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The war that we Germans really don't mention

My country has worked hard to come to terms with the second world war. That seems to have meant ignoring the first

2 August 2014

9:00 AM

2 August 2014

9:00 AM

In 1912 Kaiser Wilhelm had an ambitious task for my great-great-great uncle Karl Max von Lichnowsky. He sent him to London to be our ambassador there, with orders to try to ensure Britain’s neutrality (at the very least, in cases of conflict with Russia and France). Although Lichnowsky already had a sympathetic relationship with Britain’s foreign minister, Edward Grey, who also hoped to avoid a war, his mission failed. His personal objective — to deter the Kaiser from going to war — fell flat too. In a telegram sent on 18 July 1914 he pleaded with Kaiser Wilhelm to ‘spare the German people a war from which nothing can be gained but everything lost’. Less than a fortnight later he was on a ferry back home to Prussia, while Austrian-Hungarian, Russian and German soldiers were marching off to fight. When he arrived home, and broke news of war to her, Lichnowsky’s Bavarian-born wife Mechthilde took up a picture of Kaiser Wilhelm and flung it to the floor.

Ninety-nine years after Lichnowsky’s attempt to mediate between our two nations, in October last year, another diplomat from London’s German embassy tried once again to ensure Britain’s neutrality. Norman Walter, head of press at the embassy, suggested that the British commemorate the first world war in a ‘less declamatory tone’ by focusing more on the achievements of the European Union and less on who was to blame for the outbreak of the conflict. Walter was trying to encourage Britain to keep faith with the European project at a time of great unease, but his remarks also reflected the national mood. While the second world war is acknowledged to be an atrocity, Germans are not quite so happy to play the role of arch-villain of the first.

A memorial to commemorate fallen German soldiers in Berlin, Germany Photo: AFP/Getty

If you know where to look, there are signs of German exasperation everywhere  in this centenary year. Christopher Clarke’s The Sleepwalkers, which argues that Kaiser Wilhelm tried his utmost to avert a European conflict, is now in its sixth edition and has become Germany’s historical bestseller of the season. Most telling, maybe, is the fact that as Britain rolls out an endless series of commemorative events, films and museum exhibits, Germany has done very little in the way of remembering the event.

True, President Gauck hosted an event at castle Bellevue one day before the centenary of the Sarajevo attack, where European historians talked about their national perspectives on the war and there was an hour set aside during parliament to remember the outbreak of the war. But the Chancellor, Angela Merkel, is scheduled to attend only one more official event: on 28 October in Ypern, the town in Belgium which stands for Germany’s use of poison gas in the war. The plan, in this centenary year, seems to be to keep our heads down and hope it’s all over soon. Mrs Merkel said it herself: ‘Germany has until now not had the first world war so much in mind.’ It is almost as if the historical identity is constrained to the years between 1933 and 1945.

Perhaps the answer is that Germany has (rightly) done so much breast-beating over the second world war that it lacks the heart and the energy to do more over the first. It’s certainly true that the second world war takes centre stage in history classes across the country. I know one secondary teacher who admits that the first world war is neglected in the German school system. Her explanation is that the traumatisation that followed from the second world war is ongoing and the guilt from that overwhelms any feelings about the other. She has a direct comparison, as she teaches pupils in the German as well as the International Baccalaureate system at Salem International College. The history curriculum in the German system — issued by the cultural ministry of each state — is rigid, she says, leaving no room for teachers to stray; the state-approved books are dry and uninspiring. Germany might not yet be ready to let children explore both sides of the issue in either war and debate rights and wrongs of different countries and battles. The perspective is prescribed. By contrast, with her IB pupils she will examine the reasons for the outbreak of the war in depth, looking at all angles.


A friend who was educated both in Britain and Germany found the difference in teaching to be substantial. ‘The British system was great,’ he said. ‘All sides were looked at in a differentiated and objective manner.’ The German system he deemed rigid. Perhaps it’s easier, though, to take a balanced view from a victor’s perspective.

It makes sense, in Germany, for politicians and talking heads to keep quiet about both world wars because any strong statement either way is bound to be inflammatory.  The latest to be hit by the backlash was President Gauck. At the Munich security conference in February he talked about upping Germany’s responsibility in world politics: ‘When finally the extreme case is discussed — the deployment of the army — then Germany should neither say no out of principle nor yes out of reflex.’ The resulting media frenzy made him out to be a warmonger and countless misquotations later the debate is ongoing.

The irony is that Germany is officially the poster child for ‘Vergangenheitsbewältigung’ — coming to terms with the past. But as this strange centenary has shown, we cannot even really face the first world war, yet alone come to terms with it. I hope that will change. I feel quite sure that Lichnowsky would have wanted the Germans to be capable of discussing the outbreak of this war in a thoughtful way — or, at the very least, remember it.

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