Tuesday 1 September 2009

Being German 70 years after the beginning of World War II

I suppose this is a topic on which so much has been written and so much could be written that a blog post is the least appropriate thing to write.

Yet, if you ask me how it is being a German 70 years after the beginning of World War II, I can only say that the concept of war is so unreal, so unthinkable for me due to the way I have been raised as a German citizen and thanks to the way in which I have become a European that I can only be grateful to be a German born into this generation.

We do not celebrate any military victory of ours, we have no stories of war heroes, no great minds and fighters, brave and strong in the face of the enemy. What we have are murderers and cowards, simple people drawn into the army, and young boys forced to fight for nothing at the end of the war. We have destruction and death, disgust and disgrace.

For me as a German, war is nothing but evil - and I am glad it is this way, because there is no single reason or anecdote in our socialisation that makes us like war, weapons, or the killing of others.

When the war started 70 years ago, my grandparents were young children or not even born. When my parents were born, over a decade had past since the end of this most murderous of all wars. When I was born, several decades had past since this 1st of September 1939 in which the myth of the nation, the ideal of the gun, the predominance of horror started to dig their own grave into which millions and millions of human beings were pulled before it was finalised.

70 years later, being German for me doesn't mean to feel guilty for the past, it means to feel responsible for the future.

If my ancestors and their friends and families were ready to go into such a war and to execute the atrocities of the Holocaust, then it could be that people like me would do it again, unless we use this pain deeply fixed into our minds to prevent this from ever happening again - not just here, not just in Europe, but anywhere where people invest most of their time, and money, and effort, and human lives to kill others for the sake of a horrible higher good, be it the nation, the race, or the religion.

70 years later, we as Germans cannot make the past undone, but we can use our collective memory to tell our story, a story in which we win by losing, in which we are happy not to be the winners, feeling ashamed for what has been done in "our" name in the past.

70 years later, I am European because I was raised as a post-war German in a Europeanised and re-unified Germany, and I live in the hope that anyone coming after me will still be post-war and never pre-war again.


Unknown said...

great piece!

D Haiduc said...

Exactly how I feel. Thanks for writing it down!

Eva Peña said...

Great post! So upright and humble. I will mention it specifically in my post today.
You say many things without saying... and we know who is to blame and who is not.
But now we are building our future together. That's the only thing that matters.

Insideur said...

As a non-German, very interesting. I have many many German friends, but never really discussed their feelings about The War, or war in general.

As I think you also imply, perhaps your country's lack of national military heroes is actually a real strength. Memories of people and events linked to a country's history can always be twisted by those in power for political ends.

One of the things I like about Germany is that it's a country that is getting on with building the future, instead of constantly seeking to remember past glories or being beholden to ossified political traditions.

Anonymous said...

Good piece! I think our generation which lived in peace and prosperity (yes, even us in the Soviet block) and has never experienced the horrors of the World War II needs to be reminded of it. It's easy for us to only scold the EU for regulating the sale of light-bulbs, being undemocratic, elitist and many others. But, just look at those pictures from the war, just 70 (!!!) years ago. We have come a long way, haven't we? And this is what the EU is about.

expedition_zero@hotmail.com said...

Hi there, I am a Canadian university student studying German and I have a few questions and comments.
My professor was born and raised in West Germany and moved to Canada after university (before the fall of the wall). With the recent anniversary of the fall of the wall, she gave our small class some insight into her life there, such as experiences visiting East Germany, and other everyday things, like customs and traditions. Today, she played the German National Anthem for us to listen to, seeing as we may hear it during the Winter Olympics if Germany wins any gold. She told us that she's not sure how it is in Germany today for the current generation, but when she was there as a child and teenager the playing of the national anthem sometimes made her cringe, bringing back realizations of WW2 and German war crimes. She said that she loves Germany and is not ashamed to be German, but that she feels some shame over past events. She said when she was 15 years old she came to visit family here in Canada and visited her cousins highschool for a day. At all Canadian highschools then and now, the anthem is played in the morning and we all stand and sing...she said at that moment she kind of had alarms going off in her head, as if being Nationalistic itself should be forbidden. I was wondering what your thoughts are on this and your own insights. Thank you.

Julien Frisch said...


There is still a cautious approach to anything nationalistic, including the use of national symbols like the flag of the anthem.

After the football (soccer) world cup in the Germany in 2006, the use of these symbols during sports events has been somewhat eased, but you will rarely see the singing of the anthem in other occasions than sports events, official political gatherings with national character or diplomatic receptions.

Having been raised in that way I find it natural, but I am also glad that the extend to which we use references to "the nation" is limited - especially knowing how the overuse of national(istic) references and argumentations can easily be used against critics and the defence of "national interests" is probably the most important justification of human rights violations in the world.