German President Joachim Gauck visits Czech Republic
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.
“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.
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.”
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.”
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.