PRAGUE, Czechoslovakia — Two of Europe's most extraordinary statesmen sealed a highly symbolic understanding between them in a most unstatesmanlike way here Thursday--over a friendly beer in a local pub.
The statesmen: West German President Richard von Weizsaecker and his Czechoslovak counterpart, Vaclav Havel. They chose the 51st anniversary of the Nazi occupation of Prague to put an end to one painful chapter in the 1,000-year-old relationship between their two countries and to begin a new, more hopeful one.
"I'm a fan of symbols in politics," Havel, the former dissident playwright, said of the date he chose to invite Von Weizsaecker for a 10-hour state visit.
And after their formal talks and presidential speeches in the cavernous Vladislav Hall of Prague's Hradcany Castle, Havel, who doesn't think presidents should take themselves too seriously, initiated a surprise detour from the official program.
About halfway through a scheduled "walkabout" from the castle to the famous Charles Bridge, the Czechoslovak president propelled his apparently delighted guest through the doors of the "Two Suns" pub on cobblestoned Neruda Street and ordered steins of light beer for them both.
Startled security men and photographers, who weren't getting along all that well anyway, tripped over one another as they scrambled none too successfully to keep up with their quarry. They cheered up only slightly when somebody passed a couple of tankards to those stuck outside.
Jiri Duffek, 69, a retired lawyer, had tears in his eyes as he watched the happy scene from a few yards away. In contrast to Thursday's warm sunshine, the streets were cold and snow-swept on March 15, 1939, when he and the rest of the city awoke to find Nazi tanks and occupation troops everywhere.
"It was a very bad day," Duffek recalled, and worse days were to come during the three years he would spend in a forced labor camp in Berlin.
German dictator Adolf Hitler surveyed his army's latest conquest that day 51 years ago from the same hilltop castle from which Von Weizsaecker briefly greeted a crowd of several hundred Czechoslovaks and foreign tourists Thursday.
The contrast couldn't have been greater Thursday, the Duffeks agreed, during a symbolic national reconciliation presided over by two very different men who nevertheless speak a common, visionary language.
The silver-haired, patrician Von Weizsaecker looks like he was born in an expensive suit, and the gravelly voiced, puckish Havel always looks somehow as if he has never worn one before.
"Our first attempt at democracy came to an abrupt end on March 15, 1939, when a certain madman in high boots broke into this castle to announce to the world that violence conquers freedom and human dignity," Havel told several hundred invited guests at Vladislav Hall.
"The messenger of war broke in," the former political prisoner continued. "The messenger of crudity; the messenger of lies; the messenger of pride and evil, of injustice and cruelty. A mass murderer broke in, a murderer of nations."
By contrast, Havel said, as Czechoslovakia begins its "second attempt at democracy . . . we welcome to this castle another guest: a representative of German democracy, a messenger of peace, a messenger of decency, a messenger of truth, a messenger of humanity--the announcer of the news that violence must never again win over freedom, lies over truth and evil over human lives."
"It was a noble initiative of Vaclav Havel that he invited his neighbor from the Federal Republic of Germany on March 15 to Prague," responded Von Weizsaecker. "Each of us at home understands the profound symbolism of this peaceful step. We are taking it, in conviction, together."
He spoke of the "profound injustice" that the Nazis perpetrated on Czechoslovakia and the "unspeakable suffering" of the World War that soon followed. And he said he was grateful "for the confidence you have shown us Germans by receiving us here."
Von Weizsaecker, who is often cited as the likely first President of a reunified Germany, said of negotiations toward that end now under way: "We Germans know very well how important it is that through our unification, we should not cause among our neighbors the emergence of any new or old anxieties."
And in the sentence that drew the strongest applause of his remarks from those assembled, Von Weizsaecker added: "We have no territorial claim towards any neighbors."