At first blush, there don’t appear to be many reasons for me to have been an admirer of Richard von Weizsäcker, the first democratically elected president of a united Germany since Paul von Hindenberg in the 1930s. Born in 1920, von Weizsäcker served in the German Army during the Second World War, eventually attaining the rank of Captain and personally participating in the invasion of Poland that began the war. (Nor was he one of “those” Germans who later claimed that they had no idea that European Jewry was being annihilated on his watch. Instead, von Weizsäcker freely admitted that he was reliably told by a comrade-in-arms about the Nazis’ crimes against humanity in 1943 and knew from then on that the rumors he had earlier heard about Hitler’s war against the Jews were true.) Nor do the reasons I should not be one of his admirers end on V-E Day: in 1947, he had it in him to serve as assistant defense counsel when his father, formerly an SS-Brigadeführer, was put on trial for his role in the deportation of French Jewry. And then, when it was all over, von Weizsäcker went to law school, got married, produced a family…and put the war and its horrors behind him as he made his way forward in the world. Eventually, he went into politics, winning a seat in the Bundestag in 1969.
So for all those reasons I really should not admire President Von Weizsäcker, who died few days ago, or hold his legacy in regard. But that is not at all how I feel, and I feel challenged by my own sentiments to explain (to you, possibly a bit to myself) why that is.
He advanced in politics with the years, serving as the Vice President of the Bundestag, then as the Mayor of West Berlin, then as President of all Germany, which office he assumed in 1984, the same year I myself moved to Germany to take up a teaching position at the Institute for Jewish Studies attached to the University of Heidelberg. So we started new jobs the same year and in the same country…but at the time I had no sense of the role that he would eventually play in the history of my personal relationship to Germany and to its history of ruthless brutality and aggression against the Jewish people.
As readers of these letters know, I am as deeply involved with the legacy of the Shoah as any non-survivor possibly could be. This is the soil in which my beliefs, theological and moral, have grown for decades; just last week I wrote to you about the seminal experience of my adolescence being the reading of books of eye-witness testimony regarding the efforts fully to exterminate the Jewish population of occupied Europe. So it may seem odd to some of you to imagine someone such as myself willingly choosing to move—and with a wife and a five-month-old baby, no less—to the very country that even then served as the backdrop for more nightmares than I could write about in a thousand weekly letters. In retrospect, the decision surprises me as well. I could have stayed in Israel. (We had spent the previous year in Jerusalem, where I had a post-doctoral fellowship at the Hebrew University, and I had an offer to take up a lectureship at the University of Haifa.) I could have returned to New York and settled back into my career as a teacher at Hunter College or JTS. I could have done a lot of things…but somehow I ended up moving to Heidelberg.
This was, as noted, the mid-1980s. All those decommissioned Wehrmacht soldiers who were in the twenties when the war ended were still only in their sixties. Nor was the presence of former German combatants merely theory for me: I had one student who eventually revealed to me that his grandfather had been a guard at Majdanek. (He, the grandson, spoke Hebrew fluently, had studied for years in Israel, and eventually became a Lutheran pastor.) The place was filled with people like that, individuals trying to find a way to be German without turning away from the nation’s own history. Nor was this solely a story of individuals wrestling with their heritage: the nation itself was still very much in the throes of coming to terms with its past. It was both an exciting and an intimidating place for me to live as I took my place in the Jewish community and attempted to convince myself, mostly successfully, that the effort to restore Jewish learning to Germany was both a noble and a legitimate response to history and that I was lucky to be part of it.
And then it was suddenly 1985 and the fortieth anniversary of the end of the war, called V-E Day by ourselves and Stunde Null (“Zero Hour”) popularly by the Germans themselves, was almost upon us. Mostly, it was gratifying to see the Germans wrestling with the heritage bequeathed them by their forebears.
But it was also creepy and weird being there, something like accidentally overhearing a discussion so intimate and so intense that you can’t stop listening even though you have no actual right to be present in the first place.
This was the context for two events that eventually dominated the anniversary itself, one upsetting and weird and the other intensely hopeful and encouraging.
The upsetting event was President Reagan’s visit to Bitburg. Mostly forgotten now, the controversy had to do with the president’s agreement to accompany West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl to a German military cemetery (the president was going to be in Germany anyway for a G7 economic summit in Bonn) as a sign of the friendship between the United States and its former foe. The Germans suggested the Kolmeshöhe Cemetery, just ninety miles from Bonn, but somehow forgot to mention that among the buried in that place were forty-nine members of the Waffen-SS. President Reagan should have backed off right then, but instead made one error of judgment after another. First, he insisted that he would go despite the mounting protests at home. Then he made the almost unbelievable comment in a public speech that, in his considered opinion, the Nazi soldiers buried at Bitburg were, and I quote, “victims, just as surely as the victims in the concentration camps.” And then, for good measure, the president specifically declined to add a visit to a concentration camp to his itinerary as a way of offsetting his visit to Bitburg, a decision later reversed.
