Richard von Weizsäcker

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Richard, Baron von Weizsäcker
Bundesarchiv Bild 146-1991-039-11, Richard v. Weizsäcker.jpg
Richard von Weizsäcker in 1984
President of Germany
In office
3 October 1990 – 30 June 1994
Chancellor Helmut Kohl
Preceded by Reunification
Succeeded by Roman Herzog
President of West Germany
In office
1 July 1984 – 2 October 1990
Chancellor Helmut Kohl
Preceded by Karl Carstens
Succeeded by Reunification
Governing Mayor of West Berlin
In office
Preceded by Hans-Jochen Vogel
Succeeded by Eberhard Diepgen
Personal details
Born (1920-04-15)15 April 1920
Stuttgart, Germany
Died 31 January 2015(2015-01-31) (aged 94)
Berlin, Germany
Nationality German
Political party Christian Democratic Union
Spouse(s) Marianne von Kretschmann
Children 4
Alma mater Balliol College, Oxford
University of Grenoble
University of Göttingen
Religion Lutheran
*From 1 July 1984 to 2 October 1990, Richard von Weizsäcker was Federal President of West Germany only. From 3 October 1990 until 30 June 1994, he was Federal President of the reunified Germany.

Richard Karl Freiherr von Weizsäcker (About this sound listen ; 15 April 1920 – 31 January 2015) was a German politician (CDU) who was the President of West Germany from 1984 to 1990, and then of a reunited Germany from 1990 to 1994. He had previously served as Governing Mayor of West Berlin from 1981 to 1984.

During his presidency, German reunification was accomplished through the incorporation of the territory of the former German Democratic Republic into the Federal Republic of Germany on 3 October 1990, and he thus became the first President of all of Germany since Karl Dönitz in 1945 and the first democratically elected President since Paul von Hindenburg in 1934.

Early life[edit]

Richard von Weizsäcker (left) with his father at the latter's post-war trial

Richard von Weizsäcker was born on 15 April 1920 in the New Castle in Stuttgart,[1] the son of diplomat Ernst von Weizsäcker, a member of the noted Weizsäcker family, and his wife Marianne (von Graevenitz) von Weizsäcker.[2] Ernst von Weizsäcker was a career diplomat and a high-ranking official in the Foreign Ministry in the 1930s.[3] Richard von Weizsäcker had two brothers, physicist and philosopher Carl Friedrich von Weizsäcker and Heinrich von Weizsäcker, who was killed in action in World War II in 1939. In 1967, his sister Elisabeth married Dr. Konrad Raiser, the former General Secretary of the World Council of Churches (WCC).[4] His grandfather Karl von Weizsäcker was Prime Minister of the Kingdom of Württemberg, and was ennobled in 1897 and raised to the hereditary title of Baron (Freiherr) in 1916.[5] Because his father was a career diplomat, he spent much of his childhood in Switzerland and Scandinavia. The family lived in Basel 1920–24, in Copenhagen 1924–26, in Oslo 1931–33, and in Bern 1933–36, where Richard attended the Swiss Gymnasium Kirchenfeld. The family relocated to Berlin in 1936.[6]

When he was 17 years old, von Weizsäcker moved to Britain, where he studied philosophy and history at Balliol College, Oxford. He subsequently studied at the University of Grenoble in France.[7] After the outbreak of World War II, he served in the German army, ultimately as a Captain in the Reserves.[8] He was wounded in East Prussia in 1945 and transported home to Stuttgart. At the war's end he continued his study of history in Göttingen and eventually studied law.[9] In 1947, when Ernst von Weizsäcker was a defendant in the Ministries Trial for his role in the deportation of Jews from occupied France, Richard von Weizsäcker served as his father's assistant defence counsel.[10][11]

Von Weizsäcker took his first legal state exam in 1950, the second in 1953, and earned his doctorate (doctor juris) in 1955. In 1953 he married Marianne von Kretschmann; they have four children: Robert Klaus von Weizsäcker, a Professor of Economics at the Munich University of Technology, Andreas von Weizsäcker, an art professor at the Academy of Fine Arts Munich, Beatrice von Weizsäcker, a lawyer and journalist, and Fritz Eckart von Weizsäcker, a Professor of Medicine.

