Germany: The National Memory and the Second World War

Germany: The National Memory and the Second World War

The West believes that the anniversaries of the main events of World War Two have already been celebrated after organising a theatrical performance dedicated to the Normandy landings. The same World War Two event is in the American interpretation, the second element of which is the Holocaust. But as far as the Eastern Front is concerned, an American may ask: «What, did something happen there?» If memory serves, at the beginning of the 1980s there was a joint ten-part Soviet-US TV film dedicated to the Great Patriotic War that was released in America under the name The Unknown War. 

…The ‘total’ war and the total defeat have left too deep an impression in the minds of the German people. As the years go by, there are fewer and fewer living witnesses of the war’s events, but many prefer to keep silent about the war, just as Nobel literature laureate Günter Grass keep silent, only admitting that he had been a soldier in the Waffen-SS in 2006. There is a term, ‘communicative silence’, that describes the avoidance of stories about the past by Germans who had survived the war, even among their own families, which was typical in the first post-war decades. This trait created a peculiar atmosphere of solidarity in West German society that reinforced both the general resentment at the victors’ behaviour and the desire to play down the guilt of the German nation. And the more successfully this ideologised memory of the war was implanted, the more it gradually forced out personal memory.

Today, German collective memory of the Second World War already has its own story. In divided Germany, collective memory in the West and the East took shape differently, but all the time with an eye on each other. The first German post-war film made in the GDR was rejected by the British occupation authorities, but after its première in East Berlin it appeared in West German cinemas. It was called The Murderers Are Among Us. At that point, a fundamental difference revealed itself between the East and the West: in the FRG, 8 May was regarded as the day of capitulation and collapse, while in the GDR it was the day of liberation from Nazism and the birth of Germany. 

Talking about liberation in West Germany was considered hypocritical. The first federal president, Theodor Heuss, recognised that Germany was both destroyed and liberated at the same time; this kind of duality was obviously a concession to the victorious powers. Then the cold war quenched the Western powers’ impulse to carry out denazification in Western Germany and in 1965, Chancellor Ludwig Erhard once again removed any mention of liberation from official speeches regarding the end of the war. 

Social democrat Willy Brandt (chancellor from 1969-1974) referred to himself as the chancellor of a liberated Germany to the huge indignation of his conservative opponents. It is generally believed that just 40 years after the end of the war, Germany’s entire political class had come to an understanding that the German people were liberated in 1945. This can be heard in a speech by Federal President Richard von Weizsäcker. When he died on 31 January 2015, his 1985 speech was recalled as part of the memorial events, but without placing any emphasis on the idea of liberation. Now, however, this emphasis has been placed: liberation from Nazism came to the Germans from overseas. (We should stress: never, not even under Stalin, did the USSR claim to be the «liberator» of the Germans, although Moscow used to extend its congratulations to the leaders of the GDR on the anniversaries of the «liberation of the German people from the tyranny of Nazism». It should also be remembered that Stalin tried to prevent Germany’s post-war division.) 

During the 1980s, the war on the Eastern Front was still well remembered in the FRG and this was largely due to the fact that the date was celebrated in the GDR. The leaders of East Germany not only referred to their republic as the first state of workers and peasants on German soil, but also the first anti-fascist state. And in fact they themselves were anti-fascists. Walter Ulbricht was one of the founders of the German Communist Party, he worked underground after Hitler came to power and then emigrated to Moscow. Erich Honecker was arrested by the Gestapo in 1935 and imprisoned until the end of the war. German anti-fascists were honoured in the GDR, whereas the West tried to forget about them. By way of example, the burgomaster of Königsbronn said that erecting a monument to Georg Elser, who carried out an assassination attempt on Hitler in 1939, was the same as immortalising the memory of terrorists from the Red Army Faction (a far-left militant group that operated in West Germany at the beginning of the 1970s). A monument to Elser was only erected in his hometown of Königsbronn in 2010. 

Meanwhile, the first chancellor of the FRG, Konrad Adenauer, believed that the Germans needed to suppress their memories of the recent past and concentrate on reconstruction. The scale of the post-war reconstruction was colossal, since in many of the cities less than 30 per cent of the buildings were still standing. An irony of fate is that in Munich, which Hitler regarded as the birthplace of fascism, the royal palace of the Wittelsbachs was reduced to rubble, while both buildings of the National Socialist Party survived. In Nuremberg, 90 per cent of the buildings were rebuilt after the war. The most well-known of the newly-reconstructed cities, Dresden, was almost totally destroyed by Anglo-American bombing in February 1945. The destruction of Dresden by Western allies, along with Würzburg and Rothenburg, are united by the fact that these cities were not of military significance. Why the order was given to destroy these cultural centres is not a question that has been debated in Germany. Relatively recently, German historians even revised the number of victims of the Dresden bombings, significantly reducing the number of deaths compared to what had been previously believed. In Germany, it is unacceptable to point out that a multitude of ‘ancient’ monuments are, in fact, post-war new builds. It is also considered improper to remind their NATO allies how American and British carpet bombing wiped German cities from the face of the earth. 

Monuments to the women who worked on clearing the rubble are also looked upon modestly today, although in the first years of the FRG’s existence these women were honoured as heroes. Rather than these female workers, it is the female victims of violence who are more often remembered these days. Sandra Maischberger’s weekly talk show on the German television channel ARD was dedicated to this subject at the end of March. Eighty-four-year-old pensioner Elfriede Seltenheim told viewers that the arrival of the «Russian rapists» turned out to be more horrific than Nazi propaganda had depicted it. 