For me, living as I was in Germany, this whole controversy was upsetting. Did the President of the United States really think that members of the Waffen-SS, defined at Nuremberg as a criminal organization and thus specifically not merely as just another branch of the German military, did he really think that its members were somehow victims? Victims of whom? Were the rubrics I had come to see as self-evident: guilty and not guilty, perpetrator and victim, persecutor and persecuted—were these already becoming passé? I wasn’t a huge fan of President Reagan for other reasons, but I always considered him a moral, decent man. Was I all wrong…about him? Or was I wrong about the universe? I was unsettled and ill at ease throughout the whole incident, and found myself wishing for nothing more fervently than that he would just go and get it over with, then let the matter disappear into the mists of history.
President Reagan went to the Kolmeshöhe Cemetery on Sunday, May 5, 1985. The war in Europe ended at midnight on May 8, 1945, so the fortieth anniversary of Stunde Null was just three days in the future. I had many moments in Germany during which the pressure to explain why exactly I was there was crushing, but I can’t remember three more unpleasant, upsetting days than those three between Bitburg and V-E Day 1985.
And then the day came…and President Von Weizsäcker spoke in the Bundestag. I remember this like it was yesterday; the entire country, certainly all of Heidelberg, was listening to the radio or watching this on TV. We were too. (The speech was carried live on the American Armed Forces Network, which we for some reason were able to access at home in Rohrbach, with subtitles for non-German speakers.) And in his words, I found solace and a sense of hope restored that President Reagan’s visit to the graves of the Waffen-SS had almost entirely eroded.
He spoke slowly and in measured tones, using a kind of literary German that was somehow deeply impressive without sounding stodgy or old-fashioned. He spoke openly, and without shilly-shallying, about the responsibility all Germans bear for the sins of the Nazis and how this national burden cannot be sidestepped by individuals with reference to their own lack of indictable culpability. And, remarkably, he spoke about Stunde Null as a moment not of defeat or capitulation, but of liberation. This was not at all how Germans in the 1980s were used to thinking about their past.
Openly and calmly, he mocked those who, when the truth about the Shoah became known, hid behind a false veil of unknowing and claimed, because it so suited what they perceived to be their own best interests, that they knew nothing of it. I wish to quote his words directly because they meant so much to me then and remain resonant with me after all these years:
The perpetration of this crime was in the hands of a few people. It was concealed from the eyes of the public, but every German was able to experience what his Jewish compatriots had to suffer, ranging from plain apathy and hidden intolerance to outright hatred. Who could remain unsuspecting after the burning of the synagogues, the plundering, the stigmatization with the Star of David, the deprivation of rights, the ceaseless violation of human dignity? Whoever opened his eyes and ears and sought information could not fail to notice that Jews were being deported. The nature and scope of the destruction may have exceeded human imagination, but in reality there was, apart from the crime itself, the attempt by too many people, including those of my generation, who were young and were not involved in planning the events and carrying them out, not to take note of what was happening. There were many ways of not burdening one's conscience, of shunning responsibility, looking away, keeping mum. When the unspeakable truth of the Holocaust then became known at the end of the war, all too many of us claimed that they had not known anything about it or even suspected anything….
And then he turned to Bitburg and, without once mentioning it or President Reagan, he spoke about the difference between legal culpability and the burden of memory. “There is no such thing as the guilt or innocence of an entire nation,” the president said reasonably. But then he continued to observe that guilt, “like innocence, is not collective but personal. There is discovered or concealed individual guilt. There is guilt which people acknowledge or deny. . . . All of us, whether guilty or not, whether young or old, must accept the past. We are all affected by the consequences and liable for it. . . . We Germans must look truth straight in the eye – without embellishment and without distortion. . . . There can be no reconciliation without remembrance." Those are deeply wise words and they address what was then the major stumbling block in the path leading to Germany coming to terms with its past, the insistence that the individual who was not at Treblinka and who did not personally beat anybody to death should be free to forget the whole thing and leave it for those who did those things to work through. Yes, individuals—and particularly those born after the war—bear no personal responsibility for the Shoah or for the war if they themselves did nothing to be guilty of, just as none of us bears any legal responsibility for the deeds of others. But that, von Weizsäcker said clearly, is neither here nor there…and the real question is how a nation, acting in concert as a nation, can confront its own history and thus prevent that history from serving also as its destiny.
The death of Richard von Weizsäcker is a real loss to the world. Singlehandedly, he made me feel able to spend the rest of our time in Germany free (or almost free) of the sense of crippling absurdity that could otherwise have been my constant companion, able to function without crumbling under the weight of what I knew of Germany and its past. I came away from listening to that speech, which I then bought as a pamphlet a few days later and read and reread, with a sense of hope in the future. He was a truly good man, one who found the courage to face his own past and, in so doing, to invite his countrymen to follow his example. It is in no small part because of that speech that Germany has come as far as it has in confronting the legacy of Nazism. And that, particularly when compared to other countries that remain wedded even today to a fanciful, entirely self-serving, conception of themselves as victims of the Nazis rather than as their willing collaborators in the war against the House of Israel, is not something to move quickly past at all. May he rest in peace and may his memory inspire Germans to face their past and, in so doing, to seek a worthy future for their children honestly and without pretense!