All quiet on the Western front: Germans want to forget WWI

Berlin’s Historical Museum got the shockingly small collection of the World War I exhibits. After going through a lot of displays on the grand progress of the 19th century, it could be found in a simple corner of the upstairs gallery.

A few guns and helmets, the military uniform of Kaiser Wilhelm II, few posters and a quick primer on the world politics of the time can be found there in a small room. And that’s all for the Western front opened by German army and the unprecedented ‘total war’ that killed millions, that gave birth to the modern chemical warfare and rewrote the history of Europe.  Even more space has been devoted just downstairs for the post war six years.

It feels almost like to be offended to an Australian. This is the war that is considered to mark the birth of national consciousness in Australia, specially the Gallipoli campaign.  It’s a horror that could never be forgotten. Gallipoli is not mentioned anywhere except for one line in a multimedia program on the computer.

British, French, and Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZACs) infantrymen fighting from the trenches in France

Photo Story: British, French, and Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZACs) infantrymen fighting from the trenches in France. Photo: Courtesy of the Australian War Memorial

Museum curator Juliane Haubold-Stolle is apologetic about it mentioning it is not a ‘strong part’ of their exhibition. She says that in Germany WWI is ‘overshadowed‘. She also adds “for quite a time it has been some kind of prehistory, a prologue that prepares for WWII, the real Great War for Germany.”

The rest of Europe feels in a different way. As 2014 and the hundredth anniversary of the war approaches in countries across the continent are planning for a big commemorating events. Britain, France and Italy are front runners in these preparations. In Britain a four year program is planned, which includes visiting WWI battlefields by a delegation from every secondary school, visiting a vigil at Westminster Abbey and a nationwide poppy-planting project.

In Germany they haven’t announced anything publicly. The official response from the Government was “at this point we are not giving any interviews on the topic”.  Moreover, an official at the German embassy in London has been calling for a “less declamatory tone” to Britain’s WWI commemorating events. The official also says not to focus on who was responsible for the world war.

The Daily Telegraph reported that Germany’s special envoy to the centenary of the conflict, Andreas Meitzner, held a series of meetings recently with his British counterpart about Britain’s tone and the planned events. The newspaper also mentioned that Britain’s way of marking the centenary could cool relationship between the two countries, which could also be an obstacle for a new UK-EU relationship.

The online debate prompted by the report justifies Germany’s concern.  Some historians were saying that it was “necessary fight for the survival against a Germany bent on the European domination.” This is exactly what the Germans don’t want to hear. One young Berlin professional tells me “We don’t want that one on our conscience too”.

Professor Oliver Janz, historian at the Friedrich-Meinecke Institute at the Free University of Berlin, pointed out several reasons why the Germans overlook such an important moment of history. He says “For Germany it’s a defeat”. But the biggest catastrophe is the WWII and the Holocaust.

Janz argues that countries need to create founding myths. Germany’s old founding myths hadn’t survived, so it has turned the WWII into a founding myth. So the WWI has become ‘just a prologue’ under the shadow of Nazi Germany. Haubold-Stolle explains that Germany lost the war with millions of dead and there was a pacifistic ‘never again’ reaction among the people.

On the contrary, Australia, which is half a world away, has a stronger connection with the WWI battlefields than Germany. Beside the river Somme in France, the gleaming white war graves which are scattered over the fields, are the sobering reminder of our sacrifice. The locals of Somme still embrace Australians in Gratitude of our sacrifice on the Western Front.

Haubold-Stolle says that Germans are “still debating” the World War I and that “it is time for Germany to face its past, in all its complexity”.

Nick Miller is The Age Europe correspondent.

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Mohammad Rafi Saad

Mohammad Rafi Saad is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE