After all the posturing and politicking leading up to the 40th anniversary of the end of World War II, May 8 was at last a day of introspection for the Germans -- intense introspection. The day ended with a joint Protestant and Roman Catholic memorial service in Cologne Cathedral. It began with a speech to both houses of Parliament by the man widely viewed as West Germany's moral spokesman, President Richard von Weizs"acker. In an address that moved many of his listeners to tears Dr. von Weizs"acker began:
``We Germans are spending this day among ourselves, and that is necessary. We must find our standards alone. . . . The more honestly we address [this day of meditation on our history], the freer we are to deal responsibly with the consequences [of May 8, 1945].''
Von Weizs"acker himself then dealt honestly and unsparingly with past and present. In comments remarkably devoid of either partisanship or German sentimentality, he continued, ``The 8th of May is for us Germans no day to celebrate. . . . Most Germans believed they were fighting and suffering for the good cause of their own land. Now they had to realize not only that it had all been senseless and in vain, but also that it had served the inhumane ends of a criminal leadership. . . .
``And yet day after day it became clearer what is today true for all of us: The 8th of May was a day of liberation. It freed all of us from the cynical system of Nazi tyranny.''
Von Weizs"acker rejected collective guilt. But more bluntly than any previous government official he asked older Germans to examine what they knew at the time of Hitler's crimes -- and what they willed not to know. ``The genocide of the Jews . . . is unprecedented in history. The committing of this crime lay in the hands of a few. It was shielded from the eyes of the public,'' he said.
``But every German could experience what his Jewish fellow citizen had to suffer, from cold indifference to hidden intolerance to open hate. Who could remain innocent after the burning of synagogues, the plundering, the stigmatization with the Jewish star, the canceling of rights, the ceaseless desecration of human dignity? Whoever opened his ears and eyes, whoever wanted to inform himself, could not escape knowing that deportation trains were rolling. . . .
``In reality the crimes were helped by the attempt of all too many even in my [young] generation not to recognize what was happening. There were many ways of deflecting conscience, of not being responsible, of looking away, of being silent. Then when the whole unspeakable truth of the Holocaust became known at the end of the war, all too many of us claimed not to have known or only to have suspected.''
Von Weizs"acker went on, however, to ask for salvation -- through remembering, acknowledging, and accepting responsibility for the present. He quoted an old Jewish saying: ``The will to forget prolongs exile, and the secret of salvation is remembering.'' For Germans, remembering ``means a memorial of thinking and feeling deep within ourselves,'' he said.
Von Weizs"acker spoke not only to West Germans but also to the millions of East Germans who could hear him on radio or television. The two pastors he quoted were both East German, and he talked of ``the common fate of our people.'' His stark words of repentance for the German past and dedication to its future contrasted sharply with the official East German refusal to accept any responsibility for the past -- and East Berlin's effusions of recent months over the ``victory and liberation'' of May 1945 by the Soviet armed forces and (East) Germans.
Implicitly von Weizs"acker included the East Germans in his final appeal to the new generations:
``Many young people have wondered and asked us in recent months why the 40th anniversary of the war's end should have loosed such intense arguments about the past. Why more intense now than after 25 or 30 years?''
Despite all the recent furor about Soviet and American politics connected with the anniversary, von Weizs"acker said no external cause was adequate to explain the phenomenon.
Instead, he summoned up the Old Testament to observe, ``Forty years play a great role in the lifespan of men and the fate of nations. . . . For 40 years Israel is said to have remained in the wilderness before the new epoch in history began with arrival in the promised land. Forty years were necessary for a full change of the father-generation that then held responsibility.''
The President summed up the duty of the old to the young as honesty. He concluded, ``There is no ultimately wrestled-out moral perfection. As men we have learned. As men we remain endangered. But we do have the power to overcome these dangers anew.''