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.
Richard von Weizsäcker
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 [who were expelled from Czechoslovakia at the end of World War II] for their sincere words. It is encouraging to hear both sides talking about “people’s diplomacy” in the form of mutual visits, dialogue, and new bonds of friendship. We are confident that this can lead to a fundamental change for the better in the hearts and minds of our populations.
This is the spirit in which all of us together approach the tasks confronting Europe as a whole. Walls have fallen, barriers have been removed, barbed wire has been cut. The borders are open. We respect them without reservation, and we have no territorial claims whatsoever with respect to our neighbors.
People are free to visit one another. As peaceful citizens you have succeeded in securing freedom, democracy, and respect for human rights—in Czechoslovakia, the GDR, Hungary, and Poland. New thinking among Soviet leaders has led them to side with you. The candles lit at Wenceslas Square and in the streets of Prague symbolized the same ideals and values as those carried in demonstrations in Leipzig and Dresden.
The newly won freedom and the confidence displayed by the peoples of Europe provide us Germans with the opportunity to overcome the division of our people. This trust is a precious asset that we are called upon to nurture and preserve. We are grateful to our neighbors for acknowledging our right to self-determination. Mr. President, we attribute a great deal of importance to the fact that you clearly expressed this in Prague, Warsaw, Washington, and Moscow.
In the process of moving toward unity, we Germans are deeply aware of our responsibility for preserving the peace in Europe. Who wouldn’t understand this, considering the past course of European history, our geographical position in the heart of the continent, as well as our own experience and interests? We Germans have more neighbors than any other country in Europe. Our geographical location resulted in our history being marked by mutual influences and mutual interventions between our neighbors and ourselves. Our history has never been solely our own.
Today, isolated national policies have as little relevance for us as they did in the past. We have put the age behind us in which the forces of respectable patriotism could be transformed into those of a malevolent nationalism directed at neighbors and leading to destructive European wars. It is our objective to work together with you in the same manner as the Germans and the French have worked to overcome the divisions of the past. Our citizens, particularly our young people, have the desire and the ability to do this.
Our process of unity must stand the test by demonstrating that a united Germany will be a constituent part of and a strong incentive for European unity. As such, it must be firmly embedded in the European Community, in the CSCE process,* as well as in the development of a stable and, if possible, collective security system for our region.
Not a single one of the important tasks facing us today can be approached from a narrow national perspective. We need daily practical cooperation such as I am pleased to see developing in the Czechoslovakian-Bavarian border area. Above all, we need supranational European communities and institutions, in order to be able to deal effectively with problems concerning environmental protection, energy supplies, transport infrastructures, as well as economic, technological, and social development. We need to share joint European responsibility for solving the global problems of our age, problems such as overpopulation, underdevelopment, hunger, the wretched conditions under which refugees must live, the ruthless exploitation of natural resources, and the changes affecting the climate of our planet. It will require a joint effort to meet the intellectual, moral, and social challenges of a technologically oriented global civilization.
Please allow me to add something at this point. We know very well how important it is during this process of German unification not to give our neighbors a reason for harboring fears, either old ones or new ones. How they perceive this process will continue to be something we take very seriously. We want to maintain close contact with the governments of our neighboring countries, in order both to reach agreement on the steps to be taken and to ensure that the people of these countries understand them. Through our words and deeds we want to convince people that German unity is not only a factor based on democratic legitimacy but also one that will promote peace in Europe.
Our guest has already, on behalf of his nation, spoken enough disagreeable truths about the suffering which many Germans have brought to the world and specifically to us. Or, to be more precise, which many forbears of today’s Germans have brought.
Have we on our part found the courage to say all that needs to be said? I am not sure that we have. For example, six years of Nazi rule were enough for us to allow ourselves to become infected with the germ of evil; during and after the war we informed on one another and more than once we subscribed, with both just and exaggerated indignation, to the immoral principle of collective guilt. Instead of properly putting on trial all those who were guilty of treason against their country, we expelled them from the country, thus punishing them in a way that was not known in our legal system. It was not punishment, it was revenge. Moreover, we expelled them not on the basis of proven individual guilt, but simply as members of a particular nation.
And thus while assuming that we were dispensing historical justice, we in fact hurt many innocent people, especially women and children. And as often happens in history, by doing so we hurt not only them but ourselves: we settled our accounts with totalitarianism in such a way as to allow this infection to contaminate our actions and hence our souls, and shortly afterward this fact cruelly returned in the form of our inability to confront a new totalitarianism, imported from elsewhere. What is more, many of us actively helped to bring this new totalitarianism into the world.
But that decision served us badly in yet other ways; by suddenly devastating a large section of the country, we inadvertently allowed the weeds of devastation to spread throughout the land.
The sacrifices required to set things right will thus also be, among others, a penalty for the errors and sins of our fathers.
The clock of history cannot be set back and thus, besides the free scrutiny of the truth, the only choice available to us is to warmly welcome those who come to visit, with peace in their souls, to pause by the graves of their ancestors or to see what has remained of the villages in which they were born.
The relationship between Germany and the family of European nations and between this family and Germany has, in view of Germany’s size, strength, and central position, traditionally been the most important element in European stability. This is also true today. All of Europe should be grateful to the Germans for having begun the dismantling of the wall that had divided them, because in so doing they also dismantled the wall that has divided Europe. Yet in spite of this, many Europeans are still afraid of a unified Germany.
