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INTERVIEW: 'Our Hard-Won Liberties Must Not Be Sacrificed on the Altar of Security'

German President Joachim Gauck talked to ERR's Indrek Treufeldt about the future of Europe, his own past, why the NSA is not the KGB despite the risks, and truth and reconciliation. The following is a lightly edited transcript of the full interview (in German) aired on ETV on Wednesday night.

It's an honor for me to welcome you, both as one of Europe's most influential presidents and as someone with a shared past. We both know what it's like to live in a totalitarian society. I remember life in Soviet Estonia as you remember it in the German Democratic Republic. You fought tenaciously for democracy and human rights in East Germany, standing up for the most important European values. 

With that thought as a point of departure, how do you see the current situation in Europe? Is it like you imagined as the ideal back then?

When one dreams of a beautiful future, everything in that dream is perfect. Freedom is perfect, democracy is perfect. When we dream of a beautiful partner, we imagine the partner as close to the ideal, but ideals are seen only rarely in real life.

Assessing today's Europe realistically, I must say that what we wished for in the sense of institutions and the people, it has come true, but there are still differences in social equality. Some countries have major problems, others are relatively well off.

But as to people's emotions, it is a different story. Do they feel at home in Europe or are they worried that it is perhaps not the right future? There is some uncertainty.

Many here in the northeast also associate Europe with a dream: yes, we want to be with Europe and we cannot waver from that course. We want to belong where freedom, democracy and the rule of law have a firm foothold. On the other hand, in Europe's older parts, the ones that have belonged to the community for a long time, there are many people who are worried about the current situation or the future. Our currency, the euro, is a source of additional concern and whether we can surmount the difficulties stemming from southern Europe.

And so critical questions are asked in various countries pertaining to the euro or deeper ties. There is something left to be desired. We would like European institutions to have greater rights over national governments or institutions, but the people must be ready to cede responsibility to Europe and in this sense populations and governments are conservative.

So we are in an intermediate stage right now. We all want Europe, but many feel alienation. The national space has become broader and not everyone understands that well how European decision-making processes work. Whenever something is not understood, fears are wont to crop up. And if a large share of the population is afraid, there are always populists who will take advantage of those fears in politics. Sometimes ordinary parties, not just populists, resort to politicking based on these fears.

Thus, when we talk of Europe, we see one big "yes", but we also see "buts" because we have not completely adjusted or found the format that we would be ready to trust.

Did your career as a pastor benefit you in your current job? Can a president, too, be a good shepherd for his people?

The shepherd metaphor is not appropriate for a president of a federal republic [...]. Shepherds entail a flock - that means that an upper and lower level are defined, and this is a paternalistic image, as leadership was conceived of in the olden days.

But from my profession as pastor in the former GDR, I took the firm belief that worldly power is not everything and it cannot be the underpinning of everything, especially if it is an unjust power. Everything must be seen in the right alignment.

Secondly, the message of altruistic love always leads to the oppressed, near to the salt of the earth, not to the upper echelons of power.

Thirdly, back then we had to listen to one another, become clear on what problems trouble our souls, and from that, sport, camaraderie and solidarity developed. Having the courage to overcome fear is a very valuable experience, which religious folk shared with people in those bad years.

One area where you successfully helped was the research into the Stasi files and examining the legacy of the totalitarian surveillance structures. What did that teach you?

I didn't learn that much about people from this job. You could experience that in life and read it over in the Bible that people are good and bad and they always have a say as to whether to be one of the decent people or not.

Sometimes it is not so black and white, and in conditions of dictatorship we had no chance to choose our rulers. But we could choose whether to live with or against others.

So I learned little about people from the Stasi files. But I understood the unbelievable arrogance of power, with so much data being gathered about people and not just about enemies but also ordinary citizens and also about young people. These were people far from politics - artists, people from the church, workers. Data were gathered from hospitals and artists, everywhere, without paying any attention to the inviolability of personal privacy.

On the basis of those data, a knowledge base of power was created - the type of information that helped the rulers keep the people down. We wanted to explain, bring light to just this mechanism and we went through a huge amount of material to learn how great the expenditure and human resources were for keeping the entire population under surveillance. That was new to us. 

We knew such people existed but not to what extent and how strongly they had to support the party behind the repressive system, because without a security apparatus, the power of the communist party would be unthinkable. These materials gave a good overview of the structure of power and how a criminal regime formed and became deeper.

