The German presidency is a largely ceremonial office, though its incumbent is supposed to represent the political virtues of the Federal Republic. Thus the scandal forcing the recent resignation from the presidency of Christian Wulff on February 17, 2012, while closely followed (and perhaps caused) by the German media, was not much noticed abroad. Nor are the details of this political drama very interesting. (It is unclear at this point whether Wulff did anything illegal by an unbecoming lifestyle of luxury and close associations with wealthy friends, but he was widely perceived as not living up to the high moral expectations of his office.) What is more interesting beyond the domestic politics is the background of his chosen successor—Joachim Gauck, a former Lutheran pastor from East Germany. In 2010, when the office of president fell open, Gauck had been widely supported to occupy it. But he was opposed by Angela Merkel, the chancellor, who pushed through the candidacy of Wulff, a not very distinguished politician of the CDU (Merkel’s party). When Gauck’s candidacy resurfaced two years later and was supported by all the mainstream parties, including a strong group in the CDU, Merkel had to swallow the (presumably unpalatable) pill of joining the supporters. It is unlikely that this small defeat tarnished Merkel’s reputation as the most powerful woman in Europe, not much loved but feared throughout the continent (and loathed in Greece for her compulsory diet of fiscal sauerkraut).
However, there are two aspects of this development that are of interest to outside observers of Germany who do not follow the ups and downs of its domestic politics. With Gauck as president and Merkel continuing as chancellor, the two most prominent political figures in Germany will be individuals who grew up in East Germany under Communism. This may do something to assuage the inferiority feelings of Easterners (the so-called “Ossis”). But there is another aspect that interests me here: Both individuals are products of an institution with great cultural significance in German history—the Protestant parsonage.
Joachim Gauck, aged 72, is the son of a sea captain, who was arrested by the Soviet occupation authorities and deported to a labor camp in Siberia, from where he returned after many years in impaired health. The younger Gauck has described this event as indelibly shaping his political outlook, making him an unbending enemy of all forms of totalitarianism and a fierce advocate of democracy. He became a Lutheran pastor, not an easy occupation in East Germany at the time. He also became active as an advocate for human rights, and a founder of the New Forum, an opposition group that played a part in the collapse of the Communist regime. After the re-unification, from 1992 to 2000, Gauck became director of the Stasi Archive, which collected and opened to the public the papers of the East German security service (the Stasi). He has described himself as a “liberal conservative”, with views that have made him acceptable across the German political spectrum, with the exception of the far left, Die Linke, the only party in parliament which opposed his candidacy—and which contains an element given to nostalgia about the Communist past (Ostalgie). His personal life testifies to his conservative liberality—separated from his wife, he has been living with what in Germany is called a “life partner”, with a feminine suffix (Lebensgefaehrtin). Some of his political friends have reputedly urged him to marry her as he moves into the presidential palace. (Combining liberalism and conservatism in one’s political positioning is often difficult—and, God knows, not only in Germany.)
Angela Merkel, aged 57, is the daughter of a Lutheran pastor. She grew up in a rural parsonage north of Berlin. Children of clergy were discriminated against under the Communist regime, and generally barred from higher education. Young Merkel must have been very conscious of her politically suspect background, though her father belonged to the group in the church that eschewed opposition to the regime in favor of accommodation (the slogan at the time was “the church in a socialist society”/”Kirche im Sozialismus”—a phrase that could either mean ideological sympathy or just realistic strategy). This fact apparently allowed Merkel to attend university, where she obtained a degree in chemistry. She only became active politically after the re-unification—in the right-of-center CDU (which supposedly annoyed her left-leaning father). She became a protégé of Chancellor Kohl and rapidly rose in the party. She has been federal chancellor since 2005. I have seen no information about Merkel’s own religious beliefs or practices (though we know that she is very respectably married to a fellow-chemist, who does not meddle in politics).
