German commemoration of the Great War

How should Germany commemorate the Great War?

Having just had a spasm of high-profile events, the British are asking, “are we the only ones.” There is also an attitude of “why can’t they be like us” that Americans are frequently accused of having. Two examples, the first from the Guardian, keeper of the British Left’s conscience:

The second, a story by Stephen Evans for the BBC News Magazine.

The Guardian piece is tripe. Read it to understand the genre. Evans’ essay digs deeper and explains why the Germans are reluctant to make a fuss. It’s not as simple as the sophisticates and the Guardian would have it.

Key graphs:

World War One does not grip the ordinary German imagination in the way it does the British psyche. There is not the sense of national commemoration which will provide a remembrance participated in by people of all walks of life. It is not a moment of national reflection.

Dr Ingolf Wernicke from the organisation which tends these graves [a Great War cemetery in Berlin] told the BBC: “Nobody is interested. I’m sorry about it. The time is far away and nobody knows what these graves are for. They are forgotten.” He regrets the fact very much and thinks it is because World War One in German consciousness was so over-shadowed by World War Two. “All that happened in World War One was subsumed by World War Two. When I went to school here in Berlin in the 60s and 70s, we heard something about World War One but it didn’t take place in Germany. It was far away.”

It may be that any official reticence over the first war is strong because to open a debate about remembrance of that first war’s military victims is to open a debate about German military victims of the war which followed.

The article follows with a discussion of Christopher Clark’s Sleepwalkers and its huge reception in Germany:

There may be no sense in Germany of a national soul-searching over the First War (as there is in Britain), but that doesn’t mean that nobody is thinking about it. A book by Christopher Clark, an Australian historian based at Cambridge University, has become a run-away best-seller in its German translation. “The Sleepwalkers” analyses the run-up to the war and paints a picture of blunders and misunderstandings in the complexities of European imperial politics.

This is why Germans like the book so much, according to Michael Epkenhans, the Director of Research at the centre for military history for the German armed forces at Potsdam.

“Christopher Clark’s book is selling like hot cakes,” he says, “because it gives Germans the feeling that everybody has to be blamed for starting World War One and not only the Germans. You see elderly people with gleaming eyes as they listen to him lecture or read his book. They feel it tells them that many were guilty and not only Germans.”

This latter is a good point. My experience has been that when Germans are educated about their country’s past, things full-stop around 1914. Then “aggressive-Germany-bad” in 1914-1918, Weimar-Stressemann “good-but-failed”, then Germany ultra-bad from 1933-1945. While I agree 100% with the last statement, the 1914-1933 bit seems to be pretty much skipped over while the 1933-1945 is explored (at least on the bookshelves of Dussmann and Thalia) in enormous depth.

Perhaps German reticence to address 1914-1918 is part of what I call “penitential historical memory.” Something went terribly wrong in the second quarter of the 20th century. Something must have been terribly amiss. Were the events that took Germany in a terrible direction started in 1914? I, for my part, think a low-key commemoration, with memories of the lives lost, is the best way to handle things. Can  you imagine what a full-throated Hastings-Ferguson debate would do to Germany’s hard-won reintegration into the community of nations? What it would do to the fragile domestic consensus about Germany’s past?

Anyway, read the whole thing. The issue won’t be going away.

 

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About George Vascik, Historian

A 1988 graduate of the University of Michigan, I have taught history at Miami University since 1992. I maintain blogs on teaching Western Civilization and on Great War (which I will be teaching online Fall 2014). My research focuses on anti-Semitism and rural politics in northwest Germany. Along with Mark Sadler, I am preparing a book of primary documents on the Stab-in-the-Back Myth (Dolchstoßlegende). You can visit my profession web page at http://www.users.miamioh.edu/vascikgs/.
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