Germany’s Great War commemorations are filled with shame

For many, the ‘Ur-Katastophe’ of 1914-18 only ended with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989

Berlin

Germany will officially mark the 100th anniversary of its fateful entry into the First World War outside its own borders this weekend. The gesture speaks volumes about feelings of national shame for the catastrophe that are still palpable a century later.

On Sunday Germany’s President Joachim Gauck will clasp the hand of his French counterpart, François Hollande, during a solemn ceremony on French soil that will take place some 15 miles west of the German frontier.

The chosen venue is a hilltop in the Vosges mountains called Hartmannswillerkopf. Between 25,000 and 30,000 soldiers from both sides died fighting for its control. Until recently there was nothing to remind visitors that German soldiers lost their lives there. But on Sunday the two presidents will lay the foundation stone for a new Franco-German Great War memorial and exhibition centre.

Gerd Krumreich, a German historian and Great War expert, has accused his government of being “fundamentally uninterested” in the centenary. It is a charge that even Chancellor Merkel has not denied outright.

In May she opened Germany’s main exhibition on the war, at the German History Museum in Berlin. Standing in front of a giant photograph of a field of Flanders poppies, against which is written “1914-2014: what have we learned?”, she told a group of young people that “Germany has until now not had the First World War much in mind.”

The Chancellor admitted that even in her own family the events of the Second World War had been “very much more dominant”. In Germany the Great War is seen almost universally as the “Ur-Katastrophe” – the mother of all catastrophes – that really only ended 25 years ago this year with the fall of the Berlin Wall.

 

Two images have been much used in this year’s flood of German Great War exhibitions, films and television documentaries to capture the breadth of the disaster. One is a 1914 sepia photograph of a German soldier in a spiked helmet marching off to war on the streets of Berlin. His smiling sweetheart proffers a bunch of flowers. The next shot is of the railway tracks leading to the entrance of the Auschwitz death camp.

The pairing sums up the traditional accepted narrative of the war in Germany (encouraged by revered historians such as Fritz Fischer), in which Kaiser Wilhelm II, a monarch widely dismissed even by Germans as the deluded head of a militaristic Prussian-dominated empire, plunges the nation into war in a “grab for world power”.

For most Germans, their nation’s subsequent defeat, the draconian terms of the Versailles Treaty, the Weimar Republic, the rise of the Nazis, the Second World War and the Holocaust are the direct consequences of 1914-18. For Angela Merkel and millions of other Germans, the disasters of 1939-45 and Germany’s post-war division all begin with 1914, but the date is overshadowed by the enormity of German crimes thereafter.

Even the famous Christmas Truce of 1914, when German and British soldiers left their trenches to play football in no-man’s land, is not mentioned in Berlin’s main Great War exhibition. It seems the curators found it irrelevant to the subsequent dreadful course of German history.

Germany’s President Joachim Gauck will clasp the hand of his French counterpart, François Hollande during the ceremony Germany’s President Joachim Gauck will clasp the hand of his French counterpart, François Hollande during the ceremony (Getty Images)
German shame and guilt for 1914 and what followed it may explain why The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914, a recent book by the Australian historian Christopher Clarke, has been a bestseller in Germany. Clarke argues that rather than being solely responsible for the war, Germany more or less “sleepwalked” into a conflict whose root causes were manifold.

He is not alone. The German historians Herfried Mükler and Jörg Friedrich argue that Germany in 1914 was just one in a gang of cynically self-obsessed nations including Britain, France, Russia and Austro-Hungary that bore responsibility for the deaths of millions. Recent disclosures that Britain’s King George V asked his prime minister to “find an excuse” to go to war against Germany fit such an interpretation.

However, the German historian Hans-Ulrich Wehler said Clark’s book merely exposed the Germans’ “deep-seated desire to free themselves from all accusations of guilt”. And Andreas Wirsching, another historian, wrote that German readers were using it to cure themselves of the “German disease of self-pity”.

If Germany’s war commemorations are half-hearted, many would argue that open debate has barely started.

News
The cartoon produced by Bruce MacKinnon for the Halifax Chronicle-Herald on Thursday, showing the bronze soldiers of the war memorial in Ottawa welcoming Corporal Cirillo into their midst
news
Voices
Funds raised from the sale of poppies help the members of the armed forces with financial difficulties
voicesLindsey German: The best way of protecting soldiers is to stop sending them into disastrous conflicts
Voices
Nigel Farage has backed DJ Mike Read's new Ukip song
voicesNigel Farage: Where is the Left’s outrage over the sexual abuse of girls in the North of England?
Property
One bedroom terraced house for sale, Richmond Avenue, Islington, London N1. On with Winkworths for £275,000.
property
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
News
The Edge and his wife, Morleigh Steinberg, at the Academy Awards in 2014
peopleGuitarist faces protests over plan to build mansions in Malibu
News
i100
News
peopleFox presenter gives her less than favourable view of women in politics
News
Mario Balotelli has been accused of 'threateningly' telling a woman to stop photographing his Ferrari
peoplePolice investigate claim Balotelli acted 'threateningly' towards a woman photographing his Ferrari
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Anderson plays Arthur Shelby in Peaky Blinders series two
tvReview: Arthur Shelby Jr seems to be losing his mind as his younger brother lets him run riot in London
Life and Style
The Zinger Double Down King, which is a bun-less burger released in Korea
food + drinkKFC unveils breadless meat beast
Arts and Entertainment
A shared vision: Cerys Matthews has been familiarising herself with Dylan Thomas’s material, for a revealing radio programme
arts + entsA singer, her uncle and a special relationship with Dylan Thomas
News
In other news ... Jon Snow performed at last year's Newsroom's Got Talent charity event
people
News
i100
Life and Style
Text messaging changes as a relationship evolves
life
News
The comedian, 42, made the controversial comment following the athlete’s sentencing to five years for the culpable homicide of Reeva Steenkamp on Tuesday
peopleComedian's quip about Reeva Steenkamp was less than well received at music magazine awards
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SSRS Report Developer - Urgent Contract - London - £300pd

£300 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: SSRS Report Developer – 3 Mon...

KS1 Teacher

£95 - £150 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: Key Stage 1 teacher require...

HR Business Partner - Essex - £39,000 plus benefits

£32000 - £39000 per annum + benefits + bonus: Ashdown Group: Generalist HR Man...

Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £30000 per annum + uncapped: SThree: Do you feel like your sales role...

Day In a Page

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
11 best sonic skincare brushes

11 best sonic skincare brushes

Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
The 10 best smartphone accessories

Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

Liverpool v Real Madrid

Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?