Sometimes, a single act is all it takes to enter the history books. For Richard von Weizsäcker, it was the speech he gave on May 8, 1985, on the 40th anniversary of the end of World War II, says DW’s Felix Steiner.
"May 8 was a day of liberation." It's a statement that seems so obvious today, espousing a view shared by more than 80 percent of all Germans. But coming from the president of West Germany 30 years ago, it was nothing short of a sensation. Not only was Richard von Weizsäcker a member of the conservative party, he was also a soldier during World War II, ultimately earning the rank of captain. He was sent to one of the places where the war was fought with great brutality: the eastern front, following Germany's attack on the Soviet Union.
Until he uttered this sentence, May 8, 1945 was known as the day of "capitulation," the end of the war that Germany had "lost."
During my childhood in the late 1960s and 1970s, both of these terms informed the way my family discussed what had happened back then. Both of my grandfathers were imprisoned at the very end of the war. One of them remained in prison for more than three years. Yes, they were relieved that the war was finally over, that they had survived the bloodshed, and that they could go home to their families. But like many Germans during those final days of the war, they probably didn't feel "liberated."
Whoever sought information, could know
But the West German president challenged the German people even more during his speech. "Whoever opened his eyes and ears and sought information could not fail to notice that Jews were being deported," he said. With that, Richard von Weizsäcker touched on the greatest taboo of the first post-war decades – the guilt that the Germans felt after 12 years of National Socialism. "What did you know?" the young adults of the "68 generation" asked their mothers and fathers. So often, it was a question that went unanswered, and because of this, surfaced in the form of a radical rupture between the generations.
"A people that have brought about such economic achievements have the right not to hear about Auschwitz anymore," said CSU chairman Franz-Josef Strauss in the 1960s. Like von Weizsäcker, he had also served as a German army officer on the eastern front. The long overdue renunciation of the desire to suppress and forget could only come from the ranks of the conservatives and those who participated in the war themselves.
Of course, others had already spoken about the collective guilt of the Germans in parliament. There was former West German President Gustav Heinemann, for example, who had been involved in the Christian opposition movement, printing illegal flyers in the basement of his house. Or Willy Brandt, who was forced into exile in Scandinavia where he organized opposition to the Nazis. Both men were treated with contempt by many of their contemporaries long after the war, and their influence was restricted to those from their own political circles.
A new historical identity
With his speech, however, von Weizsäcker was able to establish a new collective norm of historical remembrance. Not with the kind of distance we have now of 70 years, but at a time when millions of those involved in the events – whether as oppressor or victim – were still alive. And, in the face of much resistance from his own party, he gave Germans the task of never forgetting what happened in the years leading up to and during the war.
The fact that German reunification in 1990 provoked little fear or concern from the neighboring countries who suffered under the Nazis is a testament to the new historical identity of the Germans that Richard von Weizsäcker helped bring about 30 years ago.
This new identity created trust abroad. When President Joachim Gauck said during this year's Holocaust memorial that there is "no German identity without Auschwitz" – a remark that passed without controversy – then it's clear that the Germans have accepted their role and their responsibility for their history. That is the achievement from Richard von Weizsäcker's great speech of May 8, 1945, and that is his outstanding service to this country.