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Federal President Richard von Weizsäcker on the Meaning of Being German (1986)

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We Germans have a hard time dealing with this today. The history of the German Reich in this century and the terrible crimes committed in the name of Germans have blemished the term German and ultimately led to the division of Germany. Many people think that we Germans are suffering from an identity crisis. If we say that someone loses his identity, then we mean that that person is sick. Are we Germans sick in this sense? Have we lost our orientation with regard to our history and our identity? Do we no longer know who or what we are?

I am convinced that this is not the case at all. We have our characteristics that distinguish us from other peoples. We find them in our history and geographical location, in our language and culture, in intellectual creativity, and in the statehood, social structure, and economic achievements of the two German states, in our relations to neighbors and other peoples. Our historical heritage has passed on to us both bright and dark chapters. It does not relieve us of the task nor rob us of the ability to confront these distinguishing features. We are people, just like others.


[ . . . ]

Nationalism has remained in all European states. In Germany, it built up [ . . . ] and assumed extreme forms upon a foundation of severe social and economic hardship. Hitler claimed that the German nation represented the highest of all values. He granted it the right to rule the world, just because it was German. He and his supporters sought to justify this horrible rubbish historically and biologically. They rewrote history, more radically than ever before. They sought to explain the uniqueness of the German nation by virtue of its nature, by virtue of the Germanic race. It was granted the right to dismiss all other races as inferior and to physically annihilate an entire people, the Jews, for racist reasons. The consequence of these horrendous ideas was war with half the world. In the occupied territories, Jews and others were rounded up and murdered. The genocide ran its course and all of this happened expressly in the name of Germans.

Germany was destroyed, defeated, occupied, and divided. The word German – what does it mean after all this?

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