Weizsaecker, president who helped Germany face past

31st January 2015, Comments 0 comments

Richard von Weizsaecker, who died Saturday aged 94, was the first president of a reunited Germany and played a leading role in helping the country face up to its Nazi past.

During his 10 years in the office, he never shied away from thorny political debates, such as on immigration, winning recognition at home and abroad.

Though the post is largely ceremonial, he became known as the "political president" with a knack for giving stirring speeches that were often shaped by his own history.

In his most memorable address, marking 40 years after the end of World War II, he told lawmakers that May 8, 1945, marked a day of "liberation from the inhuman system of National Socialist tyranny" and not capitulation.

Germany's current President Joachim Gauck said Weizsaecker had been a "great human being and an outstanding head of state".

"Out of the experience of war and tyranny came his commitment for a peaceful and united Europe," Gauck said in a message of condolence to Weizsaecker's wife.

Weizsaecker began his military service in 1938, was wounded several times and was close by when one of his two brothers was killed early on in the war. "I buried him myself. I needn't tell you how that feels," he told news weekly Spiegel's online edition in 2009.

After the war he studied law and history.

While still a student he assisted the lawyer defending his father Ernst von Weizsaecker, a high-ranking aide to Hitler's foreign minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop, at the US-run Nuremberg trials.

His father received a seven-year sentence that was later reduced to five years.

- 'Unifying means learning to share' -

The ecologist Greens party paid tribute to his "moral integrity" and said Weizsaecker had changed Germany and its image, calling his May 8 anniversary speech a "historic milestone in Germans' handling of their history".

Spiegel Online summed it up in its headline, which read: "A single, liberating sentence".

French President Francois Hollande emphasised the late president's "moral stature".

Weizsaecker was born in the southwestern city of Stuttgart on April 15, 1920, the fourth child of an aristocratic family. As his father was a diplomat, he spent his early years in various European cities before studying at Britain's Oxford University and in Grenoble, southeastern France.

After the war he joined industrial group Mannesmann and quickly worked his way up to become the head of the economic policy division. He later moved to Waldthausen & Co. bank and in 1962 joined pharmaceutical group Boehringer.

Having already joined the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) in 1954, he was also active in both politics and the Protestant Church. He was elected to the Bundestag, the lower house of parliament, in 1969.

From 1981 to 1984 he served as mayor of West Berlin.

Weizsaecker was the first holder of the office to meet with East German leader Erich Honecker.

He ran unsuccessfully for president in 1974, but a decade later won by a landslide to became Germany's sixth president for a five-year term, which he used to speak out on the country's past, stand up for democratic and Christian values and seek consensus.

He called for reconciliation with East Germany and encouraged dialogue with the communist regime.

A few months before the Berlin Wall fell, he won a second presidential term in May 1989, with an even bigger majority than in 1984, and oversaw German reunification and the end of the Cold War.

On October 3, 1990, the day Germany reunited, he stressed the importance of unity in the face of the challenges that lay ahead.

"Unifying ourselves means learning to share," he said.

Weizsaecker, who had three sons and a daughter with his wife Marianne, continued to be involved in public life after leaving office.

© 2015 AFP

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