1920-2015 Farewell to a Global Statesman

Richard von Weizsäcker, one of Germany’s most popular and best-known presidents, died on Saturday at age 94. President during reunification, he helped shape how Germans came to terms with their past.
Mr. Weizsäcker made his mark on the German presidency.

This article was originally published on February 2, 2015, and republished without changes in September 2015.

Richard von Weizsäcker, the German reunification president who died at 94, was one of post-war Germany’s most internationally prominent heads of state, excelling in a largely ceremonial post at a key moment in history.

Mr. von Weizäcker, who was president from 1984 to 1994, provided a bullet-proof air of stability in 1989 that eased Germany's reunification, assuaging uncertainty in the West as well as within Germany.

The erudite native of Stuttgart, who was born into an aristocratic family, left a mark as a statesman above reproach in an office where a series of subsequent presidents have stumbled, or have departed suddenly or under a cloud.

“If I had to compare him with other presidents, I would think he is one of the most significant,” Stefan Bollinger, a professor of political science at Berlin Freie University, told Handelsblatt Global Edition. “Compared to many of his successors, he used his life experience, which was surely contradicting, to make Germany known to the world as a country that endorses a policy of peace. This is what he stood for, and this is what one should emphasize.”

Several of his successors left a mixed legacy on the office, which theoretically presides over the German legislature but usually derives its influence by playing a non-partisan role as head of state.

Johannes Rau, the former German president and state premier from North Rhine-Westphalia, was dogged during his term by a scandal involving the unauthorized use of corporate jets by employees in his state government.

Ex-president Horst Köhler, the former head of the International Monetary Fund, quit unexpectedly in 2010 only a year after being reelected after remarks he made about Germany's military role drew critical press.

And Christian Wulff stepped down in 2012 after less than two years in office, after being accused of receiving an improper loan from a business associate. Mr. Wulff was later cleared of wrongdoing by a German court.

If I had to compare him with the other presidents, I would think Mr. von Weizsäcker is one of the most significant. Stefan Bollinger,, Professor of political science at Berlin Free University

The current German president, Joachim Gauck, is in his second year and has revived hopes that he can restore the position to one of moral authority.

A Lutheran pastor from East Germany and former head of the government agency responsible for investigating the crimes of East Germany’s infamous Stasi secret police, Mr. Gauck has drawn largely positive reviews.

But he hasn't been able to top Mr. Weiszäcker’s accomplishments during his term in office – and may never have the opportunity.

“Mr. von Weizsäcker was president at times when the world was more complicated, and at times when German politics was challenged in a special way,” Professor Bollinger said. “Most of his successors didn’t face those kind of challenges.”

Mr. von Weizsäcker was a smart, gifted speaker with a knack for writing stirring speeches and a shrewd politican who wasn’t always appreciated by his colleagues.

He was born in 1920 into a line of aristocratic statesmen, theologians and scientists. His father, Ernst Freiherr von Weizsäcker, was a state secretary in the German foreign office and served as ambassador to the Vatican.

Richard, who studied law after serving in World War II, became assistant counsel at the trail of his father at Nuremberg, where he was confronted with the full horror of Nazi Germany. His father was convicted as an official of the Hitler regime, sentenced to seven years of prison, but was freed 18 months later under an amnesty program.

Dispirited, Mr. von Weizsäcker initially avoided public office. In 1969, however, he became a member of parliament in Bonn.

The current German president, Joachim Gauck, has revived hopes that he can restore the position to one of moral authority.

Looking for a change, he left in 1980 for West Berlin where voters of the divided city elected him mayor a year later. Like Willi Brandt, who was German chancellor at the time, Mr. von Weizsäcker used Berlin as stepping stone to higher office.

Mr. von Weizsäcker was elected president of West Germany in 1984 for a five-year term and re-elected in 1989, presiding over German reunification the following year.

In that office on 1985, Mr. Weizsäcker gave what many view his most memorable speech to the West German parliament on May 8, 1985, commerating the 40th anniversary of Nazi Germany’s capitualition in World World II. In the speech, which attracted huge international attention, he described the end of the war “as a day of liberation” for Germany and argued that Germans had to face up to their responsibility in the Holocaust.

Roman Herzog, a former head of the German Supreme Court, succeeded Mr. Weizsäcker. It took him three rounds to be elected.


Franziska Scheven, an editor at Handelsblatt Global Edition, contributed to this story. John Blau is a senior editor at Handelsblatt Global Edition. To contact the authors: [email protected], [email protected]