Von Weizsäcker worked for Mannesmann between 1950 and 1958, as a scientific assistant until 1953, as a legal counsel from 1953 and as head of the department for economic policy from 1957.[12] From 1958 to 1962, he was head of the Waldthausen Bank, a bank owned by relatives of his wife. From 1962 to 1966, he served on the board of directors of Boehringer Ingelheim, a pharmaceutical company.[13]

Political career[edit]

Von Weizsäcker addressing a CDU party convention in 1972.

Weizsäcker joined the CDU in 1954. Subsequent Chancellor Helmut Kohl offered von Weizsäcker a safe seat for the 1965 elections, even going so far as to have Konrad Adenauer write two letters urging him to run, but Weizsäcker declined due to his work in the German Evangelical Church Assembly, wanting to avoid a conflict of interest.[14] He became a member of the Bundestag (Federal Diet) as a result of the 1969 federal elections, serving until 1981.[15]

In the early 1970s, Weizsäcker defied his own Christian Democratic Union party to help Social Democratic Chancellor Willy Brandt win passage of a series of treaties that normalized West Germany’s relations with eastern-bloc countries, including the Soviet Union, East Germany, Poland and Czechoslovakia.[16]

In 1974 Weizsäcker was the Presidential candidate of his party for the first time, but he lost out to the Free Democrat Walter Scheel, who was supported by the ruling center-left coalition.[17] Ahead of the 1976 elections, CDU chairman Helmut Kohl included him in his shadow cabinet for their party’s campaign to unseat incumbent Helmut Schmidt as chancellor.

Between 1964 and 1970, Weizsäcker served as President of the German Evangelical Church Assembly. He was also a member of the Synod and the Council of the Evangelical Church in Germany from 1967–1984.[18]

Between 1979 and 1981, Weizsäcker served as Vice President of the Bundestag.[1]

Governing Mayor of West Berlin, 1981–1984[edit]

Weizsäcker served as the Governing Mayor (Regierender Bürgermeister) of West Berlin (1981–1984). During his tenure, he tried to keep alive the idea of a cultural nation called Germany divided into two states. In speeches and writings, he repeatedly urged his compatriots in the Federal Republic to look upon themselves as a nation firmly anchored in the Western alliance, but with special obligations and interest in the East.[17] Weizsäcker irritated the United States, France and Britain, the half-city's occupying powers, by breaking with protocol and visiting Erich Honecker, the East German Communist Party chief, in East Berlin.[19]

President of West Germany, 1984–1990 and Germany, 1990-1994[edit]

In 1984, Weizsäcker was elected President of West Germany by the German Federal Convention, succeeding Karl Carstens and drawing unusual support from both the governing center-right coalition and the opposition Social Democratic Party;[17] he defeated the Green Party’s candidate, Luise Rinser.

Richard von Weizsäcker (then Mayor of West Berlin), with US President Ronald Reagan and West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, at Checkpoint Charlie in 1982

Speech on the 40th anniversary of the end of the Second World War on 8 May 1945

Weizsäcker is known for his speeches. In 1985 he gave a famous speech in the Bundestag about the 40th anniversary of the end of the Second World War on 8 May 1945[20][21] where he articulated the historic responsibility of Germany and Germans for the crimes of Nazism. In contrast to the way the end of the war was still perceived by a majority of people in Germany at the time, he defined 8 May as a day of liberation.[22] Weizsäcker pointed out the inseparable link between the Nazi takeover of Germany and the tragedies caused by the Second World War.[20] In a passage of striking boldness, he took issue with one of the most cherished defenses of older Germans. "When the unspeakable truth of the Holocaust became known at the end of the war," he said, "all too many of us claimed they had not known anything about it or even suspected anything."[23]

