Lothar de Maiziere, the first and almost certainly the last East German prime minister to visit the White House, met Monday with President Bush and, in a symbolic effort to reassure American Jews, presented the keystone of what was once the largest synagogue in Europe.
The gift will be placed in the U.S. Holocaust Museum planned for Washington.
De Maiziere’s visit, which continues today in meetings with congressional leaders, is almost entirely symbolic because he and the government he heads have relatively little power. Most decisions about Germany’s future are being made by the leaders of West Germany, particularly Chancellor Helmut Kohl.
But Administration officials wanted to send a message to East German citizens that their interests are being considered as Germany unifies.
The Administration also wanted to underscore Bush’s argument that the leaders of both Germanys favor continued German membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, something the Soviet Union has resisted.
De Maiziere, for his part, wanted to make a gesture to American Jews, demonstrating that his government, unlike East Germany’s former Communist regimes, accepts a shared responsibility for the Nazi Holocaust.
On all of those counts, the visit appears to have been successful.
At the offices of the Holocaust Memorial Council, which is building the new Holocaust Museum, De Maiziere spoke of East Germany’s new effort to “face up to our own history in its totality.”
And at the White House, officials said De Maiziere agreed with Bush on what the Administration considers the central issue in the debate over German unification.
The two agreed that a united Germany “should enjoy full sovereignty from the time of its unification, with no discriminatory constraints on its sovereignty, and that Germany should be free to choose its own alliance arrangements,” the White House said in a statement.
Bush met with De Maiziere for about 30 minutes in the White House Cabinet room, then joined him for lunch. Afterwards, De Maiziere toured Washington before visiting the downtown office building where the Holocaust Memorial Council has its temporary quarters.
There, in a brief ceremony, he turned over to council officials two large bricks, one from the original Oraniengburgerstrasse synagogue, the other from the current reconstruction of the building.
The synagogue, which was the crown of Berlin’s thriving Jewish community before the Holocaust, was the largest in Europe when built in 1866. It was destroyed on Nov. 9, 1938, during Kristallnacht, the night of broken glass, when Nazi mobs burned and pillaged synagogues and Jewish businesses throughout Germany.