German President Joachim Gauck made a historic trip to the University of Pennsylvania on Oct. 6. It happened to be German-American Day, a holiday that remembers the 13 families from Krefeld who settled in 1683 in Germanopolis—or Germantown—in hopes for a better life. The arrival of those families was the start of German-American relations.
Gauck made reference to this occasion during his morning speech at Houston Hall, hosted by Perry World House, which upon its building completion this spring, will become a center for the University’s global engagement initiatives.
“We should not forget that from this very first day, nothing less than freedom was at the heart of German-American dialogue,” Gauck said. “From the outset it was a transcontinental exchange, which involved wrestling with the nature, essence, and limits of freedom. Defining and taking measure of freedom keeps us talking and, on occasion, arguing with one another even today, centuries later.”
Gauck, who has served as Germany’s president since 2012, addressed a packed house of students, faculty, staff, and community members. He discussed the deep relationship that has evolved between Germany and the United States and the important ties that will bind the two nations in the future.
“Freedom is our shared bond,” Gauck said. “For this reason, it is our duty today—as it was in the past—to shoulder responsibility and to work with and for each other.”
When it comes to terrorists and nihilists who incite violence and bring instability to societies, Gauck insisted, “It is clear to me that the democratic world must—and indeed will—renew its ties in the face of these threats.”
Before becoming president, Gauck was a pastor for many years, chairman of the special committee overseeing the dissolution of the Ministry of State Security, federal commissioner for the Files of the State Security Service of the former GDR, German member of the Management Board of the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia, and chairman of the Association “Gegen Vergessen – Für Demokratie” (Against Oblivion – For Democracy).
As his roles show, Gauck has made a commitment to building a more peaceful and prosperous world, Penn President Amy Gutmann said, while introducing him to the crowd.
“This past Saturday marked German Unity Day, which celebrates the 25th anniversary of the reunification of Germany in 1990,” Gutmann said. “President Gauck, at that time, probably didn’t know he would become President Gauck, but he had already been leading weekly prayers for peace that gave rise to the protests, that gave rise to the reunification of Germany. At that historic moment in 1990, it was President Gauck, it was his strong and courageous voice, that helped usher in nothing short of a new era of democracy, human rights, and freedom for a newly unified Germany. That truly changed the course, not only of German history, not only of European history, but of world history.”
Gutmann declared that Gauck came to Penn in the “spirit of wisdom and cooperation.”
Two students in the audience were called upon to ask questions to Gauck. One addressed Germany’s role in the situation with Russia and the Ukraine, and the other asked how Germany is accommodating refugees. Gauck’s response to both landed on Germany’s “responsibility”—to achieve in spite of global players who threaten others with military means, and to integrate asylum seekers who have valid reasons to remain in Germany.
Addressing students in particular, Gauck said, “Anyone who is young today and studying, for example, here at the University of Pennsylvania or at a German university, has the good fortune to be born into an age of freedom and prosperity. I am certain that even in an environment full of new challenges, we have the means and instruments to peacefully prolong this era. However, we cannot do it alone. This is the great insight which President John F. Kennedy once bestowed upon us here in Philadelphia: If we want to find answers today to the major issues of our time, then we will have to stand together.”