“We lost this war, it is difficult to commemorate it”. In the voice of the German historian Gerd Krumeich, we can detect a hint of bitterness. Not nostalgia, but rather the regret that his country does not mark the official centenary of the First world War. On the other side of the Rhine, the commemorations of 11 November, did not arouse the same enthusiasm as in France. Germany, a country belligerent on the side of the losers, has never organized tribute official to the soldiers who died in the fighting between 1914 and 1918.
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“The president of germany, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, made a speech this Friday in the Bundestag, says Jörn Leonhard, German historian from the university of Freiburg. But he focused on the 9 November 1918, that is to say, the end of the Empire and the beginning of the Weimar Republic, eclipsing the 11 November”. Exercise is indeed difficult for the German political class, which must commemorate a heavy defeat, regarded even today as “the original catastrophe” of the Twentieth century.
“The treaty of Versailles is still perceived as an injustice in Germany”, note Agathe Bernier-Monod, germanist and historian teaching at the university of le Havre. This “Diktat”, requiring repairs to mega-buck would have contributed to the failure of the Weimar Republic. “Armistice day is not celebrated, it is not a symbol of lasting peace for them, but a phase of crisis.” A crisis that will lead, some years later, to nazism.
The First world War is not studied as an isolated event in Germany. “The vocabulary used is significant, reports Jörn Leonhard. The Germans do not speak of the Great War but of the first of the two world wars. They associate the two together.” Isabelle Bourgeois, a specialist in economic and social issues German and moderator of the site Tandem Europe, abounds: “14-18 was a deep shock for the French. We find the same state of shock for the Germans, but in 45”.
“The patriotic values and heroic have been stolen by Hitler”
There is so much more complicated to organize official ceremonies in Germany, that the memory of the conflict of 14-18 a long time was captured by the extreme right for political purposes. “It is the theory of the stab in the back, analysis Gerd Krumeich. The midpoints of the right and the far right accuse the revolutionaries and the jews to be at the origin of the armistice. They rely on the argument that in 1918, Germany asks for armistice suddenly as the war does not seem to complete. Persists and the idea of an army undefeated but betrayed. Thus, there is a memory line and a memory left from this war, and for a long time there has been no common memory”.
added to this Is the impossibility for Germany to celebrate his army. “How can we qualify our soldiers heroes? It is impossible. The values of patriotic and heroic have been stolen by Hitler, any commemoration would be as well associated to something of a nationalist,” said Isabelle Bourgeois. On the contrary,
“The soldiers lose their uniforms and becoming human
France, which pays tribute to his poilus: “there is a certain national pride of the French, pride that does not exist in Germany. It is famous instead of the civilian casualties, the soldiers lose their uniforms and become “human”.
The places of memory of 14-18 are thus not very visible. There is nothing equivalent to the tomb of the unknown Soldier. Of the monuments still exist at the local level, but “cares very little” emphasizes Gerd Krumeich. “It must not be forgotten that the war has not taken place among us,” adds the historian. It was held outside and the soldiers were very happy to avoid that the conflict moves on to our territory. This also explains why his memory is less important, it has left few traces”.
“We don’t celebrate wars in Germany”
most Importantly, “we don’t celebrate wars in Germany”, says Gerd Kurmeich. The pacifism rooted in the political culture of germany wishes that the public opinion is reluctant to any form of commemoration of an armed conflict. This does not mean that the Germans are not interested in this period of history. On the contrary, the centenary has even rekindled their curiosity. Cultural events around the issue have been organised at the level of the German federal States or in some museums. “Since 2014 and the start of the centenary celebrations, many Germans have rediscovered the First world War, rejoices Jörn Leonhard. There is a growing interest, as one sees in sales of books on this period, but also to the topics covered in the debate.”
The presidents of france and germany commemorate the 70 years of the First world War, at Verdun. MARCEL MOCHET/AFP
An optimism that does not share Gerd Krumeich: “the specialists are more listened to, there are cultural events, but the heart is not there. We are ready to participate in other countries but not in us.” The German political class is, in fact, makes regularly in France to celebrate the franco-German relationship and the european unit. One of the most famous images, remains the historic handshake between François Mitterrand and Helmut Kohl in Verdun on 22 September 1984. “I think it is important to have a european approach, but we also need something in Germany, to manage our memory as a nation that has been beaten,” says Jörn Leonhard.