The Truth About Politics

“Factual truth is always related to other people […]. It is political by nature.”

-Hannah Arendt, Truth and Politics 

“Our inheritance was left to us by no testament”

-Hannah Arendt, quoting René Char, Between Past and Future

In his acceptance speech, the recipient of the 1997 Hannah Arendt Prize for Political Thought wondered why he of all people had been chosen for it.  He was, he said, a pragmatist, a practitioner of politics, not a political thinker.  At the time he was already a prominent figure in contemporary politics: as a courageous pastor in the GDR who did not shy away from conflict with the regime, as a participant in the freedom movement of 1989 which led to the fall of the Berlin Wall, and, since 1990, as the Federal Commissioner for the newly created Stasi Archives, which was tasked with processing the history and crimes of the socialist dictatorship.  This man, the winner of the 1997 Arendt prize, is the recently elected German Bundespräsident, Joachim Gauck . [Under the German constitution, the President is the country’s highest representative, while the Chancellor is the head of government and most influential political figure in the German parliamentary democracy (Angela Merkel currently holds the latter position).]

The connection between Arendt and the highest office of the German government makes sense only in light of its oddity and of the unorthodox character of Joachim Gauck.  His comment in the acceptance speech that he is a political practitioner rather than a political thinker marks a striking difference between himself and Arendt.  One could say, however, that Gauck’s political actions largely constitute the realization of a political understanding that Arendt herself theoretically and conceptually developed.  Their shared center of gravity can be formulated in a sentence from Arendt’s “Introduction into Politics”: “The meaning of politics is freedom.”

It is fitting, in a certain way, that the intellectual correspondence between Arendt and Gauck is least to be found in his text Plea for Freedom. This small book, published shortly before his election, can be read as the manifesto of his presidency.  The book, divided into the three chapters “Freedom,” “Responsibility,” and “Tolerance” preaches more than it reflects.  Generalized talk of “the soul,” and of supposed anthropological constants such as “the human psyche,” or the universal desire for happiness and healing overshadows the knowledge upon which the book is based: that politics comes out of plurality and exists in the living modes of “relatedness.”

When writing serves to express a political program, it becomes a part of the process of political action.  Action and thought cannot occur simultaneously, Arendt notes.  Thought and consideration become possible only when action has become history– that is, when it has been completed and can be retold as a story and reflected upon.

Joachim Gauck’s best texts are distinguished by the fact that they are written out of personal experience.  They speak from the perspective of an “I” that knows that political speech must be concrete and therefore limited.  The more I generalize, the farther I distance myself from the solid ground of the facts.  For a theologian, this may not be self-evident.  In his acceptance speech for the Arendt prize, Gauck does not pay lip service to the prize’s eponym– as did so many of those to whom Arendt became “hip” after 1989– by claiming her as the inspiration for his political actions during the dictatorship.  Rather, he recognizes his own lapse in not studying Arendt’s texts at the right time.  He sees it as a failure to confront the intuitive striving and fighting for freedom with “conceptual clarity and precision,” quoting Arendt’s On Revolution.

Does this lack of conceptual clarity point to a romanticization which placed (the self-perceptions of) personal actions in the world of wishful thinking instead of in the world of facts, Gauck asked? The question is directed at himself and his contemporaries.  “Did it suffice to have an opinion about reality, whose facts I hadn’t thoroughly developed?” he reflects with reference to Arendt in his afterword to the Blackbook of Communism (1998).  I individually can hold an opinion, almost like philosophically wise thoughts or words; facts, on the other hand, are political, since I always share them with others.  Arendt formulated it thus in Truth and Politics: “Factual truth is always related to other people […]. It is political by nature.”

This understanding of the eminently political quality of facts shaped Joachim Gauck’s work as the Federal Commissioner for the Stasi-Archives.  Perhaps this constitutes the greatest accomplishment of his life: Gauck’s work secured the documents and archived materials without which the history of the SED-dictatorship and its repressive apparatuses could not have been written.

In the months after the fall of the Berlin Wall, hundreds of citizens and members of opposition groups occupied the headquarters of the state secret police in East Berlin and other cities of the GDR.  The Stasi had already begun to destroy documents on a large scale.  Approximately 130 miles of files were saved, where 3 feet of files could contain up to 10,000 pages.  The Stasi had collected approximately 6 million personal files– 4 million on citizens of the GDR, 2 million on citizens of the old Bundesrepublik.  What was to be done with such a legacy?

Many demanded that the files be closed or even destroyed in the interest of “national peace.”  One could expect such a vote from former GDR elites, who could be prosecuted or face moral discredit if the files were made public.  But even reputable social-democratic politicians like Egon Bahr and, out of quite different motives, the West German secret service, wanted to prevent the Stasi files from becoming publicly accessible.

The “inherited burden of dictatorship,” Gauck called this legacy in his Memoirs (2009).  It is an inheritance left with no testament, one could say with Arendt and René Char.  It is an inheritance without precedent, for which a legal, political, moral, and historiographic procedure had to be found before any work could begin.  Joachim Gauck, along with more than 3000 staff members, created the blueprints for dealing with the material.  Since 1990, victims of Stasi persecution, as well as the media and researchers, are able to read and study the files of the state surveillance apparatus.

The fact that this is now possible cannot be taken for granted.  Since the transition to democracy, other countries such as Poland, Hungary, and Romania have decided against opening their archives.  In Germany, it’s one of Gauck’s major accomplishments to have successfully carried out the demand of the East Germany democracy movement to make the Stasi files publicly accessible.

The Federal Commission for the Stasi-Archives is now a permanent institution in Germany.  The commission is internationally respected, and stands as a symbol for Germany’s way of dealing and coming to terms with dictatorship after 1989.  The legal and administrative character of the commission, and the basis of its success, is largely thanks to Joachim Gauck’s capacity for political judgment, as he was the first director of the Commission from 1990 to 2000.  Gauck, the unconventional political activist from the Baltic, recruited a legal and data protection expert from Bavaria as an administrator, to help carry out the revolutionary civil movement’s lofty goal of universal access to the records.  The two persistently maintained this political demand in the face of the reservations and greediness of West German administration and political parties.  Gauck recognized that the new Commission for the Stasi Archives would have to fit into the institutional structure of West Germany, and that this framework had to be confronted without naivete or arrogance.

During and since the first national elections in unified Germany in 1990, naivete and arrogance towards the power of established parties and institutions relegated almost all of the East German opposition groups to political meaninglessness.  The widespread feeling that the momentum of political freedom was too quickly muted by, and swallowed up into the institutional structure of West Germany burdens the unification process to this day.  The Federal Commission for the Stasi Archives is one of the few achievements in which something truly politically new came out of the momentum of freedom in 1989.

The election of Joachim Gauck connects the memory of this founding moment of political freedom with the highest office in Germany—which is delightful, but also feels incongruous.  It may also appear incongruous to many that Gauck is the first nominee in Germany’s post-war history who was not elected President directly from another high political office.  Since 2000, Gauck has worked for foundations, and as a free-lance writer and lecturer.  He is less a man of the political class than a political man. This symbolic fact is one that might have interested Hannah Arendt.

-Thomas Wild,

with Anne Posten

Thomas Wild will begin teaching at Bard in the fall and will join the Hannah Arendt Center as a Research Associate.