Germany and the Centenary 1914/2014 – The forgotten war

It’s important that we remember the war dead on both sides of the line – the Germans suffered the same as we did.” – Harry Patch

I watched the funeral service of Harry Patch, when he was laid to rest in August 2009.

Due to the high levels of interest in the funeral, which was broadcast live on TV and radio, a total of 1,050 tickets were made available for the service. Some, wanting to pay their respects, slept overnight on the Cathedral Green in order to get tickets. Those who did not manage to get one watched the whole ceremony on TV or on huge video screens that were errected on the streets. The bells of Wells Cathedral were rung 111 times to mark each year of his life. In addition to pallbearers from The Rifles, Patch’s coffin was accompanied by two private soldiers from each of the armies of Belgium, France and Germany and an official of the German embassy is reading from the bible. A country in mourning, remembering the “last Tommy”.

When Dr Erich Kästner, the last German veteran of World War One died in 2008 no one took any notice. It was only due to an entry on Wikipedia, which was written by a German amateur historian that someone noticed his obituary in a German newspaper (which said nothing about his service in WW1) and edited the Wikipedia accordingly. Finally, three weeks after Kästners death, the first article about him was published in Der Spiegel.

Dr Erich Kästner (1900-2008)  and his wife

Dr Erich Kästner (1900-2008) and his wife

Germany kept no lists of surviving veterans of the Great War. Even the Ministry of Defence, the Bundeswehr or the German Armed Forces Military History Research Office had any idea how many of these men, who had taken part in the great slaughter between the North Sea and the Alps where still alive. And due to this nobody took any notice when one of these men joined the ranks of the Great Army.

The German veterans  and even World War One itself, have disappeared from the collective memory of the German people. They are a “lost generation” indeed, a generation whose suffering and dying in the trenches of the Marne and the Somme has been lost in the shadows of World War Two.

We still have time, a little time. It‘s not about an 11th hour decision which would demand a rapid change of direction to save mankind. The humble truth is that it‘s all about a wiser and not even germanocentric rememberance, reflecting on our role in European history.

We still have more then one year to think about how we will remember the fact that in August 2014 it will be 100 years since a chain of messy coincidences, lies, bad-, good-, and best intentions led to a war that would throw the 20th century off its course. Time to remember a war that was to trigger the tragedy of a century.

Not a day goes by on German TV without showing images of Adolf Hitler, proof of the dull power to fascinate still emanating from the man from Braunau and also proof that Germans take the accounting for their past seriously. You just have to compare Germany to Japan to see how successfully Germany managed to confront itself with its National Socialist past (after some hesitation and hushing-up).

Germans do not talk about “the dark years” anymore, like they used to do in the 60s and 70s when the curtains were down and plenty of drink on the table. The days of “don’t mention the war” are over once and for all. The facts are accessible to anyone, they are in our school books and most Germans know that it was Germans that commited the most terrible, racial holocaust the world has ever seen. I think it‘s ok to say that we in Germany have quarrelled more with our own dirty past than any other nation. We have looked into Evil‘s blue eyes and that is a good thing!

The problem about all this quarrelling and self-reflecting is that it has effectively severed the German citizens‘ link to the earlier past no matter if good or bad. Tons of surveys show how little “ze German” knows about the Thirty Years War, the old Empire, Prussia, The German Empire or the Republic of Weimar. These pasts are incredibily far away; they do not talk to us anymore, they have vanished in the Orcus of history.

This makes us Germans special. No other country has a long-term memory as damaged as ours and no other country has such problems to incorporate its history into its self-perception. It stops us from looking at German history in a European context. A context that was already firmly in place in the decades before the start of World War 1.

The assassination in Sarajevo on the 28th of June 1914, the hectic negotiations of the diplomats wearing stiff suits and monocles, young German soldiers going happily to war with flowers in their rifle barrels. This war seems to be much further than 100 years ago. It has disappeared from our conscience.

In World War 2 we saw an historical battle between the republican idea and the two major ideologies of national socialism and communism. What was World War 1 about? Certainly it was not about ideals…or was it? Was it not just about small quarrels and vanities, about some colonies in countries whose names we can‘t pronounce? Problems that useless diplomats could not solve?

We still have time to start planning the centenary of 2014. The others do it aswell: the United Kingdom, France, Russia, Belgium and Italy. We should be doing the same as equals. Our government has decided to stay in the background and to yield precedence on the big stage to the victors. There are supposed to be some congresses, some local events and maybe even a small international one, but Germany has decided to stay in the second rank.

A cowardly and wrong decision. We hide in that part of history which we think is our own: 1933 to 1945.

But it is not like that. The terrible years of 1933 to 1945 were preceeded by other terrible years and we have to include these to get the whole picture. It’s not about seeking rehablilitation or to transfer the guilt to somebody else. It‘s all about realising that there was no mandatory road leading into the German catastrophy. It‘s about keeping German and European history before 1933 alive. And we need Germany to do that…don’t we?

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6 thoughts on “Germany and the Centenary 1914/2014 – The forgotten war

  1. This is a terrific and absolute correct post. Historians in the West now realize that it is far from true to say that all of German history was a straight path leading to Nazism. They were not. German developments before 1933 were extremely nuanced.

    Perhaps this is most true of World War One and Germany’s role before that war and during it. Almost no historians now point the finger at Germany and accuse it of “starting” that war. Almost all realize that Russia, France and Austria-Hungary were more culpable. And almost all historians view the Versailles Treaty as massively unfair treatment of Germany.

    Germany thus should use the approaching Centenary of the Great War to re-examine its early 20th Century history. It may be as important to confront and understand the nuances of that as it has been to confront and understand the horrors of Nazism.

  2. First class post and very surprised that a country as organised as Germany has not maintained records of WW1 veterans. I agree with Rob regarding the ‘dark years’ of the 60’s and 70’s in relation to the uneasy silence over WW2. I was there between 74 – 76 with the military and we were discouraged from ever referring to WW2. This is totally different now and is openly discussed and debated; experiences shared which serves our understanding of history. Rob and ‘Gott mit uns’ is a brilliant learning resource for amateur military historians like me and we should all get involved if we can.

  3. This is a poignant and accurate assessment of a German view of WW1, that I recognise from my German friends. Whatever the causes, this was as much a European War as a World War. When I see German graves they appear more sombre than allied ones and yet I do not see the graves of protagonists. Only the graves of young men that died in horrific circumstances in the belief that what they were fighting for was right. Many fought for their friends, their town, their state rather than for any geo-political reason.100 years after the battles, and with the survivors all lost to old age, it is time for the modern German state to remember and fully recognise the sacrifice of so many young men. I shall be visiting a WW1 battlefield in 2015 and I’d be as pleased to meet German families as those of Canada, Australia, France, USA or where ever. This is no time for jingoism – it’s time to reflect on the horrors that man can inflict on man. Gott Mit Uns? – I hope he is with us all in 2014-2018.

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