I think this provides Germans with a great historic opportunity: it is up to them to rid the Europeans of their fears, If they are able for instance to unequivocally confirm the final validity of all existing borders, including those with Poland, or if they are able to finally deal with those who have the audacity even now to continue to flirt with Nazi ideology, then they will have greatly contributed to a Europe that no longer fears them or tries to prevent their swift unification.
Whether German unification becomes a welcome moving force for the unification of all Europe or a force that slows it down also depends on the Germans. Their well-known tidiness and love of order should, in their own interests, be brought to bear on this process; any haste or chaos, especially if they are the outcome of mere election speculation, will not add to the Germans’ credibility.
On the other hand if all goes reasonably, then we can soon expect the day for which all of Europe has long been waiting: that is, the day when the final line can be drawn to the events of the Second World War and its disastrous consequences, including the division of Europe down the middle, and its transformation into two huge pyramids of weapons. If all goes reasonably, and in an atmosphere of mutual understanding, this final line can be drawn—perhaps as early as next year; and it will certainly be a better line than the one drawn long ago at Versailles.
Then Europe will at last set out along the path toward its old dream of becoming a friendly union of friendly nations and democratic countries, and based on a general respect for human rights. The forty-five years that have elapsed since the end of the war have been a sufficiently long interval to make it possible to conclude a really wise treaty, one no longer affected by anger, however understandable such anger is. It is evident that the future of us all depends above all on German developments.
We have been speaking here about the historic tasks which Germany now faces. It is only appropriate that I now mention what we ourselves must do.
After all that has happened, we too still retain some of our fear of Germans and of a Greater Germany. There are people still alive who have experienced the war, lost their dear ones in it, suffered in concentration camps, or were forced to hide from the Gestapo. Their lack of trust is understandable, and it is only natural that this fear is passed on to others.
From this follows our own task: to overcome this fear. We should come to understand that we were made to suffer not by the German nation, but by specific human beings, by spite, blind obedience, and indifference to our fellow creatures—all these are the qualities of persons, not of nations. Do we not all know more than a few bad Czechs and Slovaks? Did we not have among ourselves more than a few informers who worked for the Gestapo and later for the State Security? Did we not have enough indifference and egoism among ourselves when for years, and decades, we allowed our country to be devastated, and were silent only because we did not want to jeopardize our bonuses and our quiet evenings in front of the TV screen? Yet our people were not, at least in recent years, threatened with death sentences and often not even with prison. When all is said and done, were we not the ones who, in the final analysis, carried out this malignant activity?
In any case it was the Nazis who treacherously identified their own cause with that of the German nation. We should never follow in their footsteps. If we accepted their lies, we would only be passing on their destructive delusions.
Sometimes people find offensive those who do not speak their own language, especially when it is the language spoken by a tyrant. But a language is not responsible for the tyrant who speaks it. To judge people by their language, the color of their skin, their origins or shape of nose, is to be a racist, whether we are aware of it or not. To speak in a derogatory way about the Germans as such, or the Vietnamese or the members of any other nation, to condemn them only because they are German or to be afraid of them only for that reason, is the same as being an anti-Semite.
In other words, to accept the idea of collective guilt and collective responsibility means to intentionally or unintentionally weaken individual guilt and responsibility. And that is very dangerous. Just think back awhile to how many of us, until very recently, were stripping ourselves of individual responsibility by referring to the fact that that is just the way we Czechs are, and we will never be any different. This type of thinking is the inconspicuous germ of moral nihilism.
There are of course qualities in which we as Czechs or Slovaks differ from others and from each other. We have different tastes, different dreams, different memories, and different experiences. But we are not good or bad because we are Czechs, or Slovaks, or Germans, or Vietnamese, or Jews.
To make the German nation guilty of the crimes committed by some Germans is to release those Germans from their guilt and so submerge them in anonymity, in which no one can be held responsible. And it is also to deprive ourselves of hope. It would be the same if someone declared us to be a nation of Stalinists. Suffering creates the obligation to be just, not to behave unjustly. Those who have suffered know this.
In the final analysis it is only in the realm of justice that the gift of forgiveness can flourish, and hence also freedom from anger can exist.
I do not know whether in the future multipolar world a unified Germany will be called a superpower or not. Be that as it may, in one sense of the word it is doubtless already a potential superpower in the sense that it can become one of the pillars of European spirituality, which can, if it so chooses, help us to resist the malignant pressures of technical civilization and the stupefying dictatorship of consumerism and of pervasive commercialism, pressures which lead to the very alienation that the German philosophers have so often analyzed.
Once Germany has developed and confirmed its idea of statehood, to which its systematic, hierarchical spirit has traditionally aspired, and which has so much engaged it in the practical sense, then it will be able to turn its creative potential without restraint to the service of renewing global human responsibility, which is the only possible salvation for the contemporary world. This is a task for which the very spirit of the German intellectual tradition is well suited.
If today represents another small step toward understanding in the middle of Europe, then it can at the same time also be a small step toward awakening all of us from the anesthesia which moral materialism unscrupulously induces in us every day—the entirely logical outcome of which is often a feeling that after us the deluge might just as well come.
—translated by Rita Klímová
April 26, 1990