Most notably,[24] in the wake of U.S. President Ronald Reagan's controversial visit to the Bitburg military cemetery in May 1985, Weizsäcker spoke of the danger of forgetting and distorting. "There is no such thing as the guilt or innocence of an entire nation. Guilt is, like innocence, not collective but personal. There is discovered or concealed individual guilt. There is guilt which people acknowledge or deny. . . . All of us, whether guilty or not, whether young or old, must accept the past. We are all affected by the consequences and liable for it. . . . We Germans must look truth straight in the eye – without embellishment and without distortion. . . . There can be no reconciliation without remembrance."[25]

Weizsäcker declared that younger generations of Germans "cannot profess a guilt of their own for crimes they did not commit."[19]

Also in 1985, Weizsäcker was one of the first representatives of Germany to remember homosexual victims of Nazism as a "victim group."[26]


On his trip to Israel in October 1985, Weizsäcker was greeted on arrival by his Israeli counterpart, President Chaim Herzog. The president was given a full honor-guard welcome at Ben-Gurion Airport; among Cabinet ministers who lined up to shake his hand were right-wingers of the Herut party, the main faction of Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir's Likud party, who had previously refused to greet German leaders. Weizsaecker's visit was the first by a head of state, it is not the first by a West German leader. Chancellor Willy Brandt had paid a visit to Israel in June 1973.[27]

During a four-day state visit to the United Kingdom in July 1986, Weizsäcker addressed a joint session of the Houses of Parliament, the first German to be accorded that honor.[28]

Role in the Historians’ Dispute

Speaking to a congress of West German historians in Bamberg in October 1988, Weizsäcker rejected the attempts by some historians to compare the systematic murder of Jews in Nazi Germany to mass killings elsewhere – like those in Cambodia under Pol Pot or in Stalin's purges – or to seek external explanations for it. Thereby he declared an end to a historians' dispute that had sharply divided German scholars and journalists for two years, stating "Auschwitz remains unique. It was perpetrated by Germans in the name of Germany. This truth is immutable and will not be forgotten."[29]

In his remarks to the historians, Weizsäcker said their dispute had prompted accusations that they sought to raise a "multitude of comparisons and parallels" that would cause "the dark chapter of our own history to disappear, to be reduced to a mere episode."[29] Andreas Hillgruber, a historian at Cologne University and one of the instigators of the debate with a book he published in 1986 in which he linked the collapse of the eastern front and the Holocaust, declared himself in full agreement with Weizsäcker, insisting that he had never tried to "relativize" the past.[29]

Unification of Germany

Because of the high esteem in which he was held by Germany's political establishment and in the population,[30] Weizsäcker is so far the only candidate to have stood for elections for the office of President uncontested; he was elected in such a way to a second term of office on 23 May 1989.

Weizsäcker took office for his second presidential term on 1 July 1989. His second term oversaw the end of the Cold War and Reunification of Germany. Upon reunification, Weizsäcker became the first all-German Head of State since Karl Dönitz in May 1945. At midnight on 3 October 1990, during the official festivities held before the Reichstag building in Berlin to mark the moment of the reunification of Germany, President Weizsäcker delivered the only speech of the night, immediately after the raising of the flag, and before the playing of the National Anthem. His brief remarks, however, were almost inaudible, due to the sound of the bells marking midnight, and of the fireworks that were released to celebrate the moment of reunification.[citation needed]

In 1990, Weizsäcker became the first West German head of state to visit Poland. During his four-day visit, he reassured Poles that the newly unified German state would treat their western and northern borders, which include prewar German lands, as inviolable.[31]

In 1992, Weizsäcker gave the eulogy at the state funeral of former Chancellor Willy Brandt at the Reichstag, the first state funeral for a former chancellor in Berlin since the death of Gustav Stresemann in 1929. The funeral was attended by an array of leading European political figures, including French President François Mitterrand, Spanish Prime Minister Felipe Gonzalez and former Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev.[32]

