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Freiheit and the Presidency

October 22, 2015

The University of Pennsylvania welcomed the eleventh and current president of the Federal Republic of Germany, Joachim Gauck, on October 6, 2015. President Gauck gave a speech in German on the topic “Freedom – our shared bond” and shared insights on the relationship between Germany and the United States. President Gauck provided the Penn community with a better understanding of the U.S.-German relationship, and hinted that Germany should adopt a more assertive leadership role in international politics. 

German President Joachim Gauck
German President Joachim Gauck addresses Penn faculty, students, and distinguished guests at the University of Pennsylvania on October 6, 2015. Source: Scott Spitzer, Office of University Communications

Weizsäcker’s Legacy

Germany functions under a parliamentary form of government. Unlike states such as the United States and China where the president is the head of the executive branch and serves as the commander of the armed forces, Germany’s presidency is to a certain extent ceremonial. General executive work is led by the Chancellor, currently Angela Merkel, who is elected by members of the parliament, the Bundestag.

One of the most famous and highly regarded German presidents, Richard von Weizsäcker, did not shy away from the political side of his title. In a remarkable speech on the 40th anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe.[1] he argued that the guilt of war was individual, but not national. Furthermore, he relieved the younger generations of the war guilt that was so central to post-war German identity hitherto, and acknowledged the end of the war and the fall of the Nazi regime as a “liberation” to the German people. This audacious view played an important role in reestablishing Germany’s identity and helped her regain footing in the international community peacefully, in contrast to the immediate post-WWI years. Weizsäcker remained an important political figure who oversaw the reunification of Germany, and was even accepted by hardline Jewish politicians who detested their German counterparts.

To a certain extent, President Gauck built the premise of his speech at Penn based on the same values stressed by Weizsäcker. In his speech, Gauck highlighted the fact that “Germany is not an island between the US and Russia but fully integrated in the Europe and NATO.” Gauck also reiterated the importance of Germany’s increased responsibility in the international system despite the country’s hesitancy to do so since the Second World War; Gauck provided a rather convincing explanation to this – the negative connotation, perhaps even taboo, in the use of the word führer (leader). The deep implications of Hitler being the self-proclaimed führer of the Third Reich caused Germans to be hesitant to take on such a role in the postwar era. For Gauck, his country has long since adopted a new identity in the international system, but is afraid of being the world leader. Despite the recent financial crisis, Germany has emerged as the Eurozone’s leading economy; it has the financial resources and economic might to serve as a key representative of Europe in intercontinental discussions. Weizsäcker was right when he asserted that that Germans are now free to take on more responsibility, and that this generation’s actions should no longer be constrained by the atrocities committed by the Nazis. It is time for Germans to understand the importance of this freiheit and step up alongside the United States to play an important role in the security of the West..   

German-American Relations: Deep Historical Ties

Starting with the establishment of Germantown in Pennsylvania by a few trailblazing German families who travelled across the Atlantic to settle in the New World, Gauck listed in his speech the rich historical relationship and set of exchanges between the United States and Germany,  He then went on to describe how Germany was jointly administered by the four main victorious powers, United States, Britain, France and Soviet Union at the end of the Second World War. This division foresaw the separating of the state into East and West Germany. After the consolidation of the three Western zones into the Federal Republic, the Allies established the Basic Law in 1949. The Basic Law was revolutionary in the sense that it showed the willingness of the United States, then the world’s most powerful country, to allow Germany to reestablish a tenable federal and democratic system with principles not unlike those in the unification and Weimar constitutions. The rest was history, with Konrad Adenauer becoming the first West German Chancellor and overseeing the Wirtschaftswunder, the economic miracle.[2]

It is debatable whether West Germany would have been able to become the locomotive of the post-war European economy had the Allies dominated the newly reborn state like the Soviets did with East Germany. American involvement in the infant stages of West Germany ensured a stable foundation for the country’s long-lasting unification up until the present.. Gauck underscored this cooperation, calling American soldiers “liberators but not occupiers” and by reminding guests of the Berlin Airlift and the Marshall Plan, which greatly helped European states regain footing economically. America’s push for reunification during the Cold War also played a significant role. The cries of “ich bin ein Berliner” by John F. Kennedy and “Tear down this wall” by Ronald Reagan were reassuring gestures to West Berliners that America never left them alone in the exclave. Gauck also praised George H. W. Bush’s administration for actively promoting the formation of a unified Republic.

This close transatlantic relationship ensured the friendship between the two nations in the past and the integration of Germany into both the European community and NATO in the post-war era. Yet today, there are calls of scrutiny to this relationship. Incidents such as the NSA spying incident that Gauck mentioned have indeed brought America into an awkward position. Obama’s rebalance towards the Pacific region also led to some Europeans to fear the unknown ambitions of Russia, just as she easily annexed Crimea from Ukraine.

Gauck called on America to foster a closer partnership with European allies through NATO. Especially in the face of the Ukrainian and migrant crises facing the European Union, Gauck’s call for greater cooperation is warranted. With the recent suspension of the Schengen Agreement in several EU countries and the recent “Grexit” debacle, some states have casted doubts on whether EU integration remains on paper. British public opinion has flirted with a “Brexit”, culminating with a proposed referendum likely to take place in 2017. With Britain’s unwillingness to engage deeper into EU affairs, symbolized by maintaining the Pound Sterling as its currency and remaining outside of the Schengen Area, Germany remains America’s most trusted and capable ally in Europe.

As exemplified by the migrant crisis, Germany is one of the only EU countries to embrace challenges by actively addressing the problems. As Gauck mentioned, Germany’s appeal to migrants today resembles the aura of the Statue of Liberty back in the days when steamboats traversed the Atlantic and docked in New York. Challenges to EU sovereignty and integration will continue to arise and Germany should be ready to take the helm. America’s role here is to reassure its allies that it has not abandoned the region in favor of the Middle East or the Far East. Along with the Ukrainian front, recent Russian air strikes in Syria show that she is trying to maintain her own alliance in the region. America should do the same. As Russia flexes her muscles, Germany and the United States should take on more assertive roles in security affairs within the framework of NATO and the United Nations to bring the two countries closer. This partnership will further deter others from challenging this union and stabilize the region that has been volatile since the end of the bipolar Cold War.

Another Freiheit

Gauck provided the following advice at the end of his speech: “Freedom should be worth something to us. Germany and America should work together to keep this freedom alive, not just for their people, but also for those who are fighting for the same freiheit Americans and Germans fought for years ago. America should assist Germany’s transformation into a European and global leader, just as Europe oversaw the peaceful American rise after its industrialization in the late 19th century. History repeats itself, but this time, it is about peace and cooperation.

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  • The views expressed on the Student Blog are the author’s opinions and don’t necessarily represent the Penn Wharton Public Policy Initiative’s strategies, recommendations, or opinions.

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