Thursday, 17 April 2014

LN: Gauck's gesture means huge leap in Czech-German relations

12 October 2012

Prague, Oct 11 (CTK) - Joachim Gauck's visit to the Lidice village on Wednesday was not the first such trip by a German leader but for the first time it was an emotional gesture massively covered by the media, which is a big progress in Czech-German relations, Zbynek Petracek says in Lidove noviny Thursday.

Gauck's visit to Lidice, a village that the Nazis razed to the ground in 1942, was the first visit by a German leader that was also attended by the Czech president.

In addition a German leader for the first time met survivors of the Lidice massacre. All this means a real progress, Petracek writes.

The letter Gauck wrote to Klaus on the Lidice tragedy's 70th anniversary in June could be viewed as a formal step by the new German president. However, their joint visit to Lidice on Wednesday, their joint ceremonial commemoration of the victims, broadcast by television, all this elevates Gauck to a much higher level, Petracek writes.

Gauck's gesture is unprecedented in Czech-German relations of the past 23 years. To tell the truth, it is absolutely unprecedented with its spontaneity and emotionality, Petracek says.

This does not mean that German policy has changed or that discrepancies yawn between Gauck and Chancellor Angela Merkel's approach to Czechs. Gauck has "only" shown that emotional gestures are far from obsolete. He proved that a personality with high morals, though ideologically unaffiliated, can considerably contribute to relations between two nations. That his gesture may make a deeper impression than Merkel's sober friendship assurances, Petracek writes.

In practical politics, gestures weigh more than it may seem, and the Germans know it better than anyone else. German leaders have paid numerous visits to countries that have not yet shaken off the trauma of the war, German occupation and genocide. Every German leader going to Israel visits the Yad Vashem Holocaust victims memorial, Petracek writes.

Why did no German leader previously make an emotional gesture in Lidice or in Terezin, a Czech town where a Jewish ghetto and a Nazi prison were located in wartime? The answer became clearer on Wednesday, Petracek writes.

In Central Europe, the "strongest" gesture was made by the then German Chancellor Willy Brandt in December 1970 when he kneeled at the memorial to the wartime Warsaw ghetto uprising. It was in Poland, a country that the Germans attacked and where they established extermination camps. Could such gesture be also made in the Czech Republic? Petracek asks.

For a long time this seemed ruled out. Because not every German chancellor is Willy Brandt and also because in both Bonn and Berlin the Czech-German account was viewed as more balanced than that between Poland and Germany, Petracek writes.

The Nazis did not attack Czechoslovakia but acquired it by an agreement. From the German point of view, the Czechs drew their compensation by transferring ethnic Germans from Czechoslovakia after the war and confiscating their property. If Holocaust victims are put aside, the proportion of Czech and German victims is close to a tie, from the German point of view, Petracek writes.

True, this viewpoint is unacceptable. It ignores the sequence of events as well as the Nazi genocidal ideology. Yes, but it influenced Germany's approach to Czechs for a long time, Petracek points out.

This is also why the Czechs did not see any emotional gesture of Germany, similar to Brandt's in Warsaw, for so a long time. Not that West German leaders would know nothing of or ignore the Lidice tragedy. Chancellor Helmut Kohl visited Lidice in January 1988. However, the idea of Kohl laying wreaths in Lidice along with the then Czechoslovak communist president Gustav Husak was unthinkable, Petracek writes.

At the close of the Cold War, Kohl was no longer personally interested (or he wanted his possible gesture to be reciprocated by Czechs), and Prague did not urge him to visit Lidice again. Joachim Gauck has thus closed the gap that persisted for almost a quarter of century. In terms of its size, it is the first such gesture made by a German leader, Petracek writes.

The Czechs owe this breakthrough not to a change in German policy but to a change in the post of German president. Merkel has been criticised, even at home, for her policy towards European countries being impatient and reminiscent of the Bismarck era policy. In this respect, Gauck embodies an opposite style, a policy of accommodating emotions, Petracek writes.

Gauck's letter to Klaus in June was also noteworthy. It has been interpreted as his apology for the Lidice tragedy, but this is not exactly the case. The German elites consider an apology for Lidice a matter of course, something beyond discussion. But Gauck went farther. He wrote about his deep regret and that he felt ashamed for the Nazi atrocities. On Wednesday he showed his words had been true, Petracek writes.

Gauck addressed the Czech society with clear, unambiguous words. He is a man of emotions but also of clear moral principles. He criticises Merkel (actually from the right) for insufficiently highlighting the costs of the euro's salvation. At the same time, he is capable of making a gesture (actually from the left) towards the Czechs, which no German leader had dared to make before, Petracek writes.

"Do you know now what a good president is good for?" he asks.

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