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
News
Young Winstone: His ‘tough-guy’ image is a misconception
people
Sport
Adnan Januzaj and Gareth Bale
footballManchester United set to loan out Januzaj to make room for Bale - if a move for the Welshman firms up
Arts and Entertainment
Ellie Levenson’s The Election book demystifies politics for children
bookNew children's book primes the next generation for politics
News
Outspoken: Alexander Fury, John Rentoul, Ellen E Jones and Katy Guest
newsFrom the Scottish referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
PROMOTED VIDEO
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams' “Happy” was the most searched-for song lyric of 2014
musicThe power of song never greater, according to our internet searches
News
i100
Sport
Tim Sherwood raises his hand after the 1-0 victory over Stoke
footballFormer Tottenham boss leads list of candidates to replace Neil Warnock
Arts and Entertainment
L to R: Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Captain America (Chris Evans) & Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) in Avengers Assemble
film
News
Nigel Farage celebrates with a pint after early local election results in the Hoy and Helmet pub in South Benfleet in Essex
peopleHe has shaped British politics 'for good or ill'
Sport
Yaya Sanogo, Mats Hummels, Troy Deeney and Adnan Januzaj
footballMost Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
Arts and Entertainment
Sink the Pink's 2013 New Year's Eve party
musicFour of Britain's top DJs give their verdict on how to party into 2015
Voices
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers
voicesIt has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
Arts and Entertainment
Roffey says: 'All of us carry shame and taboo around about our sexuality. But I was determined not to let shame stop me writing my memoir.'
books
News
i100
News
Caplan says of Jacobs: 'She is a very collaborative director, and gives actors a lot of freedom. She makes things happen.'
people
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

Selby Jennings: VP/SVP Credit Quant- NY- Investment Bank

Not specified: Selby Jennings: VP/SVP Credit Quant Top tier investment bank i...

Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executive- City of London, Old Street

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executiv...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: An international organisa...

Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwickshire

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwicksh...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

The West needs more than a White Knight

Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

The stories that defined 2014

From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

Finally, a diet that works

Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced
Say it with... lyrics: The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches

Say it with... lyrics

The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches
Professor Danielle George: On a mission to bring back the art of 'thinkering'

The joys of 'thinkering'

Professor Danielle George on why we have to nurture tomorrow's scientists today
Monique Roffey: The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections

Monique Roffey interview

The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections
Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Their outrageousness and originality makes the world a bit more interesting, says Ellen E Jones
DJ Taylor: Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

It has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
Olivia Jacobs & Ben Caplan: 'Ben thought the play was called 'Christian Love'. It was 'Christie in Love' - about a necrophiliac serial killer'

How we met

Olivia Jacobs and Ben Caplan
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's breakfasts will revitalise you in time for the New Year

Bill Granger's healthy breakfasts

Our chef's healthy recipes are perfect if you've overindulged during the festive season
Transfer guide: From Arsenal to West Ham - what does your club need in the January transfer window?

Who does your club need in the transfer window?

Most Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
The Last Word: From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015

Michael Calvin's Last Word

From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015