Germany’s Memory of the World Wars

It is common fact that German commemoration of WWI is largely overshadowed by that of WWII. In 2014, 100 years after the beginning of WWI, then-German minister for foreign affairs Franz-Walter Steinmeier statedthat the abominations of WWII and the crimes against humanity committed in the Holocaust occupy a more central space in the collective memory of the federal republic. At schools, WWII is studied in more detail. Museums and exhibitions about it are numerous. WWII is a decisive historical break for Germany, which today is shaped by the memory of the Holocaust and the ensuing division into East and West, but also for the rest of the world which witnessed unparalleled horrors during the war and decolonisation and European peace afterwards.

In his bestseller Prisoners of Geography, Tim Marshall notes that in the last 70 years, Germany has become a centre of European stability and peace but that the last 700 years of the region are marked by continuous warfare. Conscious of WWII but constituting itself radically different from its pre-1945 self, Germany risks forgetting a not so distant past.

The French refer to WWI simply as ‘La Grande Guerre’ (the Great War). For them, remembrance of WWI mobilises a positive myth of heroism, national unity and sacrifice. For Germany, the memory of WWII is a negative origin myth that dominates ‘symbolism and self-image of the Federal Republic’, leaving little consideration for WWI. Every year, Britain marks armistice day with parades and poppies. Leading up to the 2014-18 period, France, Britain and Australia developed expansive and expensive strategies for marking the centenary, including exhibitions, museum openings and the renovation of war graves. Germany’s preparation for the centenary was quieter and subtler.

Military parades are unthinkable for the country which has inherited the historical burden of the Holocaust. Germany is involved in arms trade, especially the export of tanks, but its military is underfunded and does not enjoy the public standing as for example, Britain’s. British commemoration of the fallen through the army rather than the state is questionable – how do volunteer soldiers relate to those who were enlisted to die for their country? -but so is the absence of a German public focus on WWI.

In the summer of 1914, Germany was not only an aggressor of the war but also an established colonial power. The British Council conducted astudycalled ‘Remember the World as well as the War’ in Germany and six other countries which revealed that knowledge about WWI is largely limited to the Western Front. Yet, WWI was a war of empires. After centuries of Europeans setting out to distant countries, people from those were brought into the European metropole to fight an imperial war.

Released in 2014, the ‘1914-1918-online. International Encyclopaedia of the First World War’ is a comprehensive Open Access encyclopaedia of the war, launched by Freie Universität Berlin and the Bavarian state library, and funded by the German Research Foundation. It brings together reviewed international scholarship on WWI. Its approach is not only historical but also geographical and conceptual. Users have the option to view events along a timeline, according to themes (among others, violence, media, power) and regions that cover both involved and neutral countries around the globe. Supported by the EU Committee of the Regions, this approach highlights overseas relations between the nation states that are often overlooked in national remembrance.

There is historical consensus that Germany’s blank cheque to Austria-Hungary escalated the tensions after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Germans therefore remember it as reminder of the importance of diplomacy. Mr Steinmeier concludedhis aforementioned discussion of WWI with the statement that European integration and diplomacy are achievements to be maintained responsibly. Interests should be fought over at discussion tables rather than in trenches. European states need to look beyond their own interests and power and towards their neighbours and the wider international community.

Germany as a central member of the EU has a critical role in promoting debate and negotiation. By presenting itself to the international community as a product of WWII alone, it may be demonised by right-wing politics. A recent article about the paranoia behind Brexit arguesthat a small but significant British minority likens EU-Germany’s limitations on British sovereignty to the Third Reich. One world war should not be remembered at the expense of the other. Germany’s voice in the EU may be heard better if its historical account of the twentieth century started before the Holocaust and considered other national histories alongside its own.

Viewing WWI from thematic and regional perspectives can soften the fact that remembrance still is a national ritual. As each country commemorates its own losses on November 11th (and Poland its independence), histories of suffering, fear, death and sacrifice are common to all countries. If WWI is a unifying myth in France, it has the potential to unify internationally. But to this end, it needs to be remembered.

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