German president praises Poland as land of freedom

By VANESSA GERA | March 27, 2012 | 8:26 AM EDT

Poland’s President Bronislaw Komorowski, right, hugs newly elected German President Joachim Gauck, after he presented him with an original historic Solidarity poster in Warsaw, Poland, on Tuesday March 27, 2012. Words in Polish at the bottom of the poster read: High Noon June 4, 1989. Gauck, 72, is a former East German pro-democracy activist and Lutheran minister who was elected March 18 and inaugurated Friday. German leaders in recent years have sometimes chosen Poland for their first trips abroad, a symbolic gesture stressing the strong alliance that has developed between the nations in the decades since Germany invaded and occupied Poland during World War II. (AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — Germany's new president praised Poland as a land of freedom and expressed remorse over the cruelty inflicted by Germany on the country during World War II, in a first foreign visit heavy with symbolism.

Joachim Gauck's words of reconciliation and warmth for the eastern neighbor were made Tuesday in Warsaw four days after he was inaugurated into a role that carries more moral authority than real power.

Trips to Poland by German leaders always carry a degree of symbolic and emotional weight due to persisting memories of the war. In recent years, some German leaders have made their first visits abroad to Poland, though France remains a common destination too.

Though the two countries are strong allies today, many older Poles remain bitter, and negative stereotypes on both sides still exist. Gauck, who is 72, noted that he remained conscious of German "guilt."

"It's been a big joy for me to be received here with an openness and warmth that I would never take for granted," Gauck said. "I am an older German, born during the war and deeply remember the changing history and the brutality of Germans before my time toward Poland."

A former Lutheran pastor and democracy activist in East Germany, Gauck also spoke of the inspiration Poland was for him during the 1980s, when the Solidarity movement led by Lech Walesa struggled for freedom in Poland.

"For me, Poland is the European country of freedom," Gauck said during a joint news conference with Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski. He said that while there were political considerations for coming to Poland first, the decision above all "came from the heart."

Komorowski, who was also an anti-communist dissident, gave Gauck an original historic poster of Solidarity.

Gauck appeared surprised and moved by the gift, and said he already has the same poster hanging in his home. He said the new one would be displayed in his office.

He thanked Komorowski, and the leaders shook hands and then hugged.

Poland and Germany today belong to the European Union and NATO and are major trading partners. The presidents said they discussed ways to deepen their ties further, for instance through youth initiatives or rock concerts — with Gauck saying he would attend such a concert despite his age.