The man who might become Germany’s next president

[Olaf Simons, Gotha, Germany] Titlecover of the German 'Stern' news magazineReturning from a few days in Amsterdam I see Germany’s media embracing Joachim Gauck on his way to become the nation’s next president. An undercurrent of hidden fears is part of this embrace.

The last president has just resigned. Even if he never gave anything in return, it was clear that he stood at the mercy of those whose “friendship”, “help”, and “gifts” he had accepted.

Gauck turns out to be an uncomfortable candidate. The ruling CDU opposed him in his first run. He had led the agency that granted access to documents of the oppressive GDR’s surveillance. He had also been a Lutheran minister. On both accounts he should have been the very man Christian Democrats had to accept; yet he had remained the man the opposition had nominated.

The uncomfortable thing about Gauck is, that he is suddenly no longer the candidate left wingers can wholeheartedly support. Quotations have surfaced and given the blogosphere headlines like:

“Ein politisch-kultureller Super Gau(ck) – Antisemitismus erhält Einzug ins Schloss Bellevue”

“The political and cultural worst case scenario – Antisemitism to enter Bellevue Palace

Germany’s political consensus is built on the agreement that the Holocaust will always remain a crime Germany will not come to terms with. Gauck, however, in 2006 questions the logic behind this consensus:

“Unübersehbar gibt es eine Tendenz der Entweltlichung des Holocaust. Das geschieht dann, wenn das Geschehen des deutschen Judenmordes in eine Einzigartigkeit überhöht wird, die letztlich dem Verstehen und der Analyse entzogen ist. Offensichtlich suchen bestimmte Milieus postreligiöser Gesellschaften nach der Dimension der Absolutheit, nach dem Element des Erschauerns vor dem Unsagbaren. Da dem Nichtreligiösen das Summum Bonum – Gott – fehlt, tritt an dessen Stelle das absolute Böse, das den Betrachter erschauern lässt. Das ist paradoxerweise ein psychischer Gewinn, der zudem noch einen weiteren Vorteil hat: Wer das Koordinatensystem religiöser Sinngebung verloren hat und unter einer gewissen Orientierungslosigkeit der Moderne litt, der gewann mit der Orientierung auf den Holocaust so etwas wie einen negativen Tiefpunkt, auf dem – so die unbewusste Hoffnung – so etwas wie ein Koordinatensystem errichtet werden konnte. Das aber wirkt »tröstlich« angesichts einer verstörend ungeordneten Moderne. Würde der Holocaust aber in einer unheiligen Sakralität auf eine quasi-religiöse Ebene entschwinden, wäre er vom Betrachter nur noch zu verdammen und zu verfluchen, nicht aber zu analysieren, zu erkennen und zu beschreiben.”

“Undeniably there is a tendency to de-secularise the Holocaust. We see it wherever the German extermination of Jews is styled as unique, as an incident we will never be able to fully understand and analyse. It is apparent that certain milieus within our postreligious societies are looking for a dimension of the absolute here, something to keep us in awe, something unexpressible. As the non-religious have to live without a summum bonum – God –, they opt for an absolute evil in order to keep the observer in awe. This is, paradoxically, a psychological win – and has an added advantage: Whoever has lost his coordinates of a higher religious meaning and suffers from a lack of orientation in these modern times can gain new securities here: The Holocaust was the worst thing mankind has ever committed. One could use this truth as the basis for building a new system of values. Something deeply consoling is stated here in the centre of modernism. Yet if the Holocaust was to disappear into a sphere of unholy quasi-religious sacrality, the observer could be expected to simply damn and curse it – instead of having to analyze, understand and describe it.”

For a future president – Germany has filled this ceremonial office with men like Heinrich Lübke who could address the crowd in Liberia with “Ladies and Gentlemen, dear Negroes…” – this is said on uncommonly high level of reflection.

Does history as we write it, so Gauck’s question, serve in our secular societies as a new religious sub-text? Do we write this text according to moral needs we openly deny? And is this secular religion of the humanities essentially a religion of negativity?

As a historian I feel tempted to concede the first statements – critical of the role our guild can play in our societies. Those who have read Auguste Comte will not see this interpretation of the work of modern historians as a revelation anyway.

The question is then: Will we return to the religion of the summum bonum? (I had not seen such a religion on the market before, but that is another question). This would be a possibility, if only historical processes could be reversed. If we cannot get back, Gauck’s statement might just as well be read as a call to secularise the humanities where they have silently begun to substitute the religious sub-text – or at least to play this game openly and with self criticism.

Seems we will have more complex discussions with Gauck.

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