It is not uncommon for West German president Richard von Weizsacker to be the center of controversy.
Whether for forcing his countrymen to confront a past they would rather forget, or by being the first German head of state to make a visit to Israel, the 67-year-old president has never taken the easy road. He has chosen instead to use his eloquence and the pulpit provided by his ceremonial office to smooth the bumps in his and his country's past.
A noted speech-maker, the principal speaker of today's Commencement Exercises has used his largely ceremonial position to speak on modern Germany's responsibilities to deal with its Nazi past, and the burden on all Germans to remember that time.
Colleagues point to von Weizsaker's visit to Israel as illustrative of the especial sensitivity the president bears for the past.
In an informal gathering with young Israeli students, von Weizsacker asked a young woman whether she had visited Germany. When she said that she would never visit Germany, the president extended a state invitation, and the Israeli woman spent 10 days in Germany.
Mayor of Berlin before he became president three years ago, von Weizsacker has become the most acclaimed commentator on the legacy of the Nazi years, a man whose speeches are carefully charted as indicators of Germany's evolving attitudes toward its past.
Even those who criticize the decision to award an honorary degree to the German president, saying that he has covered-up his father's war crimes as a Nazi foreign service officer, pose their complaints against the younger von Weizsacker in terms of the laudable standards he has held for his fellow countryman. Von Weizsacker's standard is one that demands personal reconcilation with the past, and a commitment to bear the consequences of Nazi attrocities.
"There is no such thing as guilt or innocence of an entire nation. Guilt is, like innocence, not collective but personal. There is discovered, or concealed, individual guilt. There is guilt which people acknowledge or deny. Everyone who directly experienced that era should today quietly ask himself about his involvement then," von Weizsacker said in an oft-quoted speech he delivered on the 40th anniversary of Germany's unconditional surrender.
What has come to the fore in the modest protest against the leader at Harvard this week is the burden of confronting a family past, in the larger context of Germany's Nazi past.
Born to a prominent family in 1920, von Weizsacker was educated at several foreign universities, including Oxford. During World War II, the German president served in the German army, attaining the rank of captain.
While Richard von Weizsacker was on the front, drafted at the age of 18, his father, Baron Ernst von Weizsacker, was working in the foreign ministry, first as a chief diplomat, and later as an ambassador to the Vatican. His brother, Karl Fredrich, was a prominent physicist, who was at work for the Nazi regime in attempting to develop an atom bomb.
Richard von Weizsacker's rise from a family intimately linked to the operation of the Third Reich to the leading articulator of the burdens of the Nazi past in many ways echoes simultaneously the difficulties, and optimism, of modern Germany's attempt to reconcile its Nazi past.
Many say that it is a desire to restore his family name that has prompted the younger von Weizsacker to present such a uniquely honest, and candid, vision for modern Germany. And in doing so he has gained widespread popularity among Germans, serving especially as the conscience of younger Germans, who have shown an instinct to rile at being reminded of their Nazi past.
As a ceremonial office holder, von Weizsacker has stood in the world's spotlight, by candidly confronting the Nazi years of his youth.
In 1985 he delivered a now famous speech marking the 40th anniversary of Germany's unconditional surrender, in which he eloquently addressed the moral dilemmas raised by President Ronald Reagan's visit to a Bitburg cemetery which contained the graves of S. S. officers.