is the Martha Rivers Ingram Chair of History and professor of history at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. His books include The Butcher’s Tale: Murder and Antisemitism in a German Town(2002), The Continuities of German History: Nation, Religion, and Race across the Long 19th Century (2008) and Germany: A Nation in Its Time (2020).
At the Grunewald Gleis 17 (Platform 17) Memorial in Berlin. From this former railway station, more than 50,000 Jewish people were sent to Auschwitz between October 1941 and February 1945. Photo by Michael Dalder/Reuters
In 1985 West Germany’s president gave an unflinching speech. It helped a new generation to face the Nazi past honestly
On 8 May 1985, West Germany’s president Richard von Weizsäckerdelivered something akin to the Gettysburg Address – not for a nation in the midst of war, as was the case for the United States’ president Abraham Lincoln in 1863, but for a country working through the memory and the meaning of a lost war 40 years after its end. There were, of course, vast differences in the two speeches. Given on a grey day on Cemetery Hill in the Pennsylvanian town for which the address is named, Lincoln’s speech to union soldiers lasted all of two minutes. Weizsäcker’s, by contrast, went on for three quarters of an hour, the German president weighing each syllable of each word and delivering them in measured tones to smartly dressed representatives of parliament in the then capital city of Bonn. The two speeches also contrasted in the way they invoked the past. Marking a battle that had transpired four months earlier, Lincoln did not utter the word ‘slavery’. Instead, he evocatively recalled a time – ‘fourscore and seven years ago’ – when ‘our fathers brought forth, on this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.’ Weizsäcker, somewhat in contrast, faced the Nazi past without flinching. He pleaded that 8 May 1945, the day of defeat, not be separated from 30 January 1933, the day Hitler had seized power.
Weizsäcker’s speech took place against the scandal caused by the US president Ronald Reagan’s visit, on the German chancellor Helmut Kohl’s behest, to Bitburg cemetery just days before. The cemetery contained the graves of US and German soldiers, and the visit was meant to be a symbolic act of reconciliation between two erstwhile enemies that had, in the course of four decades, become close allies and friends. But it was soon revealed that soldiers from the SS, the Nazi elite corps, were also buried in the cemetery, and the international public reacted swiftly. Elie Wiesel, a Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace-prizewinning author of the memoir Night (1960), told Reagan: ‘That place, Mr President, is not your place. Your place is with the victims of the SS.’
Reagan and Kohl wanted to heal the wounds of the Second World War by drawing a Schlussstrich (a conclusion) to the seemingly endless discussion of the conflagration. Weizsäcker struck a more honest tone. He named the names of the groups who suffered. We remember and mourn all the dead of war and dictatorship, Weizsäcker intoned. He underscored especially the ‘6 million Jews’ killed in concentration camps, and singled out the citizens of the Soviet Union and Poland. Then, as he read through a scroll of agony, Weizsäcker mourned a third group, ‘our countrymen’, including the German soldiers who lost their lives, civilians who died in aerial attacks, and the many millions of expellees forced from their homes in eastern Europe after the war. Less expected, Weizsäcker also evoked the memory of the murdered Sinti and Roma people, the homosexuals killed, the mentally disabled whose lives the Nazis extinguished, and those they eradicated because of their religious or political conviction.
For some of these groups, in particular homosexuals and Sinti and Roma, no German leader had ever uttered their names in a public speech in the context of a national day of commemoration. Weizsäcker also recalled the heroism and sacrifice of German resisters, and not just those in the army, but also those in the trade unions and among the communists. Finally, Germany’s president introduced new ways of thinking about the fate of some 12 millionGermans expelled from the east (mainly from Poland, the Czech Republic and the Soviet Union). In the first four decades of the existence of the Federal Republic of Germany, the claims of the so-called expellees for the right of return to their homeland severely divided political parties. Weizsäcker, who received repeated applause on this issue, reminded his listeners that the expellees had suffered and lost more than most Germans, and insisted that their Heimatliebe (love of home) was genuine, and not to be equated with revanchism. But he also pointed out that, 40 years after the end of the war, Polish graves had come to outnumber German graves in the cemeteries of the erstwhile German communities of eastern Europe.
Widely applauded, the speech did not go unopposed. The Bavarian politician Franz Josef Strauss grumbled that all this ‘endless mastering of the past in the form of ongoing national contrition paralyses a people.’ Nevertheless, ‘the speech’, as it was called, reached an immense audience. Published in newspapers and magazines, reprinted as a book, distributed gratis, the speech was also recorded on a 33 RPM record. In the summer of 1985, I was a recent college graduate living in a small town in Germany and working in a local factory. After hearing that speech, a conservative neighbour took me aside. ‘Weizsäcker spoke from our hearts,’ she whispered to me. To her, what he had said was not about party politics. It was about the truth of things. Weizsäcker’s speech created an opening – a chance to speak truth.
n the mid-1980s, when Weizsäcker gave his speech, a tectonic shift was already reshaping the historiographical landscape, as German historians were slowly finding their way to more complex truths about Nazi Germany and the Holocaust.[…]