Surveillance and spying as a phenomenon have not gone away. The latest reports are that the US has gathered much information in and from Europe. How far can such activity go in the present day under the assertion that it is for the purpose of protecting freedom? A clear distinction must be drawn.

In the US, the case involves an authority that has claimed more powers than we would consent to give it, but it is not an oppressive police apparatus that uses secret police tactics indiscriminately. Still, in this case it must be verified whether the gathering of communication data is not itself a violation of law, which strips us of the right of informational self-determination. Here it must be considered very carefully when individual liberties can be forgone in the interests of security and when we must say "no."

The increase in security that comes from massive gathering of communication data is disproportionately small. There is too little to gain for us to accept it.

In an high-alert situation such as in the US after September 11, we have to raise the question of the rules regarding limits on human rights. Will they be in effect forever? Or will we set a specific deadline at which point there will be verification of whether gathering this much data serves the purpose at hand?

In any case, the gathering of an excessive amount of data is something to be warned against.

We don't know exactly whether the content of the communications was recorded. Thus we cannot draw parallels between the KGB and the NSA. That would be misleading and objectively false. But we have to be vigilant so that our hard-won liberties are not sacrificed on the altar of security. Otherwise  we will never know when the next step is taken and we are stripped of even more rights.

In 1951, a Soviet military tribunal gave your father a long prison sentence and  he was sent to Siberia. Have you forgiven those who imprisoned him?

I can easily forgive people who attain the truth, acknowledge it and regret the injustice they did. Perhaps I would forgive someone. I am not a person who bears grudges and vendettas.

On the contrary, I'm not in favor of it, but no one has come to me and said that their actions back then were unjust. It's a topic that has to be discussed with the former oppressors. We have the right to ask what they did to people, how much they murdered, how many they let starve, how many people were psychically broken.

There is nothing unusual in these questions as it leads to the truth and means taking the victims' perspective into consideration without just confining us to the criminals, who always find excuses.

We must always be vigilant when in some post-Soviet state where there is no dictatorship anymore, arguments from the dictatorship period are used. I would find it easy to forgive if I were facing a person who does not deny the facts any more and truly regrets what he did.

That has happened to me. One person came to me and said: "Joachim, I was an informer and you know me from the files."

I didn't know about it, but he told me what he did.

He had traveled far to see me and it was long ago, and he distanced himself from the Stasi:

"It's over and I won't do anything like that again.”

I was amazed - why didn't he tell me before? He was my friend. He said he couldn't because he was ashamed. When he told me this, he had tears in his eyes and I felt I should reach out  to him. After all, he came to me of his own volition and showed in so doing that he wanted to put things right. I saw remorse in his eyes and in this situation it's easy for someone to extend a hand. If he had proclaimed from the door that he had done his best in the given situation and that I would have been even worse off had Meier or Müller been the rat, would I have reached out?

That is where I would have drawn the line.

Conciliation and forgiveness are always a process where the truth starts the ball rolling. But if the truth is kept hidden, the process breaks down.

I have seen many victims in the Eastern bloc who wait for the truth to be confessed. They wait and want to forgive but no one seems to need it.

That is the situation in many post communist countries and elsewhere, too. In South America, where dictatorships ruled, some recall Pinochet or other dictators fondly.

But without reconciliation, we won't get anywhere in this world and that is why people fight for the historical truth so that criminals would finally confess up to and realize their role.

Should Russia take a lesson from Germany as to how to come to terms with its totalitarian past?

It is very hard to transfer experiences on a quid pro quo basis. But for states who ask how to get over their historical baggage, the victims' perspective is always helpful. In the former Soviet Union, Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and other places ruled by the Soviets, there are millions of families who have reason to wait an apology from those who served on the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party and KGB.

Many of the guilty ones are still alive and perhaps because of that it is not for Germany to dictate anything but the post-communists must ask themselves whether they do not perhaps owe something to the people.

The Gulag was after all mainly full of their own citizens, not just Germans, Poles and Hungarians, but also inhabitants of the Soviet republics, including many Estonians. My father met many Estonians in the prison camp and he asked whether there were any of them left back home or were they all in Siberia. Now we have a noteworthy situation that Russia is getting expectant glances from abroad and questions are being asked in Russia of the people in charge back then, like our friends from Memorial are doing.

We, too, wait for the truth or at least an inquiry into the injustice and would rejoice from the bottoms of our hearts over memorials and museums.

Not because we know better, but because people who have heart are always on the side of the oppressed and victims. Many of them died or were murdered and that is why we must not be silent in terms of injustice.

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