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Think Piece: Do Mention the War! A German Perspective

Thursday 12 May, 2016

Martin BayerIf one had asked the ordinary German what he or she knew about the First World War some years ago, most would have stated that it must have existed, as there was a Second World War. In fact, the latter, and even more so the Nazi tyranny and the Holocaust, overshadow any other event in German history. In the past decades, the Great War became a rather forgotten conflict.

Losing a war after all that bloodletting needs a different set of explanations than winning it, and from the beginning it was highly contested territory. This was made more so because German monarchy ceased to exist, and the democratic Weimar Republic went through difficult times. Thus a single narrative could not be established.

In 1919, the Volksbund Kriegsgräberfürsorge (German War Graves Commission) proposed Volkstrauertag as Germany’s national day of mourning for the First World War. For various reasons, this day was not established as a national holiday, nor was a central monument like the Australian War Memorial, ever built.

When the Nazis took power in 1933, they tried to establish their own myths based on the heroic sacrifice of undefeated warriors. According to them the war had been lost due to a “stab in the back” by “Jewish Bolsheviks”.

The Second World War came with even larger losses for Germany, huge destruction of the homeland, and the reality of the Holocaust as a massive rupture in civilisation. It would become the negative founding myth of both the post-war East and West German states, although was quite differently expressed in each.  In West Germany, the war memorials simply received a second plaque to remember the dead of 1939-1945. In East Germany the First World War was regarded as an imperialistic conflict that had nothing to do with the new “anti-Fascist” state.  Thus, the old memorials were often neglected and sometimes removed. The commemorative days of both states focused on the Second World War, with respective political agendas on top.

Unified Germany commemorates Volkstrauertag in mid-November, but contrary to Anzac Day or Britain’s Remembrance Day, it hardly gets public attention beyond the laying of wreaths by officials. In 2014, however, countless publications, documentaries and exhibitions about the First World War were showered on the German public, resulting in what some called a “barrage of memory”.  They all emphasised the transnational and socio-cultural aspects of the First World War. They had a strong focus on the effect of war on civilian life, including the post-war societies that emerged, filled with traumatised and often unemployed veterans.

While Germany would benefit from a more holistic approach to its history, Australian commemoration may be enriched by expanding its transnational perspectives. The centenary of the First World War thus provides ample opportunity for our societies to exchange our experiences and approaches to commemoration, in a meaningful and lasting way.

Martin Bayer is an academic based in Berlin, Germany.  His work focusses on the cultural dimensions of war. Martin completed a study on the First World War Centenary for the German Foreign Office and is currently working on a PhD at Freie Universität Berlin comparing the contemporary commemoration of the First World War in Germany with commemorations undertaken in the United Kingdom and Australia. Martin is a visiting scholar who gave a lecture on “Rediscovering History: The First World War Centenary in Germany” as part of South Australia’s 2016 History Festival presented by History SA.  Martin will be returning to South Australia in 2017.

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