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News Overview 2015

Remembering a Builder of Bridges

Memorial Discussion for Former German Federal President Richard von Weizsäcker

It’s how Richard von Weizsäcker would have wanted it: at an event held in Washington to remember the former President, who died at the beginning of the year, the sole focus was on the key role he played in Germany’s post-war history. Contemporaries and observers of Richard von Weizsäcker, a man described as a "moral compass" by German ambassador Peter Wittig, also considered how he would have responded to current challenges in foreign policy.

Daniel Hamilton, Director of the Center for Transatlantic Relations at Johns Hopkins University, pointed out that von Weizsäcker always sought to break down barriers. In his opinion, the former German President would have done everything in his power to move beyond the "culture of superficiality" that currently dominates the transatlantic relationship between Europe and the United States. "We must strive," said Hamilton, who also had one eye on tensions on the eastern borders of the EU, "to establish relations on a new footing." He argued that Germany is now playing a different role to the one it played during the Cold War: back then, a divided Germany and a divided Berlin embodied the division of Europe. Nowadays, however, a united Germany is firmly embedded within the West and at the heart of the still problematic process of creating a united Europe.

This view was echoed by John Kornblum, who served as US ambassador to Germany in the late nineties. In his opinion, this process – which he described as "extremely difficult" for Germany - is not yet complete. He spoke of the "great uncertainty" he encounters in Germany whenever there is talk of repositioning the country strategically. He described how the lack of a figure such as von Weizsäcker is felt all the more keenly - someone who tirelessly campaigned for transatlantic understanding and reconciliation between former foes.

Friedbert Pflüger, previously a member of the Bundestag and a long-time employee of the former President, pointed out, however, that von Weizsäcker was first and foremost an exponent of realpolitik and that he would frequently take the liberty of criticizing the US. Christoph Bertram, former Director of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) and former editor of Die Zeit, bemoaned the fact that the "political class" in Berlin refuses to conduct a debate about Germany’s strategic interests.

The event was held at the headquarters of the German Marshall Fund of the United States, in which three former US ambassadors to Germany are involved, and was organized by Dan Hamilton and the Robert Bosch Stiftung. Hamilton was the Richard von Weizsäcker Professor at Johns Hopkins University from 2002 to 2010. This professorship was established with funding from the Robert Bosch Stiftung. In 2013, Hamilton also served as the Richard von Weizsäcker Fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin.