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

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What is German with respect to language? We have agreed to designate the High German language as German. It is actually a mixture of different languages whose elements had been brought together by the Saxon Court Chancellery to form a new synthetic language. Martin Luther filled it with vibrant life. We have become accustomed to viewing Frisian, Alemannic, Bavarian, Hessian, etc., as German dialects. But these dialects are actually the original German languages.

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Geography plays a substantial and particularly difficult role in defining what is German. What is German land? Anyone leafing through a historical atlas of Europe will find a different territory of the German empire on almost every page and, depending on the point of view, each one can be considered either partially or totally German.

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Within the confusing wealth of information that we encounter when examining language, geography, and history in order to determine what is German, we also find the attempt to define the basic and enduring elements of German national character. Otto Bauer described the nation as a “community of character that has developed out of a community of fate.” What constitutes fate and whether it is the cause or result of a German character can be left open. In any case, the question regarding character has been posed quite often and with many diverse and fascinating results. According to Tacitus, the ancient Germans were ethically pure, hospitable, proud, brave, and noble. During the time of the migration of the peoples, the Germanic tribes were described as savage and cruel, a historical memory that is still tied today to the Germanic tribe of the Vandals.

German classicism strove to elevate us to a people of poets and thinkers. During the Biedermeier period, politically powerless philistinism was considered a typical German trait. At one time the passion and strength of “storm and stress” [Sturm und Drang] were regarded as typically German; another time it was Eichendorff’s vibrant songs of the soul and nature. One time it was our special talent for music, another time it was our supposedly special aptitude for industriousness and discipline, which can be put to use for both good and evil. Some people say we cannot be elegant and attribute to us the crude wit of Hans Sachs instead, while others see the German spirit precisely in the polished language of Lessing, Heine, or Nietzsche.

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