German President Joachim Gauck visits Czech Republic

Joachim Gauck, Václav Klaus, photo: CTK

German President Joachim Gauck arrived in Prague on Wednesday for an action-packed one day visit. Talks with Czech top officials, a meeting with Cardinal Dominik Duka and a visit to Lidice village symbol of Nazi atrocities in WWII, gave this visit by a German head of state a new dimension.

Joachim Gauck,  Václav Klaus,  photo: CTK
German President Joachim Gauk was welcomed with military honours at Prague Castle on Wednesday morning and following an hour of talks with President Vaclav Klaus the two statesmen faced journalists in an upbeat mood, smiling a cracking jokes. President Gauck said the present state of bilateral relations filled him with optimism:

“I am very glad of our close business and trade relations and I have to say I am most impressed with the way the Czech Republic has weathered the economic crisis and how it has stood up to competition in the European Union. I welcome the fact that the two neighbours have developed close informal ties, that young people are meeting and cooperating in all spheres, that young Czechs are learning German, that we have a rich cultural exchange. That is the way to build bridges between common citizens.“

The German president was clearly on a serious bridge-building mission himself and when asked whether he had attempted to change President Klaus’ views on European integration or discuss Germany’s position on the European debt crisis he refused to take the bait.

Joachim Gauck,  photo: CTK
“Of course we have differing opinions on many things. But I think it is important to say that with its fiscal policy and its stability the Czech Republic together with Poland and the Baltic States are very close to what Chancellor Merkel is calling for in the EU. Stability is immensely important for coexistence within the EU and I think that in this respect the Czech Republic is making a big contribution and in this respect it is close to Germany’s position.”

While bilateral ties and European issues were high on the agenda of Wednesday’s talks, they were once again overshadowed by that ever-present topic in Czech-German relations – the ghosts of the past. And the German president was more than ready for the challenge. He explained why he had asked to visit Lidice – the first visit to the memorial site by a German top official since the fall of communism.

“It is very important that we talk about the past which was bloody and terrible. It is important to talk about Germany’s guilt, about our failing and our responsibility. Coming to terms with ones’ past means being able to acknowledge and take a critical view of one’s mistakes. Our generation knows what happened, but for the young generation this is history and it is important that this information be handed down to them –that is a never-ending process.”

Lidice memorial
The German president has gone further than any of his predecessors in making amends for the atrocities committed by the Nazis in the occupied Czech lands. In June of this year - on the 70th anniversary of the destruction of Lidice and Ležáky –President Gauck wrote an open letter to his Czech counterpart expressing deep sorrow and shame over the massacres and saying that Germany was aware of its historical responsibility. This stand and his desire to visit Lidice in person were widely acknowledged in the Czech Republic as the gesture of a politician who truly wants to make amends.

Inevitably, this opened up the question whether President Gauck himself was not expecting a similar admission of guilt from the Czech side with regard to the expulsion of 2.5 million Sudeten Germans from Czechoslovakia after the war. While the question from a German reporter clearly irritated the Czech head of state President Gauck was ready to smooth ruffled feathers.

“As I said this is my first visit to the Czech Republic. I do not want to mix these topics. I have come here to pay homage to the victims of Nazism, to show my deepest respect and my sorrow. That is my primary intention and I do not want to belittle it or condition it in any way. It is up to Czech society to settle with the past in its own way and there will be other times and other opportunities for that. I know that the issue has been opened by young historians and young journalists but this is not the time to talk about it.”

Joachim Gauck,  Václav Klaus,  photo: CTK
It would have been hard to find a German head of state more suited to overcoming the painful legacy of the past. Political analysts have noted that while former German politicians had made “compulsory diplomatic apologies” President Gauck spoke from the heart and was not afraid of criticizing his own nation’s past mistakes. As a former East German he is moreover well-versed in the problems of dealing with a communist legacy and is highly respected in this country as a symbol of Germany’s coming to terms with its communist past.

In recent years Berlin and Prague have described bilateral relations as being “the best in history”, President Klaus noted on Wednesday that Joachim Gauck can only make them better.