In the run-up to the 70-year anniversary, some German newspapers introduced a special section devoted to history, publishing materials related to the Second World War. As a general rule, these publications serve to reinforce the old stereotypes in the German collective memory, sometimes giving them new shades. 

Recognition of the German people’s guilt for the Holocaust is still the centre of attention, but ideally with a happy ending (Süddeutsche Zeitung recently published an article recounting how the bombing of Dresden «saved» a Jewish child) (1). In Germany, the basis for the Germans’ deep repentance to the Jews was laid by Chancellor Brandt: today, his name is associated with a visit to the Warsaw Ghetto (in 1970), during which the politician knelt before a monument to victims of the Holocaust. The Holocaust memorial in Berlin is currently regarded as a materialisation of the collective memory of Germans regarding their historical guilt for the outbreak of the Second World War. This deformation of collective memory has also been actively encouraged by the Americans, including through the showing of a US mini-series entitled Holocaust in 1979 (directed by Marvin Chomsky). 

The fact that the war in the East was radically different from the war waged by the Third Reich in the West has been completely forgotten. In the East, the Germans waged a war of annihilation (Vernichtungskrieg) against the USSR. Losses in the USSR among the civilian population alone exceeded seven million people. Few refer to the treatment of Soviet prisoners of war in German concentration camps as cruel and inhumane. There were times when local Germans were brought in to see how «subhumans» die from hunger. Is this known to the inhabitants of today’s united Germany? In 1936, Hitler said: «If the Urals with their incalculable raw materials, Siberia with its rich forests, and the Ukraine with its incalculable farmlands lay in Germany, it would under Nazi leadership swim in surplus». Evidently, someone in Ukraine thinks that this is the end of the quote, that the Führer promised this surplus to the Ukrainians. In reality, Hitler ends the quote like this: «...every single German would have more than enough to live». How fiercely this fantasy has been played out by the modern-day worshippers of National Socialism in Ukraine! One needs only remember the «Miss Ostland» competition that was organised last autumn on the social networking site VKontakte (journalists renamed it «Miss Hitler»). And even though the competition was organised from Kiev and those competing for the dubious title were predominantly Ukrainian girls, Bild, the biggest German newspaper, wrote that this is how Russian internet users amuse themselves.

Publications emerging in Germany today are diligently avoiding any mention of the battles on the Eastern Front, but are in no way shying away from writing about the advance of American troops in Europe: they recount the tank ‘battle’ in Cologne, for example, during which three Brits were killed by a single German tank; or they write that the final stage of the Second World War apparently began with the capture of Aachen. They readily report details of the American landing at Okinawa. 

Some German politicians are openly condemning Russia for carrying out military parades in honour of the anniversary of Victory in the Great Patriotic War. A statement in exactly this vein was made by the chairman of the Bundestag’s Committee on Foreign Affairs, Norbert Röttgen (CDU), who accused Russia of using history to justify its foreign policy. And here we could mention something else: about how Germany is exploiting the «military glory» of the soldiers of Hitler’s Wehrmacht to increase the morale of the Bundeswehr! Some barracks are even being named in honour of these ‘heroes’. A foundation affiliated with the German Bundeswehr bears the name of Theodor Molinari, a man whose name is included in the ‘Brown Book’ on war and Nazi criminals in the FRG and West Berlin (published in 1968). Field Marshal Erich von Manstein, who was pardoned in 1953, appears on the same page. Manstein’s memoirs are entitled Lost Victories (published in 1955), which is quite conceited for a man who was sentenced to 18 years in prison by a British military court in 1950. For decades, this kind of literature laid the groundwork for the myth regarding the unsullied honour of Wehrmacht, which fought valiantly. The myth was so deeply ingrained in the minds of Germans that the first attempt to discredit it was stopped. This was at the end of the 1990s, when an exhibition on the crimes committed by the Wehrmacht had to be cut short and closed after being shown in 33 German cities. In the run-up to the 70th anniversary of Germany’s surrender, there is a completely different exhibition being shown that was opened at the Bundestag with some fanfare in the autumn of 2014 on the German soldiers and participants of the Bundeswehr’s peacekeeping efforts around the world. 

The ‘communicative silence’ and cultivation of the German people’s collective consciousness continues. 

P.S. This article was received by the editorial office before it became known that Günter Grass, whose name is mentioned in the article, had passed away on 13 April 2015. This sad news prompts us to remember that for Germany, Grass was not just a writer. Gerhard Schröder hits the nail on the head when he says that Grass gave German society a mirror in which contemporaries saw themselves without embellishment. As a man from the generation of Germans who grew up during the Second World War and acknowledged responsibility for the crimes of German Nazism, he was for a long time unable to find the strength to admit that he had fought with the 10th SS Panzer Division Frundsberg. At the same time, this tragic experience from his early youth determined Grass’ attitude towards war as a catastrophe that must not be tolerated. Günter Grass was one of the few influential social and political figures who did not welcome the reunification of Germany in 1989-1990. He believed that reunification could lead to a revival of militarism. Schröder also recalls the significance that Grass’ hardline position against involvement in the Iraq war had for him personally and for German society as a whole. Later, in 2012, Grass dared to do something that nobody else would in Germany for reasons of political correctness: he openly condemned Israel for its confrontational policy regarding Iran and criticised the fact that German submarines were being supplied to Israel. At that time, Grass also condemned the European Union’s policy towards Greece «laid out like a naked debtor on the pillory». 

Time inevitably takes away people who were able to remember how the Second World War actually was and had the courage to remind their fellow citizens of it.

(1) Zerstörung von Dresden rettete Michals Bruder das Leben/ Süddeutsche Zeitung, 12.02.2015