Weizsäcker, Richard von (b. 1920)

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German politician.

Richard Freiherr von Weizsäcker was born on 15 April 1920 in Stuttgart, Germany. Ernst von Weizsäcker, his father, served as a diplomat in the German foreign service and later became secretary of state under the Nazi foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop. Therefore the younger Weizsäcker grew up in several different places (including Copenhagen, Berlin, and Bern) before graduating from grammar school in Berlin-Wilmersdorf in 1937. After a year of studies abroad (at Oxford and Grenoble) and another of Reichsarbeitsdienst (Reich labor service), he entered the German Army, participating in Nazi Germany's campaign against Poland in September 1939 and against the Soviet Union in June 1941. He was a leading staff officer of his infantry regiment, which had a particular reputation for its Prussian-conservative tradition and where he was introduced to several of the conspirers of the abortive coup d'état against Adolf Hitler on 20 July 1944.

Following the war, Weizsäcker returned to civil life in 1945, studying law at the University of Göttingen. He interrupted his studies in 1947 and 1948 to serve as a Hilfsverteidiger (assistant defense counsel) at the trial at Nuremberg involving his father and other members of the Nazi foreign service. Here was an opportunity to gain detailed insights into the extent and motives of those responsible for the Holocaust and war crimes committed by Germans during World War II. After completing his studies in Göttingen in 1950, he started a career in one of the largest industrial firms in the Ruhr Valley, Mannesmann AG. In 1957, after receiving his Ph.D. in law, he switched to the executive office of the private bank of his wife's family, the von Waldthausens, and later served in the chemical enterprise Boeringer.

Having joined the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party in 1954 and with the encouragement of the young Helmut Kohl, then leader of the Christian Democrats in Rhineland-Palatinate, Weizsäcker made politics his full-time activity from 1966 onward, first as a member of the CDU national executive, and from 1969 onward as a member of the Bundestag. After an interlude as governing mayor of West Berlin between 1981 and 1984, Weizsäcker was elected president of West Germany by the Federal Assembly in 1984, attaining the highest state office of the Federal Republic albeit one with predominantly ceremonial functions. During a ceremony in the Bundestag commemorating the fortieth anniversary of the end of World War II, he delivered a speech on German responsibility for dealing with the crimes committed in the name of Germany under the Nazi dictatorship in Europe. He was thus responsible for one of the most important contributions to a new culture of historical memory and dealing with the past in postwar Germany. After finishing two terms as federal president in 1994, Weizsäcker remained actively engaged in the German public sphere as an orator and commentator and is widely recognized as an authority on questions of political ethics and morals.

Weizsäcker's career and commitments were marked both by his family's long-standing devotion to public service and academic life and his intimate knowledge of the German elites during the Nazi period and the early Federal Republic. Brother to one of the leading physicists of his epoch, Carl Friedrich von Weizsäcker, who had led research in atomic physics on behalf of the Nazi regime, and son of a high-ranking foreign service diplomat under Hitler, Richard von Weizsäcker was confronted with the necessity to "come to terms with the past" through his experience within his close family. Through his early professional career outside party politics, however, he gained a profile of a particularly independent and liberal-minded personality within the conservative mainstream of his time. It was therefore no surprise that he was the spokesman of a minority of Christian Democrats supporting Chancellor Willy Brandt's Ostpolitik, and that he could gain wide popularity in public office. Weizsäcker's seminal speech on 8 May 1985 reflected a new and growing consensus in West German society both to acknowledge the broad involvement of German society with Nazi crimes and to reassess critically the failures in dealing with the Nazi past during the first decades of the postwar period. He popularized an interpretation of the end of World War II that sees 8 May 1945 retrospectively both as a day of defeat and of liberation from war and tyranny. Similarly he promoted a broader understanding of the notions of "victims" of the war and of Nazism, which until then had been limited by anticommunist and conservative prejudices. Since Weizsäcker's seminal speech, it has become self-evident that the German public had to acknowledge that not only European Jews and politically "acceptable" Resistance fighters, but also Roma and Sinti (the nonderogatory term for Gypsies), communists, homosexuals, deserters, religious dissenters, handicapped persons, so-called asocials, Soviet prisoners of war, and forced laborers all fell victim to crimes perpetrated in the name of Germany.

See alsoBrandt, Willy; Christian Democracy; Denazification; Germany; Nazism; War Crimes.


Filmer, Werner, and Heribert Schwan. Richard von Weizsäcker: Profile eines Mannes. Düsseldorf, Germany, 1994.

Weizsäcker, Richard von. From Weimar to the Wall: My Life in German Politics. Translated by Ruth Hein. New York, 1999.

Thomas Lindenberger