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

In this wide-ranging reflection, Federal President Richard von Weizsäcker tries to provide a positive answer to the question of what it means to be German by pointing to history, language, geography, culture, and democracy as unifying factors. For Weizsäcker, bringing Europe back together again is the defining future task of the Germans.

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What is that actually: German?

For one thing, being German is a natural circumstance. It is a consequence of the fact of being born and raised in Germany, speaking the German language, feeling naturally at home here, and thus being part of the German people. I am German, just as a Frenchman is a Frenchman and an Italian an Italian. It is neither a flaw nor a merit. It was not freely chosen, just as the time in which we live and that leaves its mark on us, the end of the twentieth century, was not freely chosen.

[ . . . ]

The fact that I am German permeates my life in many ways, whether I am aware of it or not. The German traditions of history, of thought and culture, of emotions, of faith have influenced my history, my culture, my emotions, and my faith. I have to deal with these traditions, whether through approval, rejection, or indifference. My Germanness confronts me in the historically influenced form that it has assumed in my time. I am determined by it, but I am not totally at its mercy, without a will of my own. Because human beings are free. Even if they cannot control the time and place of their birth, they can indeed influence and change the conditions under which they live. They can give new substance to the traditions that have been passed down through history. Human beings have always done that. All human history is transformation and change. History is thus the most significant evidence we have of human freedom.

If we look at things from this perspective, then my Germanness is not an inescapable fate, but rather a task. The question “What is that actually: German?” then becomes a question that I must answer to myself and before history. I share the responsibility for giving this term a substance that I can account for. In order to find my own interpretation of being German, I must deal with the history of the concept, with its substance, and thus with the history of the Germans.

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