Weizsäcker stretched the traditionally ceremonial position of Germany’s president to reach across political, national, and generational boundaries to address a wide range of controversial issues. He is credited with largely being responsible for taking the lead on an asylum policy overhaul after the arson attack by neo-Nazis in Mölln, in which three Turkish citizens died in 1993.[33] He also earned recognition at home and abroad for attending memorial services for the victims of neo-Nazi attacks in Mölln and Solingen. The services were snubbed by Chancellor Helmut Kohl, who dismayed Germans by saying it was not necessary for the government to send a representative.[34]

In March 1994, Weizsäcker attended the Frankfurt premiere of Schindler's List along with the Israeli ambassador, Avi Primor, and the head of Germany's surviving Jewish community, Ignatz Bubis.[35]

To compensate for the delay in the government's move to transfer both the government and the parliament from Bonn to Berlin following the unification of Germany, Weizsäcker declared in April 1993 that he would be performing an increased share of his duties in Berlin.[36] He decided not to wait for the renovation and conversion as the presidential seat of the Kronprinzenpalais (Crown Prince's Palace) at Berlin's Unter den Linden boulevard, and to use instead his existing official residence in West Berlin, the Bellevue Palace beyond Tiergarten park.[36]


Richard von Weizsäcker in 2009

As an elder statesman, Weizsäcker long remained involved in politics and charitable affairs in Germany. He was the chair of a commission installed by the then Social Democratic-Green government for reforming the Bundeswehr. Along with Henry A. Kissinger, he supported Richard Holbrooke in creating the American Academy in Berlin in 1994.[37] He was also a member of the Board of Trustees of the Robert Bosch Stiftung.

Weizsäcker served as a member of the Advisory Council of Transparency International.[38] In a letter addressed to Nigeria's military ruler Sani Abacha in 1996, he called for the immediate release of General Olusegun Obasanjo, the former head of state of Nigeria, who had become the first military ruler in Africa to keep his promise to hand over power to an elected civilian government but was later sentenced to 15 years imprisonment.[39]

Weizsäcker also served on many international commissions. He was chairman of the Independent Working Group on the future of the United Nations and was one of three "Wise Men" appointed by European Commission President Romano Prodi to consider the future of the European Union. From 2003 until his death, he was a member of the Advisory Commission on the return of cultural property seized as a result of Nazi persecution, especially Jewish property, led by the former head of the Federal Constitutional Court, Jutta Limbach. In November 2014, Weizsäcker retired as chairman of the Bergedorf Round Table, a discussion forum on foreign policy issues.[40]

Weizsäcker died in Berlin on 31 January 2015. He was survived by his wife, Marianne, and three of their four children.[41]

Other activities (selection)[edit]

Richard von Weizsäcker at a Transparency International event in 2013
  • Bergedorf Round Table, Chairman (1994–2014)
  • Children for Tomorrow, Member of the Advisory Board
  • Club of Rome, Member
  • Freya von Moltke Foundation, Member of the Board of Trustees
  • Hannah Arendt Center of the University of Oldenburg, Member of the Board of Trustees
  • Humboldt University of Berlin, Member of the Board of Trustees
  • Humboldt-Viadrina School of Governance, Member of the Advisory Board
  • International Commission on the Balkans, Member (2004–2006)
  • International Nuremberg Human Rights Award, Member of the Jury (1995–2000)
  • Philharmonic Orchestra of Europe, Member of the Advisory Board
  • Theodor Heuss Foundation, Member of the Board of Trustees
  • Viktor von Weizsäcker Society, Member of the Advisory Board
  • Aktion Deutschland Hilft, Patron (2003–2013)
  • Club of Budapest, Honorary Member
  • Political Science Quarterly, Honorary Member of the Board of Directors


Weizsäcker's publications include Von Deutschland aus (From Germany Abroad); Die deutsche Geschichte geht weiter (German History Continues); Von Deutschland nach Europa (From Germany to Europe) and Vier Zeiten (Four Times). His memoirs have been published as From Weimar to the Wall: My Life in German Politics (1999).


