World War I is Germany’s forgotten conflict
On the streets of Berlin, you can’t help but be reminded of the horrors of World War II.
The stark concrete slabs of the Holocaust memorial stand just outside the city’s Brandenburg Gate. Then there are the thousands of brass “stumbling stones” carefully set into the city’s sidewalks, memorializing victims of the Holocaust. In Germany, it’s called Erinnerungskultur, a “culture of remembrance” that takes an unflinching look into the darkest corners of the country’s history.
Yet, when it comes to remembering World War I, there are far fewer memorials. At the Columbiadamm Cemetery in Berlin more than 7,000 World War I soldiers are buried. The rows of crosses are kept neat and tidy but are rarely visited, said Anne-Susann Schanner, an education officer at the Berlin branch of the German National Federation for the Care of War Graves.
“Sometimes I do see flowers on the war graves. People don’t even have to go personally, they can ask us to put flowers on the grave. It happens when it’s the death date or the birthday of the deceased,” Schanner explained. “There are no witnesses left and most people don’t have that emotional connection to World War I.”
This year marks a century since the end of the Great War. In France and the UK, the end of the war is marked every November 11 as Armistice Day, when Germany surrendered and signed a peace treaty with the Allied Powers, including Britain, France and the United States.
Poppies are pinned on British lapels to remember fallen soldiers and the country pauses for two minutes of silence to mark the moment Germany surrendered. A National Service of Remembrance is held and a member of the royal family lays a wreath of poppies at the Cenotaph memorial in London.
In France, there are blue cornflowers instead of red poppies and a national holiday to remember those who died in the war. French President Emmanuel Macron is doing a week-long tour of World War I battlefields and holding commemorative events with British Prime Minister Theresa May and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, before convening a peace summit in Paris also attended by US President Donald Trump.
In Germany, however, the day is marked with muted self-reflection. This year, there will be memorial speeches in parliament accompanied by an art exhibition and a separate concert. But there is no nationwide event to mark the end of the war. For some critics, Germany has a selective memory when it comes to its culture of remembrance.
“Other European countries have already appointed commissions of World War I historians years ago, planned memorial events, built new museums. Only Germany did not do this,” said Sevim Dagdelen, a member of parliament for the left-wing Die Linke party.
She points out that until last year the German government did not organize any independent memorial events, only accepting invitations for events outside the country. “I still think that’s scandalous, that the role Germany played in WWI, as the aggressor, as the cause of WWI, was consciously denied,” she said.
Larger disaster to come
So what explains Germany’s World War I memory lapse in its culture of remembering?
It’s not just that Germany lost the war. What was the end of the war for France and Great Britain was also the beginning of a catastrophic disaster for Germany. The end of WWI changed the nation, ushering in the 1918 revolution that brought down the monarchy and installed the fractious, short-lived Weimar republic that led, ultimately, to the rise of Adolf Hitler and his Nazi regime.
In Germany, the trauma and atrocities of World War II completely overshadow the Great War and in schools, teachers often regard the events of 1914-18 simply as a prelude to the much larger disaster to come.
“The Second World War was so total from a German perspective — and the experience of defeat was much more total than in 1918 — that people have rightly and understandably obsessed about what led them to that disaster. And it’s only in that context that they give much attention to the First World War,” said professor Robert Gerwarth, director of the Centre for War Studies at University College Dublin.
“For a very long time the First World War was overshadowed by the Second World War, which is of course for Germany an even bigger war — in terms of lives lost, the level of destruction within Germany and the trauma of the Holocaust. Up until 10 years ago, whenever historians or the general public discussed the First World War it was often seen as a kind of pre-history to the Second World War.”
Furthermore, precisely because of Germany’s wartime history, the country still grapples with how to remember its war dead. At the Columbiadamm Cemetery, there is a monument to the war erected in 1925, a statue of a fallen soldier draped with a blanket, only his clenched fist visible, with his helmet and weapon laid upon him. Underneath are these words: “We died so that Germany may live. Let us live through you!”
“Propaganda used to claim that Germany will win the war,” Schanner, the education officer, explained. “They kept repeating how Germany won battles. And in the heads of the German people, that was the way it was. And then the war ended and they were shocked: ‘We lost. And we have to give away parts of our country and pay reparations.’ For many, it was a shameful peace.”
“The population had to be assured: “Yes, we lost the war, but the victims didn’t die in vain.”
Closer look at WWI
But those nationalist sentiments were warped by the fascism that swept the country under Hitler and the Nazi regime. During that time, there was a boom in memorial building, with many village churches installing a memorial to the war dead, says Schanner. “Those memorials are very glorifying of war heroes and for us, from today’s perspective, of course that’s reprehensible,” she says.
There’s particular concern that the far-right Alternative for Germany party (AfD), now that it has gained seats in the German parliament, is pushing for a nationalist revision of the country’s history. AfD co-leader Alexander Gauland recently told party members that Hitler and Nazism “were just a bird s**t in 1,000 years of successful Germany history.”
But there is also some indication that Germany is taking a closer look at its World War I history. This year, it has increased the number of commemorative events. Chancellor Merkel will hold a joint memorial with President Macron at the Compiègne Forest in France where the armistice was signed.
Most symbolic, for the first time German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier will attend Britain’s National Service of Remembrance with Prince Charles to lay a wreath at the Cenotaph. But for critics like Dagdelen, the government needs to do more.
“The German government has to be a role model for a peaceful foreign policy, which starts with a sentence by former Chancellor Willy Brandt: ‘There must never be a war started from German soil again.’ That is what we learned from German history and that has to be an obligation for us.”