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?

Kolomyja 1941, Bearing Witness

For the dead and the living, we must bear witness.”
― Elie Wiesel

When I look through the photographs of old soldiers of the German Army, I sometimes stumble over images like the ones shown below.

You might overlook them, when not actually searching for them and surprisingly this is just what  happened here, as this album has been in my possession for ages. The small series of photographs was taken by a soldier of an unidentified Wehrmacht artillery unit shortly after entering the town of  Kolomyja (West Ukraine).

More info on Kolomyja and Kolomyja Ghetto can be found HERE.

I had a long think what to write here, but words fail me. The Shoah fills me with shame, and I pray for the victims and the survivors. 

I will let the images speak for themselves and I have refrained from marking these images with the usual “gottmituns” tag…

kolo1

Outskirts of Kolomyja

kolo2

Kolomyja

kolo3

Local population

kolo4

Soldiers of the Wehrmacht searching Jews

kolo5

Defiance in his eyes – a powerful photograph

kolo6

Waffen-SS soldiers force Jewish men to cut off their Payot (Sidelocks)

kolo7

 

Colorized! – Unteroffizier Alois Gilgenbach, KIA March 1945

A couple of weeks ago I met Nick Stone  on Twitter (@typejunky). He is a “Designerer & Photomatographer” from Norwich in the UK who was so kind as to offer me to digitally restore and colorize some WW2 family photographs. I have decided to send him three portrait photographs showing my granduncles during WW2. All three of them were killed on the Eastern Front. One of them was Alois Gilgenbach.

Brought by to life - Colorized portrait showing Alois in 1940.

Brought by to life – Colorized portrait showing Alois in 1940.

Alois was born on the 21st of March 1915, in a tiny village within the deep forests of the Volcanic Eifel. He had joined the Army in 1938 and was a Reservist when the war broke out in 1939. Still he was only called to take up arms in 1940, when he joined the ranks of Infanterie-Regiment 158 with which he took part in the Battle of France in 1940 (in which the Regiment fought as part of 82. Infanterie-Division). Returning to Germany in December 1940, the Division redeployed into the Netherlands the following month. In May 1941, the division was separated – elements of the 82nd were to remain as an occupational force in the Netherlands, while the rest were to invade the Soviet Union.

Alois stayed in the Netherlands and seemed to have lived a quiet life up until June 1942 when his Regiment (IR 158), and the occupational elements of the 82. Infanterie-Division were also shifted to the Eastern Front. During the ferocious battles near Kasternoye (Cauldron of Kasternoye)/Voronezh in late December 1942-January 1943 Alois was wounded and got transported to France.

Once his wound was mending, he was transferred to Reserve-Grenadier-Bataillon 88 which was part of 189. Reserve-Division.
In May 1943 North Africa had been taken by the Allies. As a direct reaction Germany raised to new Infantry-Divisions (355. and 356. Infanterie-Division) which were supposed to guard the coasts of southern France and the Mediterranean. The nucleus of the new Divisions was formed from personnel of 189. Reserve-Division and so Alois was transferred to the new Grenadier-Regiment 871 (356 ID) which was based in Toulon.

In November 1943 Alois was transferred back to his old Regiment at the Eastern Front, which by now had been redesignated Grenadier-Regiment 158 fighting as part of Army Group South in the area of Kiev (Plessezkoje-Kopatschi-Trostinka).

After ferocious defensive battles which lasted up to Summer 1944 Alois Regiment and most of 82. Infanterie-Division was wiped out during the Battle of the Kamenets-Podolsky Pocket, also known as Hube’s Pocket. 

Alois was one of the lucky survivors. His Regiment, now down to the strength of a weak Battalion, was redesignated Regimentsgruppe 158 which now fought as part of Divisionsgruppe 82 (the remains of 82. Infanterie-Division, which now had shrunken to the size of a Regiment). Now a part of 254. Infanterie-Division (1. Panzer-Armee).

With this Division Alois fought in the defensive and retreating battles that took part in the Carpatians, Galicia and finally Silesia. In July 1944 Divisiongruppe 82 had been renamed Grenadier-Regiment 474.

On the 19th March 1945, 254. Division was encircled by Soviet forces near Deutsch-Rasselwitz. Using their last strength and leaving their remaining heavy equipment behind the soldiers of the Division managed to force a breakout and to reach the german lines near the small village of Hotzenplotz (Osoblaha). Setting up defensive lines around the village, the Division fought off one Soviet attack after the other. It was then, in close vicinity of the village, that Alois was killed. At the time of death he held the rank of Unteroffizier and had been awarded with the Westwall Medal, Iron Cross 2nd Class, Infantry Assault Badge in silver  and the Close Combat Clasp in bronze

His mortal remains have never been found. His body still rests in the soil of Silesia. 

Alois 001twitt

Nick Stone is a graphic designer and photographer, with an obsession with the past in general and both world wars specifically, in particular the impact on landscapes and the effect on society and memory. He has recently completed a social history installation that collected 10,000 photos from the public in Norwich and assembled them into a mosaic.

Currently he is running several projects including the Blitz Ghosts which records Norwich during WW2, Ghosts of WW1, which records elements of the Western Front and some D-day ghosts all using rephotography techniques. He was one of the photographers at the forefront of the explosion in “ghosting” over the last few years and is also recording the Western Front as it is today, the history of the landscape and the effects of man and nature on it and how the past is readily available to anyone who takes the time to explore it.
You can follow Nick on Twitter (@typejunky) and have look at his fantastic Flickr Photostream: http://www.flickr.com/photos/osborne_villas/