Weizsäcker received many honours in his career, including honorary membership in the Order of Saint John (Bailiwick of Brandenburg);[42] an honorary doctorate from Johns Hopkins University in 1993; creation of the Richard von Weizsäcker Professorship at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) of Johns Hopkins University and the Robert Bosch Foundation of Stuttgart in 2003; and more than eleven other honorary doctorates, ranging from the Weizmann Institute in Israel to Oxford, Cambridge and Harvard universities, the Charles University in Prague, and the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras,[43] the Leo Baeck Prize from the Central Council of Jews in Germany, and the Buber-Rosenzweig Medallion from the Society for Christian-Jewish Cooperation. After his death, deputy director of Poland's international broadcaster, Rafal Kiepuszewski, called von Weizsäcker "the greatest German friend Poland has ever had".[44]

Both chancellor Angela Merkel as well as president Joachim Gauck lauded von Weizsäcker, with the latter declaring upon the news of his death: "We are losing a great man and an outstanding head of state."[45] French president François Hollande highlighted Weizsäcker's "moral stature."[45]

Other honours include:



  • Gill (ed.), Ulrich (1986). Eine Rede und ihre Wirkung. Die Rede des Bundespräsidenten Richard von Weizsäcker vom 8. Ma 1985 anläßlich des 40. Jahrestages der Beendigung des Zweiten Weltkrieges. Berlin: Verlag Rainer Röll. p. 191. ISBN 3-9801344-0-7. 
  • Hofmann, Gunter (2010). Richard von Weizsäcker. Ein deutsches Leben. Munich: C.H. Beck. p. 295. ISBN 978 3 406 59809 8. 
  • Pflüger, Friedbert (2010). Richard von Weizsäcker. Mit der Macht der Moral. Munich: Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt. p. 223. ISBN 978-3-421-04445-7. 
  • Rudolph, Hermann (2010). Richard von Weizsäcker. Eine Biographie. Berlin: Rowohlt. p. 288. ISBN 978 3 87134 667 5. 
  • von Weizsäcker, Richard (1997). Vier Zeiten. Erinnerungen. Berlin: Siedler Verlag. p. 480. ISBN 3-88680-556-5. 


