Tribute as Germany's conscience steps down

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The Independent Online
THE German President, Richard von Weizsacker, 74, yesterday stepped down from his office after the maximum 10 years, amid enthusiastic tributes from all sides. He handed over to his 60-year-old successor, Roman Herzog, who will be head of state for five years.

The outgoing president told Mr Herzog that all Germans would benefit from 'your accumulated experience, your sober commonsense and humour, the good heart and courage with which you will tackle your work'. Mr Herzog returned the compliments, expressing 'the thanks and respect of all Germans' for what he had done, and describing Mr von Weizsacker as 'a model for many'.

President Herzog, who was the senior judge in Germany's constitutional court, has a hard act to follow. Mr von Weizsacker, a former mayor of Berlin and a Christian Democrat, has enjoyed a remarkable degree of all-party support, and was acknowledged as the conscience of the nation.

His speeches avoided party politics, but sought to give strong moral guidelines. He was outspoken about the need for Germany to come to terms with its Nazi past. He spoke forcefully about the wave of racist attacks that have swept Germany in the past few years.

In his speech as outgoing president yesterday, he returned to that theme with typical vehemence, talking of 'scandalous violence against the property, life and limb of non-Germans'. He delivered a sharp implicit rebuke to those in authority who have sought to play down the significance of such attacks - for example, when Africans were recently chased through the city centre and beaten up in the east German town of Magdeburg. Mr von Weizsacker warned: 'Let nobody talk of chance moods, or of unpredictable, spontaneous hunts for foreigners, and then ask one day, how it could have come to this. One day? That must always be today, for the law- enforcement bodies as well as for us as fellow-citizens.'

He spoke, too, of the difficulties of German unity, and emphasised that east Germans should not be made to feel that they have had 'wasted lives'. Mr Herzog - whose blunt Bavarian style seems likely to strike a different note from the sometimes florid language of Mr von Weizsacker - addressed many of the same themes in his inaugural speech as Mr von Weizsacker had done.

The opposition Social Democrats have been critical of Mr Herzog's conservative views. Yesterday, however, Mr Herzog made it clear that he, too, believed racist violence and a sensitive approach to Germany's own nationhood to be crucial themes. Violence against foreigners was just the beginning. 'Today it's the foreigners. Tomorrow it's the Jews again, then the Catholics or the Protestants, the believers or the non-believers, the disabled. . .' Mr Herzog said that Germans must 'learn from the history of the nation' into which they were born.

Mr Herzog was elected in May by a special parliamentary assembly, and was supported at that time by Christian Democrats and their coalition partners, the Free Democrats.

(Photograph omitted)