Merkel and Gauck share a background of Protestant life in Communist East Germany. To what extent has this background shaped their worldview and their overall lifestyle? I don’t think that I know enough about these two individuals to answer the question—though it is hard to believe that the conditions under which one lived during one’s formative years leave no traces in one’s later life. In the event, one can take an individual out of a Lutheran parsonage—I doubt whether one can take the parsonage out of the individual. The powerful language of Luther’s German translation of the Bible and the powerful music of Lutheran hymnody must inevitably reverberate even in the consciousness of individuals whose ties with the Lutheran church have frayed. But we do know a lot about the story of that church in the so-called German Democratic Republic, and in East Germany since then. It is an interesting and somewhat puzzling story.
The ideology of the DDR was an aggressively atheist Marxism. Religious institutions were closely watched by the Stasi. Clergy and active lay people were harassed, frequently arrested, treated as second-class citizens. As a result religion existed in a barely tolerated subculture, tightly contained and periodically persecuted. Because of the exigencies of German religious history, the population of the DDR was mostly Protestant. By the very nature of its pariah status, the Protestant church inadvertently maintained (as it were, preserved in amber) not only a particular religious tradition, but the bourgeois culture with which it had been historically linked. Visitors to the DDR were regularly impressed by the old-fashioned appearance of its urban landscape—socialist neglect had kept away the frenetic modernization of West German cities and towns. But equally impressive was the preservation of bourgeois values and habits, equally old-fashioned by Western standards—not only in the Protestant quasi-ghetto, but especially there. Most Protestant congregations did not actively oppose the regime. Nevertheless, they constituted oases of an older, different culture in the desert of official Communist institutions. Since the Protestant church was the only institution with a degree of tolerated autonomy, it very naturally became the main locale of political opposition in the late 1980s. The regime change was inaugurated by the huge demonstrations that first emerged from the historic Thomaskirche in Leipzig (where Johann Sebastian Bach had been organist). When the regime finally collapsed in 1989, some people spoke of “a Protestant revolution”—prematurely, as things turned out. In the final years of the DDR and the first years after re-unification, a number of church-related individuals, including pastors, became politically prominent. Merkel and Gauck were not the only ones. But the role of the church diminished rapidly in the 1990s. Today the territory of the former DDR and the Czech Republic constitute the most thoroughly secularized region in Central Europe. (The Austrian sociologist Paul Zulehner has described them as two countries in which atheism is the established religion.) Why this is so is an intriguing question, but I cannot pursue it here.
A few years ago I heard a lecture by a historian about the role of the Protestant parsonage in German cultural history. The role was quite remarkable. A disproportionate number of writers, scholars and artists were the children of Protestant pastors. But the Protestant parsonage, the Pfarrhaus, was a focus of education and cultural activity beyond the family that inhabited it, especially in smaller towns and villages. The parsonage radiated the distinctive “Protestant ethic” to which Max Weber ascribed an important causal role in the genesis of modern capitalism—personal discipline, soberness, honesty, a penchant for orderliness. Did all good Protestants live that way? Of course they did not. (Deservedly or not, pastors’ daughters had a reputation for sexual laxity.) Did this ethic have negative aspects? Of course it did. It could be stuffy and stultifying, and its penchant for orderliness often led to a supine respect for authority, any authority. Yet many of the greatest cultural achievements in German history had Protestant, specifically Lutheran roots. In the aforementioned lecture this parsonage culture was described as a phenomenon that was past. Probably correctly, the lecturer ascribed this in large part to the changing role of women: Educated women married to pastors increasingly pursued professional careers of their own, and were unwilling to just be helpers of their husbands in keeping the Pfarrhaus going. I was impressed by the fact that in the discussion after the lecture (which took place in Berlin under the auspices of a Lutheran foundation) no one was interested in asking whether, in a society with a high degree of gender equality, an institution of comparable cultural influence could be invented.
With the incorporation of the former DDR into the Federal Republic, Germany has become a more Protestant country in demographic terms. But there has been no lasting “Protestant revolution”. West Germany is somewhat less secularized than the East, but it too partakes of the overall Eurosecularity. It seems likely that the parsonage still resonates, even if faintly, in the minds of Angela Merkel and Joachim Gauck. Does this mean a new cultural influence of the Protestant church? Probably not. More likely what we hear are the last echoes of a Bach chorale that has ended. All the same, it is useful to recall that history always has surprises.