• Germany's news in English

Germany must treat its past with care

The Local · 8 May 2015, 11:41

Published: 08 May 2015 11:41 GMT+02:00

Facebook Twitter Google+ reddit

A fiercely patriotic Russian biker gang has ridden across Russia and Germany, in emulation of the Soviets' march to victory in 1945 and will commemorate the Soviet victory over fascism with a parade around Berlin.

The German foreign office tried to annul the The Night Wolves' visas, citing the political nature of such commemorative acts, to no avail. The wider German public were also offended. I find this reaction bewildering: May 8 has always been complex in Germany, yet to see the narrative of a victory over fascism as offensive feels like a throwback to the political memory battles of the post-war years.

For East Germany, formally the German Democratic Republic (GDR), May 8 was always a day of overblown governmental parades, thanks to the Soviet liberators. But West Germans – initially at least – remembered the end of the war as a moment of defeat and expulsion. The Soviets, or Russians, were remembered as an “Asiatic” menace that had ushered in the true catastrophe of World War II: its violent end.

Only a generational change in West Germany from the late-1960s challenged that view, though it never fully disappeared. The reappearance of an anti-Russian discourse has yet again brought to the fore the intricacies of remembering Nazism, the war, and its end in Germany.

The German VE Day

The complexities of German public memory have their origins in the intricacy of the the end of the war. That big date – May 8 1945 – was experienced differently throughout Germany and its occupied territories.

In the town Monschau, in the Eifel region, the war ended in September 1944. The Americans took the town without any resistance and for the rest of the war the good people of Monschau went about rebuilding a postwar society. So May 8 made no real difference to the northern Eifel region.

Other areas, by contrast, witnessed ferocious fighting right up until and even after 8 May 1945. The Dutch island of Texel, about 50km north of Amsterdam, played host to absurd fights between German soldiers and Georgian auxiliaries until May 20.

The Silesian city of Breslau/Wrocław lived up to its name – Festung Breslau (fortress Breslau) – with fierce fighting until May 6. Berlin was torn to bits in the final months of the war with widespread civilian casualties and victims of sexual violence.

So no decisive day here. And even once the fighting had stopped the war continued for many Germans. Expulsions, local violence, expropriation as well as coping with the devastation of German towns and cities meant that May 8 remained a contentious and complex date in Germany history.

Nevertheless, decades of introspection, painful (and almost tortured) self-criticism, and expositions of the “sins of the fathers” transformed the German public sphere – especially since reunification – into a forum for critical memory.

The mature response

It has become commonplace to hold up German commemoration of the war as a standard-bearer for other societies to follow: mature, self-critical, open. What other society would dedicate a large chunk or prime real estate in the centre of their capital to remind themselves of their own crimes?

Yet some very obvious cracks are beginning to emerge. The current vein of anti-Russian feeling throughout Europe has certainly had an effect on commemoration in Germany. Many now think it fair to write the Russian victory out of the memory of World War II.

Rather than foregrounding German responsibility, public discussion has focused on Russian connivance in abusing history. And in September last year President Joachim von Gauck used his speech in Gdańsk on the 70th anniversary of the German attack on Poland to warn of contemporary Russian aggression.

Yes, this could be a belated reaction to 40 years of wooden Soviet war remembrance in the former GDR. But there is evidence that this is a broader challenge to the established memory morals of German public discourse.

Muddied moral grammar

Last summer, at the height of the Gaza conflict, I witnessed four teenagers waving a Palestinian flag on top of one of the stone pillars of the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin. They were chased away by two security guards. They also happened to have an “immigrant background”, to use the German word (Migrationshintergrund).

This blurring of current events with the Holocaust was also seen during last year’s spike in anti-Semitic incidents, when some muddled up global political issues with the history and memory of the Holocaust.

The moral grammar surrounding the Holocaust, the war, and its end has been an absolute certainty for at least three decades, embedded into the education system. Yet this concept of Vergangenheitsbewältigung (critical engagement with the past) – in part borne out of the History Workshop movement of the late-70s and 1980s – assumed a common social relationship to the German past.

And now there have been suggestions that the memory culture of German responsibility is beginning to unravel in the education system, especially among young people with an immigrant background.

A poll from 2010 for example, published in the German newspaper Die Zeit, highlighted ambiguous German-Turkish attitudes towards the Holocaust. Around half of the respondents felt Holocaust memory should be a central issue for all Germans, yet 68% also admitted to knowing little about the Nazi past.

