On March 15, the fifty-first anniversary of the German takeover of Czechoslovakia in 1939, the president of the GDR, Richard von Weizsäcker, visited Hradcany Castle, Prague. The following is drawn from the speeches given there by President von Weizsäcker and by President Václav Havel of Czechoslovakia.
Fifty-one years ago today, German military forces invaded your country. A parade here at the Hradcany Castle was meant to be a victory celebration. But it was the beginning of six years of oppression and occupation, achieved by means of political blackmail and armed aggression. It was a defeat for the forces of law and political morality. Grave injustices were inflicted on your country and its people by the Germans. What happened on March 15, 1939, represented the decisive step leading to World War II. The world now finally understood that Hitler was determined to achieve his ends unscrupulously, through treachery and the use of force. With his next act of aggression, in September of the same year, he drew the peoples of Europe into the maelstrom of a destructive war. The consequence was unspeakable suffering.
The names of respectable towns and cities in your country and in ours—from Lidice to Dachau—became warning examples of brutality and contempt for humanity. The victims included countless innocent Germans. It is with reverence and feelings of heartfelt sorrow that we commemorate these victims and all those who suffered. We owe them our remembrance, and we need the warning they give us.
We don’t want to misuse history in order to defend ourselves, make accusations, or count up wrongs. We shouldn’t use history this way, and doing so would not get us anywhere. If we wish to come together in peace and friendship, then we need to be honest with each other, and each one of us must be honest with himself in confronting his own past. “Improvement begins with the individual,” in the words of your great philosopher Comenius. Each person matters. Guilt and innocence are always personal, never collective. Yet we share responsibility for the legacy of history and the way we use it in the present. Like Comenius, let us look at history as it is and deal with its consequences as conscientiously as we can.
There are still feelings of deeply rooted mistrust which have to be overcome. Serious wounds were inflicted by both sides, and they left scars that are still painful today. However, by living together as true neighbors, we learn how to relate to each other openly. “Falsehood is a companion of violence.” Let us take to heart these words spoken by the first president of your republic, Tomá G. Masaryk. Feelings of hatred and enmity have been dissolving ever since we began seriously to try to make truth the basis of our relations. Truth is the fountain of life.
We want to build a bridge of understanding with you, and I would like to thank those [in Czechoslovakia] who spoke on behalf of the Sudeten Germans …