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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooks
ebooksA celebration of British elections
  • Get to the point
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

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Dublin

£13676.46 - £16411.61 per annum + OTE: SThree: SThree Trainee Recruitment Cons...

Ashdown Group: Marketing or Business Graduate Opportunity - Norwich - £22,000

£18000 - £22000 per annum + training: Ashdown Group: Business and Marketing Gr...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + Commission: SThree: Are you great at building rela...

Ashdown Group: Database Analyst - Birmingham - £22,000 plus benefits

£20000 - £22000 per annum + excellent benefits: Ashdown Group: Application Sup...

Day In a Page

Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before