'It Was Horrific, And It Will Always Remain So' Former German President Details World War II Experiences

In a SPIEGEL interview, former German President Richard von Weizsäcker, 89, discusses his time as a soldier during World War II, resistance against Adolf Hitler and the issue of whether his father Ernst, then a senior official in the Foreign Ministry, could have stopped Jews from being deported.

Former German President Richard von Weizsäcker:
Maurice Weiss/Ostkreuz

Former German President Richard von Weizsäcker:

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SPIEGEL: Mr. von Weizsäcker, in late August 1939 you were a 19-year-old private at a military training camp in Gross Born near the Polish border. What memories do you have of the start of the war?

Weizsäcker: One night, a few days before the outbreak of hostilities, we were taken from our barracks to railway stations for loading. This was done silently and in an orderly manner, and expressly without waving citizens lining the streets. We were then deployed along the so-called "Polish corridor" as part of the first attack wave on Sept. 1. The next day my brother Heinrich was killed just a few hundred yards from me. I buried him myself. I needn't tell you how that feels.

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SPIEGEL: Did this loss of a family member change anything about your attitude to the Nazi regime and its war?

Weizsäcker: No-one who goes to war can imagine what it will do to him. But it's true to say that the war also had a profound effect on my awareness to this very day.

SPIEGEL: How do you mean?

Weizsäcker: Because war destroys human neighborliness, because it should never be used as a political tool, because politics should promote culture. Culture helps people live together. War does the opposite.

SPIEGEL: Did you view the invasion of Poland as a mistake?

Weizsäcker: A mistake? That's not the right expression. I'm sorry, but that's a rather naive question.

SPIEGEL: We didn't live through the war ...

Weizsäcker: Then it's good that you're asking about it. That's far better than simply knowing with hindsight far better what we oldies should have felt and known back then.

SPIEGEL: We really want to know how you perceived the outbreak of war.

Weizsäcker: My mother lost two brothers in the World War I, my father lost one. That wasn't an exception in Germany, but more or less the norm. As a result we were deeply concerned by the thought that war could break out again. It was the basic attitude of any normal, sensitive person.

SPIEGEL: Do you mean to say that the war was not popular in 1939?

Weizsäcker: No, it probably wasn't. Most people were distraught and scared. I remember my mother mentioning a few days before the start of the war that only 20 years had passed since people had last lost brothers, fathers, and other relatives in a world war, and that we could be facing another situation where husbands and children were killed in battle. In many families that was truly their predominant, heartfelt and entirely rational attitude.

SPIEGEL: What was your feeling about Poland?

Weizsäcker: I was one of the countless young Germans of my generation who knew far too little about Polish history and culture, and the situation it found itself in. However, we did notice a clear difference in the various sections of the population in terms of how they received us as soldiers. Once we had crossed the Danzig Corridor we arrived in East Prussia, where people were relieved that the corridor was finally being eliminated. By contrast, on the Belgian-Luxembourgian border with (Germany's) Eifel (region), where we were transported immediately after the invasion of Poland, the local Germans were pleased to see us, although they begged us not to trigger another war by going beyond Germany's western borders into Luxembourg, Belgium and France.

SPIEGEL: Did you share the view held by many of your contemporaries that Germany should annex Danzig and the Polish Corridor?

Weizsäcker: I was a very young man. What did I know about Danzig and East Prussia? Sure, my married sister lived there, and I visited her once. All I had experienced was personal fate. What I lacked were sound historic knowledge and my own life experiences.

SPIEGEL: In 1939 your father, Ernst von Weizsäcker, was an undersecretary in the German Foreign Ministry and therefore the deputy of Hitler's foreign minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop. How do you view your father's role today?

Weizsäcker: My father's entire career, and that of his confidantes at the Foreign Ministry, was geared towards introducing the kind of reforms that would usher in the European peace that the Treaty of Versailles had failed to bring. Without a doubt this also meant changes in favor of the Germans, who had lost World War I. But the basic premise was that this had to be achieved exclusively by peaceful means. That is why my father remained at the Foreign Ministry even after 1933.

SPIEGEL: We get the impression that your father was one of those conservative civil servants who rejected Hitler's methods but welcomed Germany's re-emergence as a central European superpower.

Weizsäcker: Why this interpretation? Again I am pleased that you are asking me. What do you mean by "re-emergence as a superpower"? As a colonial power with a navy like that of the Kaiser? No. My father wanted a common European understanding about the necessity of establishing peace in Europe. When Hitler subsequently began planning war in earnest, diplomats from Italy, Britain, and Germany worked together in secret to prevent it.

SPIEGEL: You're referring to the 1938 Munich Agreement: In an attempt to appease Hitler, the Western powers agreed to his demand for the German annexation of the Sudetenland from Czechoslovakia.

Weizsäcker: My father conspired with the British and Italian ambassadors, and they managed to talk Mussolini into convincing Hitler to accept the agreement. Nowadays the Munich Agreement is seen as a capitulation by Western democracies in the face of a dictatorship. At the time the Western powers considered it the only possible avenue to peace. In any case they were not militarily ready for another war. However, even Hitler always considered the Munich Agreement his worst foreign-policy mistake. Our present view is influenced by the fact that Munich merely delayed the onset of war.

SPIEGEL: How did your father see the Munich Agreement in retrospect?

Weizsäcker: Without a doubt he believed his mission had failed when Germany invaded Poland in 1939 and the war gradually spread.

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