A strife-torn continent finds inner peace
Markus Meckel, who helped shape German unity, makes the case for a European culture of remembrance.
For a long time, the First World War was given little attention in Germany, being largely eclipsed by the Second World War. Now, on the 100th anniversary of its start, we are being overwhelmed by a growing flood of events and debates. What is striking, though, is the fact that most of them focus on the war’s outbreak, with Australian historian Christopher Clark’s widely read and discussed book The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 setting the pace, so to speak.
Besides attention being oddly confined to the crisis of July 1914 and the war’s start on 1 August of that year, what has largely been ignored is the fact that the First World War took place not only in the west but also in the east of the European continent, where in some respects it took a completely different form. So far, there has been little discussion of the effects of this cataclysm on the entire 20th century as an age of extremes and violence. And yet we can draw long lines from the First World War that extend throughout the last century right up to the present day. Without this war, Russia’s so-called October Revolution of 1917 would not have happened in the way it did; and if it had not been for this war and its consequences in the wake of the Versailles peace treaty, Hitler would probably not have attracted the following that laid the ground for the Nazis’ reign of terror and the Second World War.
Today, a lot of lessons can be learned from the First World War. In pre-war Europe, we see across the continent a civil society championing the cause of peace – but at the same time too weak to exercise political influence at the decisive moment or even to make its voice heard in national public debates. Diplomacy fails and the military makes the decisions.
With the United States’ entry into the war in 1917, the issue of democracy is placed on the European agenda. The League of Nations is founded in 1920, providing an institutional basis for international law, but initially much too weak. After the First World War, however, the Americans leave Europe. It is a mistake they will not repeat after the Second World War: throughout the postwar era, the transatlantic relationship will become a vital issue for Europe. The United Nations, established in 1945 in the wake of the Second World War, is to enjoy greater success – but refining the organisation’s shape remains a challenge up to the present day.
Another thing we can learn from the First World War is how not to make peace. This applies first to the separate peace instituted in the East by the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, which was concluded in February 1918 between Soviet Russia and the so-called Central Powers of Germany, Austria-Hungary, Turkey and Bulgaria, and then, following the same pattern, to the 1919 Treaty of Versailles. The Versailles Treaty, which assigned the sole blame for the war to Germany and which Germans felt was a humiliation, paved the way for the acceptance of Hitler by wide sections of the German population. Even today, the Treaty of Trianon remains an unprocessed Hungarian trauma that continues to cause Hungary’s neighbours a sense of disquiet.
The Second World War, on the other hand, began 75 years ago, shortly after the Hitler-Stalin Pact was concluded. This pact was, more than we generally realise, an incisive experience for our eastern neighbours since, following the German invasion of Poland on 1 September 1939, Soviet troops attacked Poland from the east on 17 September, waged war against Finland and, in 1940, occupied the Baltic states, from which they deported large sections of the population.
This chapter of history – little known in the West even today – in no way diminishes the crimes committed by the Germans across Europe during the Second World War, especially in the eastern part of the continent. What it does show, though, is that we as Germans and Europeans must open up our own culture of remembrance and commemoration to the experiences of our partners and fellow EU members in the East. It is of great importance for Europe as a whole that we engage in dialogue with them, acknowledge and take seriously their experiences and traumas and include these in a European discourse. The current events in Ukraine in particular awaken memories there and lead to reactions that are connected with this episode and must be taken seriously by all of us.
In 1945, we Germans and the whole of Europe were liberated from National Socialism by the Allied Powers. Even though most Germans at the time experienced this rather as the collapse of their country, today Germans acknowledge that we have every reason to be grateful to our former enemies – including the successor states of the Soviet Union, who paid the greatest price in terms of lives lost. At the same time, we must not forget that in the eastern half of Europe this liberation was not followed by freedom and democracy, as it was in the West, but by Communist dictatorships that endured until 1989. At the celebrations in 2015 to mark the 70th anniversary of the liberation, it is essential that we do not forget this part of the story.
Up to the present day, Europe’s culture of remembrance has paid too little attention to the year 1989, although for a large portion of the European continent it has a similar significance to the year 1945 for the West. To this extent, Europe remains divided in terms of its remembrance policies. We Germans in particular, with our experience of both systems, should take on the challenge of combining these different traditions and actively support this process at the European level as well.