  1. ^ a b "Richard von Weizsäcker (1984–1994)". Bundespräsidialamt. Retrieved 1 February 2015. 
  2. ^ Hofmann 2010, p. 23.
  3. ^ Hofmann 2010, p. 19.
  4. ^
  5. ^ Rudolph 2010, p. 24.
  6. ^ Rudolph 2010, p. 25.
  7. ^ Hofmann 2010, p. 30.
  8. ^ Rudolph 2010, p. 39.
  9. ^ Rudolph 2010, p. 54.
  10. ^ Rudolph 2010, p. 61.
  11. ^ Hofmann 2010, p. 88.
  12. ^ Rudolph 2010, p. 83.
  13. ^ Rudolph 2010, p. 91.
  14. ^ Rudolph 2010, p. 116.
  15. ^ Rudolph 2010, p. 119.
  16. ^ Leon Mangasarian (January 31, 2015), Richard Von Weizsaecker, Former German President, Dies at 94 Bloomberg Business.
  17. ^ a b c James M. Markham (24 May 1984), A Patrician President in Bonn; Richard von Weizsacker New York Times.
  18. ^ Rudolph 2010, p. 98.
  19. ^ a b James M. Markham (23 June 1994), Facing Up To Germany’s Past The New York Times Magazine.
  20. ^ a b Speech in the Bundestag on 8 May 1985 during the Ceremony Commemorating the 40th Anniversary of the End of War in Europe and of National-Socialist Tyranny, Landesmedienzentrum Baden-Württemberg, retrieved on 31 January 2014 (PDF, 123 KB).
  21. ^ Saxon, Wolfgang (31 January 2015). "Richard von Weizsäcker, 94, Germany’s First President After Reunification, Is Dead". New York Times. Retrieved 1 February 2015. 
  22. ^ James M. Markham (9 May 1985), 'All of Us Must Accept the Past,' The German President Tells M.P.'s New York Times.
  23. ^ James M. Markham (9 May 1985), 'All of Us Must Accept the Past,' The German President Tells M.P.'s New York Times.
  24. ^ Gill 1986, p. 7.
  25. ^ Markham, James M. (23 June 1985). "Facing up with Germany's past". New York Times. Retrieved 1 February 2015. 
  26. ^ "Denkmal für die im Nationalsozialismus verfolgten Homosexuellen". Memorial site for the persecuted homosexual victims of National Socialism. Retrieved 1 February 2015. 
  27. ^ Weizsaecker Urges Openness to Truth of the Past : W. German President Makes Rare Israel Visit Los Angeles Times, 9 October 1985.
  28. ^ Bonn Official in Britain Los Angeles Times, 2 July 1986.
  29. ^ a b c Serge Schmemann (22 October 1988), Bonn Journal; Facing the Mirror of German History New York Times.
  30. ^ Studemann, Frederick. "Richard von Weizsäcker, German president 1920-2015". Financial Times. Retrieved 1 February 2015. 
  31. ^ Borders Will Stay, Bonn's President Says in Poland Los Angeles Times, 3 May 1990.
  32. ^ Tyler Marshall (18 October 1992), Germans Lay Beloved Statesman Brandt to Rest Los Angeles Times.
  33. ^ Jochen Thies (14 January 1993), A New German Seriousness on the Asylum Problem International Herald Tribune.
  34. ^ Mary Williams Walsh (23 May 1994), German Electoral College to Pick New President Los Angeles Times.
  35. ^ Germans Applaud "Schindler's List" International Herald Tribune, 2 March 1994.
  36. ^ a b Michael Farr (21 April 1993), Economic Slide Rekindles Debate on Capitals International Herald Tribune.
  37. ^ Sarah Means Lohmann (25 December 2003), In Berlin, a Showcase of American Talent and Thought Marks an Anniversary New York Times.
  38. ^ Advisory Council Transparency International.
  39. ^ Kinkel, Weizsäcker call for release of Nigeria’s Obasanjo – An international campaign led by TI is to increase the pressure on Nigeria’s rulers Transparency International, press release of 29 September 1996.
  40. ^ Abschiedsfeier für Alt-Bundespräsident von Weizsäcker Hamburger Abendblatt, 7 November 2014..
  41. ^ Saxon, Wolfgang (31 January 2015). "Richard von Weizsäcker, 94, Germany’s First President After Reunification, Is Dead". The New York Times. Retrieved 1 February 2015. 
  42. ^ Verzeichnis der Mitglieder der Balley Brandenburg des Ritterlichen Ordens St. Johannis vom Spital zu Jerusalem; Berlin: Johanniterorden, 2011; page 18.
  43. ^
  44. ^ Borrud, Gabriel. "'The greatest German friend Poland has ever had'". Deutsche Welle. Retrieved 1 February 2015. 
  45. ^ a b Reuters. "Merkel, Gauck laud Richard von Weizsäcker". Deutsche Welle. Retrieved 1 February 2015. 
  46. ^ Icelandic Presidency Website (Icelandic), Order of the Falcon, Weizsäcker, Richard von, 4 July 1988, Grand Cross with Collar
  47. ^ Prime Minister of Malta Website, Honorary Appointments to the National Order of Merit

External links[edit]

Political offices
Preceded by
President of Germany
Succeeded by
Roman Herzog
Preceded by
Karl Carstens
President of West Germany
Succeeded by
Preceded by
Hans-Jochen Vogel
Mayor of West Berlin
Succeeded by
Eberhard Diepgen