that Gauck is "a paragon of probity."
"His language is not the cloudy politically correct stuff that characterizes the political caste in Germany," Joffe says. "He is forthright and to the point, taking on the mushy consensus. The next five years will be quite interesting."