In November 2014, it will be 25 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Looking back on past ceremonies commemorating this event prompts me to point out that, if we take seriously the way in which historical events unfolded, we must ensure that our neighbours and partners in the Central European revolution of 1989 – Poles, Hungarians, Czechs and Slovaks – are our especially honoured guests at all the celebrations marking this anniversary. It was the masses that brought about the fall of the Wall in the Peaceful Revolution. But the Peaceful Revolution in Germany was part of a larger, peaceful, historic process of change in Central Europe – the fall of the Berlin Wall on 9 November 1989 symbolising the victory of this Central European revolution. The former Allies and all other European neighbours are equally welcome, of course – but as participants in this revolution the Central Europeans must be our natural choice as guests of honour! Unfortunately, that has not always been taken into account in the past. The victory of freedom threw open the door to German unity, which then had to be negotiated with the victorious powers of the Second World War.
The celebrations to mark the 25th anniversary of German unity on 3 October 2015 will pay particular tribute to the role of the former Allies in this process. It was the successful conclusion of the Two Plus Four negotiations that paved the way for Germany to regain its national unity. It was the victorious powers that accepted the sovereignty of a united Germany. Even so, in 2015 we Germans should not forget, as we have in the past, that in the Second World War Poles, too, fought side by side with the Allies on many fronts and helped to liberate us. At the Potsdam Conference, which was held shortly after the end of the war in 1945 to redraw the map of Germany and determine the country’s political future, only the Soviet Union, the United States and Britain were represented – but the Western Allies then included France, which had fought alongside them under the leadership of Charles de Gaulle. In Eastern Europe, Stalin denied the Poles a similar role. Today, 70 years on, we should not continue to forget the role played by Poland in our liberation but instead pay tribute to it by inviting Polish representatives to attend all the events being held with the former Allies in 2015.
Even today, Germany’s culture of remembrance and commemoration is still highly divided, with little emphasis on integration. For some, it’s all about National Socialism or the Holocaust. Others commemorate the expulsions, without always considering their causes and the circumstances that led to them. All too often, the Communist dictatorship is viewed merely as part of the East’s/East Germany’s regional history – and not as part of German and European postwar history concerning all of us. Too little attention is given to the international dimensions of the Cold War. In Germany, the two world wars are thought about less and less; public remembrance often neglects the profound experiences and consequences they engendered, focusing instead on the experience of Nazi dictatorship and the atrocities of the Holocaust. The fact that so many anniversaries of significance for the 20th century fall together in this and the coming year should be seen by us as a challenge to put the different historical events into better perspective. I believe the Volksbund Deutsche Kriegsgräberfürsorge also has a role to play here. Working together with other institutions devoted to public remembrance, it should help to create a greater public and societal awareness than in the past of the way in which these different dimensions of 20th-century events are interlinked.
Especially given the current debates on Europe, it is important to emphasise that the European Union is, in a way, the incarnation of lessons learned from the horrors of war in the first half of the last century. One hundred years ago, wars were still considered a normal policy instrument to safeguard national interests. Today, we know that peace is secured and strengthened not by the law of the jungle but by the rule of law, by the peaceful balance of interests and by strong international institutions.
The First World War can show us how to avoid making the same mistakes. And so we can learn a number of lessons from it. Ideally, this learning process should take the form of debates, not just at national but also at European level. That’s why I’m glad that the European Parliament has taken up the suggestion to hold a debate this spring on the First World War and its consequences; and that the German Bundestag plans to hold a commemorative debate on the subject on 3 July 2014, at which Alfred Grosser has been invited to speak. This will initiate an urgently needed discourse. At the end of the First World War, great empires collapsed and new nation-states were (re-)created. Before 2018, it is important that we establish a European discourse on commemoration of the First World War that prevents us from reverting to a purely national culture of remembrance. ■
was one of the principal figures of the Peaceful Revolution of 1989. Following the GDR’s first free elections in spring 1990, he was, as Foreign Minister along with Hans-Dietrich Genscher, one of the representatives of the two German states at the Two Plus Four talks with the victorious powers of the Second World War that paved the way for German unity. From 1990 to 2009, the Social Democrat was a member of the German Bundestag. Today, Markus Meckel’s public offices include that of President of the Volksbund Deutsche Kriegsgräberfürsorge, an organisation that takes care of German war graves.