Last month came death to one of the twentieth century’s great political leaders: Richard Freiherr von Weizsaecker, Bundespraesident of the Federal Republic of Germany in the 1980s. He will long be remembered as the author of a speech on May 8, 1985 to the hushed parliament of his newly democratic country. Anthony Lewis of the New York Times called it “one of the great speeches of our time.”
Delivered on the 40th anniversary of the end of World War Two in Europe, it achieved instant worldwide attention: for the first time a high-ranking German leader took occasion publicly to recall, in painful detail, the evils of the Nazi past. Only a few days before President Ronald Reagan had visited the Bitburg Cemetery—with its graves of SS troops—against the counsel of Elie Weisel and many other survivors of the Holocaust.
In their constitutional system, Germans elect a president who, unlike their Chancellor, can stand somewhat apart from the partisan storms of the electorate. In that office, the German president can represent and speak to the nation less encumbered with immediate political interests than can the American president. The “interest” to which von Weizsaecker spoke in 1985 was the German stake in recovering from a notoriously evil Nazi past.
In essence the speech was a catalogue of specifics. It ranged across the whole scope of 12 years of Nazi contempt for human life: “the six million Jews who were murdered…the unthinkable number of citizens of the Soviet Union and Poland…the murdered Sinti and Roma…the homosexuals…the mentally ill…the Resistance in all countries…the German Resistance…” It added up to “a vast army of the dead…a mountain of human suffering… forced labor, oppression and plunder, …imprisonment, torture through hunger and need….suffering through the loss of all one once had mistakenly believed in and for which one had worked.”
Von Weizsaeker took note of the suffering of Germany’s war enemies, who at the end helped reconstruct a battered Germany rather than taking revenge in the spirit of the Versailles Treaty. “How difficult it must have been for a citizen of Rotterdam or London to support the reconstruction of our country, from which the bombs had fallen on his city only a short time before.”
The list went on and on. It could have hushed any parliament in the world.
A letter from a German friend has written a tribute widely shared in his country: “He taught Germany to accept the day of its deepest military and moral defeat as a liberation.. He opened the gate to a common European future in friendship with all our neighbors. We are sad that we lost him. We are grateful that we had him as our true compatriot.”
Americans of my WWII generation experience surprise when they visit modern Germany and see, almost on every city street, symbolic reminders of the Nazi past. Now, in the center of Berlin, next door to grounds once occupied by Hitler’s bunker, is a vast stone block Holocaust memorial. Few nations on earth have publicly disowned an evil past so thoroughly as have the Germans. Leaders like von Weizsaecker set a powerful example for making this possible.
In so doing, Germans have set an example for us all. How many American politicians see part of their public vocation the identifying and specifying of the evils in our own past? No doubt, frequent public mention of slavery, the massacre of Native Americans and sundry other examples of American racism may lose votes in an electorate that prefers to forget past evils, even when they are not altogether past. We like to be told that we are “the greatest nation in history,” but not to be reminded of the evils that lurk in that history and continue to haunt us in the present.
It takes a great leader to undertake, with Psalm 15:4, the moral duty to “swear to our own hurt.” It hurts to remember the moral low points in our history. But healing from them requires that we remember them, specifically and painfully.
We can be grateful for the world-class service of Richard von Weizsaecker to this hard responsibility implicit in the vocation of democratic politicians. They owe us the moral humility of calling attention to the evils in our past.
Donald W. Shriver is the President Emeritus of the Union Theological Seminary and author of Honest Patriots: Loving a Country Enough to Remember Its Misdeeds (Oxford, 2005).