Germany is mourning the loss of Richard von Weizsäcker – a man, a politician and a statesman who did great things for the way Germany is seen throughout the world.
The speech he gave to the German Bundestag in May 1985, to mark the 40th anniversary of the end of the war, stands as a milestone in German history.
That pivotal sentence, when he said 8 May 1945 had been not a “day of defeat” but a “day of liberation” for the German people, was truly liberating for many in both German states and across the world. It certainly was for me.
Our neighbours in Europe took the message as long-awaited acknowledgement of the historical truth: the regime under Hitler was responsible for the murderous war, the Holocaust and the innumerable crimes committed against the peoples of Europe – and victory against that German reign of terror was a necessary precondition for a peaceful fresh start in Europe.
For the people of Germany, the Federal President’s admission was also a liberation, namely from the delusion that the war had been about fighting for survival against superior enemy forces. It was only through military defeat that Germany had been able to move forwards. No German politician had had the courage to articulate that truth before Richard von Weizsäcker!
The speech was a liberation for me and most of my generation too. Forty years after the end of the war, here was a German Federal President saying aloud what Willy Brandt had expressed without words when he knelt at the ghetto memorial in Warsaw – frankly acknowledging our past and Germany’s special responsibility.
In a few weeks, it will be 30 years since that significant speech. However, it is more relevant today that we would wish it to be. At such a time as this, as conflicts re-emerge that we believed long buried, we should remember Richard von Weizsäcker’s words more than ever.
“Learn to live with one another in harmony, not conflict.” That lesson from history, Weizsäcker’s admonition, will continue to resonate – even as we feel the loss of the voice of wisdom that was Richard von Weizsäcker.
(Published in German on www.bild.de on 31 January 2015 and in the 1 February 2015 edition of BILD am SONNTAG)
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