Story continues below…

And the Federal Agency for Civic Education has documented a growing trend among school children with an immigrant background to link the Holocaust to Middle Eastern politics, which also leads to a rejection of the relationship between Jewish victims and German responsibility.

German Green politicians Cem Özdemir and Sven Christian Kindler have also highlighted the connection between a rejection of Holocaust memory and present-day politics. And similar developments are also happening in France, as Mark Lilla recently pointed out.

Of course this is also part of a general “Holocaust fatigue”, yet the underlying politics of it all is worrying. In a climate in which memory is being re-politicised, politicians would do well to heed these telltale signs of a growing challenge to German moral memory.

By James Koranyi, Lecturer in History at Durham University

This article originally appeared in theconversation.com

The Conversation

For more news from Germany, join us on Facebook and Twitter.

The Local (news@thelocal.de)

Facebook Twitter Google+ reddit

Your comments about this article

Today's headlines
Anger as Berlin scraps Turkey concert on Armenia genocide
The Dresden Symphony Orchestra. Photo: DPA

Germany's foreign ministry Tuesday scrapped a planned symphony performance on the Armenian "genocide" in its Istanbul consulate, sparking accusations that it was caving in to Turkish pressure.

Obama to visit Berlin in last presidential trip to Germany
President Barack Obama and Chancellor Angela Merkel during a Berlin trip in 2013. Photo: DPA.

The White House announced on Tuesday that US President Barack Obama will be paying one last unexpected visit to the German capital - his last before he leaves office.

Hostility towards minorities 'widespread in Bavaria'
A village in southern Bavaria. Photo: DPA.

Hate and hostility towards groups deemed to be different are not just sentiments felt by fringe extremists, a new report on Bavaria shows.

Hated RB Leipzig emerge as shock challengers to Bayern
RB Leipzig. Photo: DPA

RB Leipzig's remarkable unbeaten start to the Bundesliga season has seen them suddenly emerge at the head of the pack chasing reigning champions and league leaders Bayern Munich.

Munich taxi driver in hospital after attack by British tourists
Photo: DPA

A taxi driver had to be hospitalized in Munich on Monday evening after three British tourists refused to pay their fare and then attacked him.

German police carry out nationwide anti-terror raids
Police outside a building in Jena during raids on Tuesday. Photo: DPA

Police forces in five German states carried out raids on Tuesday morning with the aim of tackling the financing of terror groups, police in Thuringia have reported.

The Local List
10 ways German completely messes up your English
Photo: DPA

So you've mastered German, but now it's time to learn English all over again.

Iconic German church being eroded away by human urine
Ulm Minster towering over the rest Ulm surrounding the Danube. Photo: Pixabay

It will now cost you €100 to spend a penny. That’s if you get caught choosing to pee against the world-famous Ulm Minster.

German small arms ammo exports grow ten-fold
Photo: DPA

The government has come in for criticism after new figures revealed that Germany exported ten times the quantity of small arms ammunition in the first half of 2016 as in the same period last year.

14-year-old stabs 'creepy clown' in prank gone wrong
File photo: DPA.

A 16-year-old in Berlin decided he wanted to scare some friends, but his plot backfired in a violent way.

Germany's 10 most weird and wonderful landmarks
Sponsored Article
Last chance to vote absentee in the US elections
10 things you never knew about socialist East Germany
How Germans fell in love with America's favourite squash
How I ditched London for Berlin and became a published author
12 clever German idioms that'll make you sound like a pro
23 fascinating facts you never knew about Berlin
9 unmissable events to check out in Germany this October
10 things you never knew about German reunification
10 things you're sure to notice after an Oktoberfest visit
Germany's 10 most Instagram-able places
15 pics that prove Germany is absolutely enchanting in autumn
10 German films you have to watch before you die
6 things about Munich that’ll stay with you forever
10 pieces of German slang you'll never learn in class
Ouch! Naked swimmer hospitalized after angler hooks his penis
Six reasons why Berlin is now known as 'the failed city'
15 tell-tale signs you’ll never quite master German
7 American habits that make Germans very, very uncomfortable
Story of a fugitive cow who outwitted police for weeks before capture
Eleven famous Germans with surnames that'll make your sides split
The best ways to get a visa as an American in Germany
jobs available
Toytown Germany
Germany's English-speaking crowd