World War One: Germany's forgotten war

Soldiers lay down a wreath at the Jewish Cemetery in Berlin Weissensee, on November 18, 2012. Image copyright AFP
Image caption Soldiers lay a wreath at the Jewish Cemetery in Weissensee, Berlin in November 2012

World War One centenary commemorations are important in the UK, but in Germany people rarely visit WW1 cemeteries. Why?

It is not true that the German government has decreed: "Don't mention the war." The diplomat organising the national commemoration is at pains to deny reports in the British press that he tried to persuade the British government not to make too much of the centenary of the start of World War One.

It's true that Andreas Meitzner who is in charge of Germany's official commemoration did visit the Foreign Office in London to discuss the anniversary, and the meeting did generate accusations in the British press that Germany was "meddling" by telling Britain how to remember the dead.

But he told the BBC that German officials had been misquoted: "I didn't propose anything to the British side. Who am I to propose anything to the Foreign Office or the Ministry of Defence?" It was, rather, a response to an invitation from the British and was an amicable discussion.

Image copyright AP

Germany will participate in a ceremony at one of the big war graves at Mons in Belgium. The country's president will probably attend, laying a wreath, though those details are yet to be worked out. The tone, according to the German diplomat, has been agreed with the British as "not jingoistic".

All the same, some historians have accused Germany of down-playing the anniversary. Professor Sonke Neitzel of the London School of Economics said: "Official Germany appears to be burying its head in the sand, hoping the anniversary will quickly pass". He feared "an insipid approach" with "cliche-ridden speeches by German politicians".

German officialdom retorts that many events are planned. And it's true that there are enough learned seminars on the way to keep a decent university history department going for months. There are exhibitions in the country's museums and galleries.

But it is also true that World War One does not grip the ordinary German imagination in the way it does the British psyche. There is not the sense of national commemoration which will provide a remembrance participated in by people of all walks of life. It is not a moment of national reflection.

In Berlin, very near Tempelhof airfield, there is a cemetery of the utmost poignancy. It is called Neuer Garnisionfriedhof and in it are buried in long, neat lines the remains of 7,200 soldiers who were killed in that first war. They were brought back severely injured from the front, and died of their wounds in the city's hospitals. Each grave is marked by a simple head-stone. Some say "unbekannte" - unknown - but others show a name and an age, giving that sad hint of an individual person behind the sorrow.

But hardly anyone visits these graves. While the British cross the Channel by the bus-load to visit the war-graves in Belgium, Berliners do not visit the graves of the war-dead on their own doorstep.

Dr Ingolf Wernicke from the organisation which tends these graves told the BBC: "Nobody is interested. I'm sorry about it. The time is far away and nobody knows what these graves are for. They are forgotten."

He regrets the fact very much and thinks it is because World War One in German consciousness was so over-shadowed by World War Two.

"All that happened in World War One was subsumed by World War Two. When I went to school here in Berlin in the 60s and 70s, we heard something about World War One but it didn't take place in Germany. It was far away."

And there may be another reason, perhaps one that helps explain German official reticence on the anniversary.

Image copyright BBC Sport

A short distance from the massed graves in their lines is a grand statue. It was erected by those in power after the war. It is a regimental remembrance, consisting of a large, black plinth on which there is a statue of a dead soldier, completely shrouded in a flag. On his chest are a broken sword and a helmet. Only one part of his body is visible: From under the shroud, the dead soldier's clenched fist sticks out into the air. Under the body is the inscription: "Wir starben, auf dass Deutschland lebe, so lasset uns leben in euch" - "We died that Germany lives, so let us live in you".

It is an admonition to the living to make good the sacrifice of the dead - "let us, the dead of war, live through you, the living".

This was a sentiment which was strong in the 20s and which caused much further catastrophe. The implication is - and was then - that Germany had lost the war because of a "stab in the back", an idea used by Hitler to foment violence against those he accused of being Germany's enemies within, principally Jews.

It may be that any official reticence over the first war is strong because to open a debate about remembrance of that first war's military victims is to open a debate about German military victims of the war which followed.

There may be no sense in Germany of a national soul-searching over the First War (as there is in Britain), but that doesn't mean that nobody is thinking about it. A book by Christopher Clark, an Australian historian based at Cambridge University, has become a run-away best-seller in its German translation. "The Sleep-walkers" analyses the run-up to the war and paints a picture of blunders and misunderstandings in the complexities of European imperial politics.

This is why Germans like the book so much, according to Michael Epkenhans, the Director of Research at the centre for military history for the German armed forces at Potsdam.

"Christopher Clark's book is selling like hot cakes," he says, "because it gives Germans the feeling that everybody has to be blamed for starting World War One and not only the Germans. You see elderly people with gleaming eyes as they listen to him lecture or read his book. They feel it tells them that many were guilty and not only Germans."

The view that Germans were especially guilty emerged immediately after the war in the Treaty of Versailles which imposed heavy reparations on Germany (a burden which, incidentally, the great British economist John Maynard Keynes warned in 1919, would lead to disaster: "But who can say how much is endurable, or in what direction men will seek at last to escape from their misfortunes?"

That debate has now been re-opened among historians in Germany by Christopher Clark's book. There will be a learned debate just before the anniversary in August.

But the nation itself is not really engaged.

There is another immense cemetery a short distance from Tempelhof. It is the Jewish cemetery at Weissensee, and among its 115,000 graves are those of more than 12,000 German Jewish soldiers who fought in World War I. Jews rallied to the flag in greater proportion than their numbers in the population warranted.

Some of the headstones at Weissensee tell heart-breaking stories of personal and national tragedy - a Jewish lad in his mid-20s, Albert Lowinsky, who died in Flanders under the German flag in 1914.

You can almost feel the tears of his parents as you stand before the stone. And what became of them?

Discover new perspectives on WW1 and how close the world came to peace in 1914.

Follow @BBCNewsMagazine on Twitter and on Facebook

Related Topics

Around the BBC