German president who pushed country to face Nazi past dies

Richard von Weizsaecker oversaw east-west reunification, was first head of state to visit Israel

Former German President Richard von Weizsaecker. (screen capture: YouTube)
Former German President Richard von Weizsaecker. (screen capture: YouTube)

BERLIN (AP) — Former German President Richard von Weizsaecker, who declared Germany’s World War II surrender a “day of liberation” for his country as he urged it to confront the Nazi past, and promoted reconciliation during a tenure spanning the reunification of west and east, has died. He was 94.

Weizsaecker died in Berlin on Friday night, President Joachim Gauck’s office said Saturday. Weizsaecker, a patrician and eloquent figure who was president from 1984 to 1994, raised the profile of the largely ceremonial presidency and established himself as a moral conscience for the nation.

Weizsaecker’s May 1985 speech marking the 40th anniversary of Nazi Germany’s defeat in World War II cemented his reputation. It won widespread praise as an effort to bring fellow Germans to terms with the Holocaust.

“All of us, whether guilty or not, whether young or old, must accept the past. We are all affected by its consequences and liable for it,” said Weizsaecker, who served as a regular soldier in Adolf Hitler’s army. “Anyone who closes his eyes to the past is blind to the present.”

“The 8th of May was a day of liberation,” he told the West German parliament. “It freed us all from the system of National Socialist tyranny.”

Later that month, the Netherlands’ German-born Prince Claus presented the president with a Dutch translation of the speech, telling him that it enabled him finally to acknowledge his roots in a country where resentment of the Nazi occupation remained widespread.

In October 1985, Weizsaecker made the first visit to Israel by a West German head of state. Israeli counterpart Chaim Herzog in 1987 reciprocated with the first visit by an Israeli president to West Germany and praised Weizsaecker for his “positive stand” toward Israel and the Jewish people.

The 1985 speech “had an impact on an entire generation and has shaped Germany’s image as an integrating force in the middle of our continent,” said Jean-Claude Juncker, the head of the European Commission. It gave Weizsaecker “political authority far beyond Germany’s borders,” he added.

Weizsaecker’s comment on the “day of liberation” was “a necessary, clear statement that was significant for our German self-image,” Chancellor Angela Merkel said.

“The death of Richard von Weizsaecker is a great loss for Germany,” she said.

Former President of Israel Shimon Peres, right, hugs former German President Richard von Weizsaecker in Berlin, Germany on January 27, 2010 (Photo credit: Jens Meyer/AP)
Former President of Israel Shimon Peres, right, hugs former German President Richard von Weizsaecker in Berlin, Germany on January 27, 2010 (Photo credit: Jens Meyer/AP)

Weizsaecker served as deputy defense counsel to his father, career diplomat Ernst von Weizsaecker, who was sentenced to prison in Nuremberg after the war for his role as a deputy foreign minister during the Nazi era.

Weizsaecker said in 1987 that he did not regret defending his father, arguing that “it was his goal to prevent the outbreak of the war” and he took the Foreign Ministry assignment with that aim in mind.

Weizsaecker had managerial stints in banking and pharmaceuticals and also headed Germany’s Protestant church congress for several years.

He joined the center-right Christian Democratic Union in 1954. He served in the federal parliament from 1969 until his election in 1981 as mayor of West Berlin, a high-profile job that helped propel him into the presidency three years later.

Weizsaecker said the head of state should “ask questions, encourage answers, but never offer a prescription.” As an ambassador for a modern, sophisticated Germany, he made 56 state visits.

Warning Germans against hatred for others and appealing for friendship with the Soviet Union, Weizsaecker also said in his 1985 speech that Germans “retain the feeling that they are one people.”

As communist East Germany crumbled in late 1989, Weizsaecker cautioned that Germans in both states must be patient in bridging their divisions. The following year, he admonished affluent West Germans that “to unite means learning to share.”

He acknowledged that some of his country’s neighbors were worried about a “new German power and Germany going solo,” but said Germany was committed to helping integrate Europe, not dominate it. Visiting Poland as reunification neared in 1990, he reassured Warsaw that Poland’s border with Germany, which was moved westward after World War II, was “inviolable.”

After reunification, he denounced emerging far-right, anti-foreigner violence.

“On this, we shouldn’t only be thinking about how we look abroad,” he said in a farewell address as he handed over to his successor, Roman Herzog. “More important is what we see in our own mirrors.”

The departing president suggested Germany admit more immigrants.

Weizsaecker is survived by his wife, Marianne, and three of their four children.

Copyright 2015 The Associated Press

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