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.
"All of us, whether guilty or not, young or old, must accept the past. We are all affected by its consequences and liable for it," he said in that 1985 speech.
Yet, even as his speeches carefully articulate the distictions between personal the guilt of the perpetrators of Nazi crimes and the collective guilt of the German nation, critics charge that von Weizsacker's own failed effort to come to terms with his family's role in the Nazi regime illustrates the inexorable instinct of people to forget a painful past.
Critics, including a Rice professor of history and Harvard Professor of Law Alan Dershowitz, claim that the younger von Weizsacker has distorted the historical record to exonerate his father. Even defenders of the German president concede that he may have a blind spot when it comes to assessing his father's role in Nazi Germany.
Von Weizsacker father was tried by an American tribunal at Nuremberg, and sentenced to five years in prison, for assisting in the deportation of 6000 French Jews to a Nazi death camp. To this day, the younger von Weizsacker--who served among his father's lawyers at Nuremberg--insists that his father did not know that the Nazis were planning to kill those Jews who were deported.
In an interview with The New York Times in 1985, the president said that his father had "failed" as an officer of the Third Reich, but said, "I really believe that he did not know about the existence of the gas chambers and systematic mass killing. I believe he knew a lot of people were dying, but not how."
But the many Jewish leaders who praise the statesman say that such media attention on his father's actions during the war is misplaced when assessing the younger von Weizsacker's actions. Rather they point out that in an era where president of Austria Kurt Waldheim has covered up his own Nazi past, von Weizsacker's frankness about his own guilt is practically unique on the world stage, and therefore worthy of honor.
"President von Weizsacker is one of the most courageous, outspoken voices of modern Germany," says Abraham H. Foxman, the head of the international affairs commission of B'nai Brith's Anti-Defamation League.
"He has articulated the consciousness of responsibility, that's what he should be honored for," says Foxman, who is himself a Holocaust survivor.
Almost alone among Germans, von Weizsacker has argued that Nazism is something that the world has a duty to remember, he says.
"Anyone who closes his eyes to the past is made blind to the present. Whoever refuses to remember the inhumanity is prone to the new risks of infection," the German president said in his Bitburg speech.
His supporters point to his Bitburg speech as a monument in European history because it came directly after President Reagan, and others, had sought to downplay the relevance of the Nazi years. To some, because 40 years have passed since the Third Reich was conquered, and because its successor government is an ally of the United States, the atrocities of the Nazis should not be inveighed so frequently.
"The vast majority of Germans seek reconciliation with the victim nations. They are also inclined to forget the past and tend to resent the unceasing recollection of it; it is against these tendencies that von Weizsacker made this speech," says Erich Goldhagen, who teaches a course on the Holocaust.
Another success in von Weizsacker's diplomatic time has centered on strengthening West German ties with Israel. He and President Chaim Herzog swapped visits this spring, delivering carefully measured speeches that indicate an era of greater possibilities for the two countries.
This spring, when Herzog reciprocated by visiting Germany, von Weizsacker said, "I think we do understand those of your countrymen who have conflicting feelings at the thought of their president visiting Germany as a representative of the people of Israel."
Von Weizsacker concluded: "I was conscious of these feelings during my visit to Israel--how could it be otherwise? We must be honest with one another and that means first of all being honest in our recollection of the past. Only in this way can a credible and lasting relationship grow between the generations who at that time had not been born and who, today and tommorrow, will have to live and get along with another in this one world."