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Issue Date: 14-02-2015


Zone: EUNL

Desk: Obituary

Output on: 11-02-2015----20:02

Page: OB1

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Obituary Richard von Weizsäcker

Germany’s liberator
Richard von Weizsäcker, first president of his reunited country,
died on January 31st, aged 94


ORTY years, as the Old Testament
shows, marks a psychological threshold. Richard von Weizsäcker observed this
on May 8th 1985, as he gave the speech of
his presidency and his life. In 40 years, a
people could traverse the desert and reach
the promised land; but they could also forget old lessons and stray from the path.
And so, 40 years after their surrender in the
war they had started, the Germans should
face their crimes and their own destruction as honestly as they could. Only then—
and this was his shocking twist—would
they understand that the day of their defeat was the moment of their liberation.
Helmut Kohl, then chancellor, had muttered something similar a few weeks earlier, but the public had taken little notice.
Now, however, the thought came from the
ceremonial head of state, a white-haired
and elegant aristocrat, the son of a diplomat, and it was delivered in dialect-free
German that resonated with gravitas. Suddenly the sentiment struck with full force,
at home and abroad. A few months after
the speech, Mr von Weizsäcker became the
first German president to visit Israel.
By then, Germans had made much progress in confronting their past. But members of the SS were still being honoured
among war dead, and Germany’s historians were on the verge of a long academic

struggle over whether the Holocaust was
unique. Not everybody was ready to take
the last step towards freedom through honesty. But Mr von Weizsäcker demanded it.
A relative few might have carried out the
crimes, he said in his speech, “but every
single German could witness what the
Jews had to suffer.”
He left unmentioned his own family
history. But Germans knew that this appeal came from a man as deeply implicated as any of them. His father, Ernst, had
been a senior official in Hitler’s foreign
ministry. His oldest brother, Carl Friedrich,
was a physicist who worked on nuclear fission to give Hitler the bomb. Richard was
the youngest brother. As a gangly, enthusiastic teenager he invaded Poland with the
Wehrmacht as part of the 9th Potsdam, an
elite Prussian infantry regiment. On the
second day of the war Heinrich, his middle
brother, was shot through the throat not far
from him. Richard kept watch over Heinrich’s dead body all night. He could not describe “the emotions of those hours”.
From then on, he did his brutal duty in
the eastern lands. With his regiment he
laid siege to Leningrad and advanced almost to Moscow. He saw, and plausibly
took part in, many atrocities. In 2009 journalists confronted him with a newly discovered order from 1941 that told his regi-

The Economist February 14th 2015
ment to take no prisoners. Taken aback, he
stammered that he had never heard of it.
But two years earlier, in conversation, he
had referred to “the countries we raped”.
Many of the men who tried to assassinate Hitler on July 20th 1944 came from his
regiment. He was close to them, and remembered, in a billet on the eastern front,
shooting holes in a portrait of Hitler. But he
was not of or with them. After the war,
when his father was accused of war crimes
in the Nuremburg trials, he interrupted his
law studies to defend him, arguing that he
had tried to prevent even worse crimes.
But Ernst had signed an order to deport
6,000 Jews to Auschwitz, and his son could
not save him from prison.
He remained defensive about his father’s role. Like his country, he struggled to
accept his guilt. For a while he would not
touch politics, going instead into business
and becoming president of the lay assembly of the Lutheran church, whose teachings he quietly lived by. He preached reconciliation among Christians in divided
Germany, and was among the first to demand that the westward-shifted border of
Poland, which he had once barged
through, should be seen as permanent.
Mr Kohl brought him into centre-right
politics in 1969, as a member of the Christian Democratic Union, but he was never a
party apparatchik. His mind was too freewheeling for that. In the 1970s he naturally
supported Ostpolitik, the policy of rapprochement with all the eastern countries;
it did not matter that the idea came from
Willy Brandt’s rival Social Democrats.
At the Berlin Wall
On Kristallnacht in 1938, when Jewish
shops were smashed, Mr von Weizsäcker
had been in Berlin. In 1981 he became
mayor of the city’s western side, now split
by a wall as though in punishment. Conventional wisdom viewed that division as
permanent. But he insisted that the German question remained open as long as
the Brandenburg Gate remained closed.
In 1984 he was chosen as president,
much to the chagrin ofMr Kohl. Slim, ascetic and patrician, he made a telling contrast
with the fat, shabby chancellor. The CDU
boss revelled in political combat; the head
ofstate stood apart, a figure ofdecency, dignity and goodness. When Germany was at
last reunited, he was the best spokesman
the country could have wished for.
Perhaps the sweetest moment occurred
just after the Berlin Wall fell in November
1989. The president rushed to Berlin and
approached the wall at Potsdamer Platz, in
no-man’s-land. East German soldiers were
breaching the wall to make a border crossing. As the West German president walked
towards them, an East German officer
snapped to attention and barked: “No unusual developments here, Mr President.” 7