Former German President Richard von Weizsaecker, who died on Jan. 31 at the age of 94, faced up to Nazi Germany’s war crimes and crimes against humanity with honesty and sincerity. He embodied Germany’s moral conscience and influenced how Germans see their actions, past and present, as well as how they see themselves.
As Japan marks the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II this summer, the call by Weizsaecker “to look truth straight in the eye — without embellishment and without distortion” carries all the more weight for the Japanese, especially political leaders including Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
Weizsaecker will be remembered for playing an important role in helping Germany to overcome its association with its Nazi past, especially the Holocaust, and to forge friendly relations with neighbors, including France and Poland.
Born in 1920 in Stuttgart, Weizsaecker studied at Oxford and in Grenoble, France, joining the army in 1938. The infantry regiment he belonged to took part in the invasion of Poland. He was wounded and decorated several times.
After the war, he became a member of the defense team for his father, Ernst von Weizsaecker, who had served as state secretary in the foreign office of the Nazi regime and was being tried at the Nuremberg international tribunal.
The younger Weizsaecker joined the Christian Democratic Union in 1954 and served as a member of West Germany’s Bundestag from 1969 to 1981. Also active in liberal Protestantism, he served as president of the German Evangelical Church Assembly from 1964 to 1970.
He became governor mayor of West Berlin in 1981 and was elected president of West Germany in 1984. It was during his second term, in 1989, that he saw the fall of the Berlin Wall. He became the first president of the reunified Germany in 1990 before retiring in 1994.
Although the office of German president is largely a ceremonial position, Weizsaecker, in his May 8, 1985, speech in the Bundestag, made a historical and unforgettable impact on people of many countries. The date was the 40th anniversary of Nazi Germany’s capitulation.
Referring to the Holocaust perpetrated by Germany, he said, “Hardly any country in its history has always remained free from blame for war or violence. The genocide of the Jews, however, is unparalleled.” He went on to say: “All of us, whether guilty or not, whether old or young, must accept the past. We are all affected by its consequences and liable for it. …
“It (the past) cannot be subsequently modified or made undone. However, anyone who closes his eyes to the past is blind to the present. Whoever refuses to remember the inhumanity is prone to new risks of infection.”
His words left a strong impression because they came from a man who had fought as an officer in the German Army throughout the war. As his activities in the German church also indicated, his speech clearly echoed Christian values.
Japan’s current shaky relations with its neighbors strike a contrast with what Germany has accomplished with the nations that fell victim to its Nazi onslaught.
Abe, who plans to issue a statement on the 70th anniversary of Japan’s WWII surrender, should carefully read Weizsaecker’s speech and ask what Japan — which inflicted tremendous suffering and damage on peoples throughout the Asia-Pacific region during its wars in the 1930s and 1940s — should and should not do.
The prime minister should keep in mind that any attempt to play down Japan’s war responsibility will damage the international respect that Japan has earned during the postwar period as a result of its pacifist policies, and cause it to be seen as a country with flawed morals.