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BERLIN – Former German President Richard von Weizsaecker, who urged his country to confront the Nazi past, promoted reconciliation and denounced far-right violence during a 10-year tenure that spanned the reunification of west and east, has died. He was 94.
President Joachim Gauck's office announced Weizsaecker's death on Saturday. Weizsaecker, a patrician and eloquent figure who was president from 1984 to 1994, raised the profile of the largely ceremonial presidency and established himself as a moral conscience for the nation.
Weizsaecker's May 1985 speech marking the 40th anniversary of Nazi Germany's defeat in World War II cemented his reputation. It won widespread praise as an effort to bring fellow Germans to terms with the Holocaust.
"All of us, whether guilty or not, whether young or old, must accept the past. We are all affected by its consequences and liable for it," said Weizsaecker, who served as a regular soldier in Adolf Hitler's army. "Anyone who closes his eyes to the past is blind to the present."
"The 8th of May was a day of liberation," he told the West German parliament. "It freed us all from the system of National Socialist tyranny."
Later that month, the Netherlands' German-born Prince Claus presented the president with a Dutch translation of the speech, telling him that it enabled him finally to acknowledge his roots in a country where resentment of the Nazi occupation remained widespread.
In October 1985, Weizsaecker made the first visit to Israel by a West German head of state. His Israeli counterpart, Chaim Herzog, said the comments had won Weizsaecker "a special place in the history of your people."
"Richard von Weizsaecker stood worldwide for a Germany that had found its way to center of the democratic family of peoples," current President Joachim Gauck said in a message of condolences to Weizsaecker's widow. "He stood for a federal republic that faces up to its past."