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As others mark World War One centenary, Germans prefer to forget

Wednesday, 19 March 2014 - 2:39pm IST | Place: Berlin | Agency: Reuters
  • A general view of the grave of field marshal Alfred von Schlieffen, at Invaliden cemetery in Berlin March 17, 2014. A simple plaque marks the forsaken spot where the Red Baron was buried in central Berlin but hardly anyone stops to remember the flying ace shot down in 1918. Reuters

A simple plaque marks the forsaken spot where the Red Baron was buried in central Berlin but hardly anyone stops to remember the flying ace shot down in 1918. For Germans, the Great War holds so little interest.

The centenary of the outbreak of World War One has caught Germany off guard, while Britain, France, the United States and others mark it with battlefield tours, television programmes, exhibitions and plans for ceremonies on the day, in August.

Germans aren't sure how, or even if, they should commemorate a war that cost them 13 percent of their territory, all their colonies, huge reparations and 2.5 million lives. The government is under fire for its inactivity.

"Most Germans don't want to have anything to do with the militaristic past," said Stefan Scheybal, a mason who tends graves at the Invalids' cemetery where Manfred von Richthofen was buried, a plot of land now bisected by a busy cycle path.

"We were brought up to scorn patriotism and everything about our belligerent history, so no one really feels a connection to World War One," said Scheybal, 51. "Most Germans don't care who the Red Baron was. Only English people come to see his grave."

The way Germany treats its war dead - even the gallant Red Baron, who shot down 80 enemy planes - helps explain why it is having a hard time figuring out how to mark the centenary of the start of a war that shaped the 20th century.

REASONS FOR APATHY

The reasons for German apathy run deeper than the obvious fact that they lost the war. Modern Germany has no appetite for war and shudders at the memories of Imperial Germany, with its spiked "Pickelhaube" helmets and exuberant militarism.

"Germans today are probably the least belligerent and most pacifist-oriented people anywhere in Europe," said Herfried Muenkler, a Humboldt University historian whose new book "Der Grosse Krieg" is making waves for challenging long-held notions that Kaiser Wilhelm's Germany was to blame for starting it.

"But that's due to the collective memory of World War Two, as that overshadows World War One in every category from the loss of lives to the level of German guilt," he told Reuters.

Another reason the war is so little remembered is that the Nazis manipulated its legacy for nationalistic propaganda in their march to power in 1933. Defeat was cast as the result of betrayal of the army by weak, defeatist civilians and communist revolutionaries.

Chancellor Angela Merkel has no plans at this point to take part in World War One memorials, but she acknowledged that its historical significance has been accentuated by tensions with Russia over its incursion into Ukrainian territory in Crimea.

In a speech to parliament last week, Merkel said Europe had clearly not put behind it such 19th and 20th century-style conflicts about spheres of influence and territorial ambitions.

Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier says the lesson of the war is that diplomacy failed, though he warns that "drawing frivolous historical parallels can distort our view of what's behind the current crisis".

MOSS-COVERED GRAVESTONES

There is no better way to gauge German lack of interest in World War One than looking at how it remembers its soldiers.

When Germany's last World War One veteran, Erich Kaestner, died at the age of 107 in 2008 it merited little attention, nor was there any confirmation that he was the last of the Great War veterans because the defence ministry keeps no such records.

Kaestner's little noted passing stood in marked contrast to the honours France bestowed on Lazere Ponticelli. France's last war veteran got a state funeral led by then-President Nicolas Sarkozy when he died at 110 - three months after Kaestner.

German neglect of its veterans is matched by the condition of graveyards like the one housing von Richthofen's memorial: weeds grow instead of flowers and the stone is worn by the wind and weather. His remains were moved to Wiesbaden in West Germany in 1975 after the Berlin Wall cut straight through the cemetery.

"Germany has forgotten those killed in World War One," Gerd Krumeich, a scholar of the period, told Reuters. "Hardly anyone visits war graves. They're covered with moss. No one's interested. Germans will never commemorate that war."

Across town at the Alte Garnison Friedhof, Katrin Saenger was basking in the sun reading a book, cheerfully oblivious to the iron crosses marking the graves of captains and colonels.

"I've been coming here on my lunch break for the last year because it's nice and quiet," said the 34-year-old fashion designer. "It might be strange but I like the aura, if you can say that about a cemetery. Hardly anyone ever comes here. It's only once in a great while you see someone looking at a grave."

The public apathy explains why Merkel's government has devoted scant resources or attention to the 100th anniversary.

The opposition Left party has criticised the government for failing to schedule any major events and for spending just 4.7 million euros on the anniversary, while Britain and France are devoting about 60 million euros each to this summer's centenial.

Sevim Dagdelen, a lawmaker from the anti-militaristic Left, calls the government's lack of enthusiasm "scandalous".

"You get the impression that it's not a priority at all to remember a lost world war. They don't want to talk about it," she said, suggesting parliament should host a memorial event with delegations from France, Britain, Russia and Serbia.

"That would be the decent thing to do."




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