A Mandate to Memory : Germany: History as Immutable

<i> Richard von Weizsacker became president of the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) in 1984</i>

A half-century ago, on Nov. 9 and 10, 1938, the Nazis delivered a historic message: They burned homes, shops and synagogues, murdered more than 100 Jews and sent 20,000 others to concentration camps, a glass-breaking, life-shattering event known as Kristallnacht . Today, in West Germany, the “historians’ dispute” among scholars and writers is an argument about whether such crimes of National Socialism must be viewed as epochal or whether they should be treated in terms of other mass murders and purges in other places at other times. Addressing an assembly of German historians in Bamberg, West German, President Richard von Weizsacker spoke to questions of national morality and memory. Excerpts of that speech follow.

Like any other nation, ours wants to recognize itself in its history. Looking into the mirror of that history certainly calls for strength. Who can be surprised to find himself tempted to look away or to condemn the mirror as a distorting mirror where it reflects the emergence of National Socialism and unspeakable crimes? Looking into the mirror causes deep distress, and what else could be expected?

It is not good to denigrate this distress right away as morally despicable, even if it causes one to look away. Is it really always moral insensitivity? Or is it a kind of embarrassment found impossible to bear?

We cannot simply accept anyone wanting to look away or to forget. But neither can we condemn anybody who withdraws in his distress. Instead he must be given courage to face the truth.


Like other nations, the German nation has suffered time and again from its own history, and not just since 1933. But it cannot make others responsible for what it and its neighbors endured under National Socialism. It was led by criminals and allowed itself to be led by them. It knows that this is true, especially where it would prefer not to know this.

A path marked by violence, hardship and death led to the end of the war. Not until then did many people feel the full extent of injustice and suffering. Only gradually did it become clear what had actually happened. It remains extremely hard to recognize these occurrences. And yet genuine liberation is achieved by freely facing the truth, by allowing oneself to be overwhelmed by it.

This is where the responsible tasks of historians lie. None of their findings will diminish the National Socialist crimes. Historians are, like all of us, faced with the same great predicament. Each of them will conduct his own research; there will often be different findings, but this should be accepted. However, I feel that nobody seriously wants to raise the issue of ethical relativism.

References and comparisons have their due place in research. But research and moral perceptions provide the same answer to the question of uniqueness. Everything takes place in a historical framework, but every event is at the same time unique in history. It has occurred in that specific way, differently from events elsewhere. And what, after all, would it mean for us if Auschwitz could be compared with the ruthless extermination of other people? Auschwitz remains unique. It was perpetrated by Germans in the name of Germany. This truth is immutable and will not be forgotten.


As (author) Siegfried Lenz said a few days ago, “Auschwitz remains entrusted to us, it belongs to us, just as does the rest of our history.” Historical responsibility means accepting one’s own history. We must do so above all for the sake of the present.

This is not changed by the passage of time. In fact, mankind’s awareness of the occurrences at Auschwitz has increased in the decades since the war. But something else has also evolved: a democracy to which we are committed out of conviction. This democracy has proved its worth for 40 years now, not least through openness toward its history. Being capable of this openness and constantly learning, we are able to acquire self-assurance in the true sense of the word. This is liberation.

It is a painful experience that we are still unable to do so in a single Germany. Yet nothing that occurs is devoid of links. The Germans in the German Democratic Republic (East Germany), who had to and still have to bear the consequences of National Socialism under completely different, very oppressive circumstances, face history in their own honest way. For both, for them and for us, history continues--German history.

Of key importance is the search of young people for self-esteem and for their place in today’s world. They want to and have to know who they are, where they come from and with whom they are to share and shape this world.

To them, it is vitally important to know how the moral and political disaster came about in the days of their grandparents. Did their nation leave the civilized community of nations only temporarily and has it now returned to its natural position, albeit encumbered with that terrible aberration? Or will they, young Germans and their descendants, remain forever branded and excluded? No, definitely not. The young people have answered this question for themselves. They are certainly not outsiders. They form part of the whole.

Could the situation be different? Should one even want it to be different? Definitely not, in my opinion. I state this in the light of one experience in particular: the penetrating questions that young people themselves have persistently asked their parents and grandparents. For their own lives they need an answer to the question of where we were, what we did, what responsibility we assumed and what responsibility we very much failed to live up to.

On the subject of this research, I recently heard a report from vicars in the GDR responsible for young people, which greatly impressed me. Questions about the past are being asked very insistently there. Prescribed anti-fascism is not conducive to in-depth analysis; in fact it is more likely to cause excessive taboos. Only a voluntary inner attitude can produce genuine concern. It is precisely the external living conditions that prevent this inner attitude from vanishing there and actually strengthen it. The young certainly do not bear guilt. Neither history nor the Bible tells them otherwise. But liberation will only be possible for them in their own lives if they ask and seek to understand where they come from, if they open up to their history in an attitude of inner freedom.

Nobody should idealize this process, neither over there nor here. We know that many discussions which would have been highly necessary and useful have never taken place. Moreover, when judging each other, generations are seldom completely free of self-righteousness.


But the important and encouraging aspect is that the young people are seeking their place in today’s world as Germans, that they want to understand themselves and the world and, for this purpose, actively acquaint themselves with their history. To do so, they need the findings of you historians, not least in the light of the topic of your congress. The power of historical facts is needed, and not the exploitation of history for specific purposes.

The so-called historians’ dispute attracted public attention--rightly so, because it reflected a public attitude toward very important questions. Sometimes I could not help thinking that, precisely for this reason, it excessively became an insider discussion and confrontation. But I feel it has developed into more than that, as is indeed necessary.

Coping with the unholy legacy of history is something that occurs in the heart of the entire nation. With “holy soberness” historians can help in this process. They can and must help everyone. For history, our history, does not belong to historians alone.