In a recent article, CNN tries to analyze the German relationship to the history of the first World War. Supposedly, WWI is „Germany’s forgotten conflict“, overshadowed by the levels of destruction and suffering of the second World War. The earlier war would often be seen as merely a prelude to the bigger, later war.
The main narrative of the article is therefore, that Germany is lacking a proper culture of remembrance when it comes to the First World War. Omnious critics are referred to that Germany would have a „selective memory“. Linke-politician Sevim Dagdelen thinks that, Germany’s neglecting of its history as the main aggressor and cause for the war and its „denial“ of it, is „scandalous“.
But Germany’s relationship with the first world war has to be different from the one of other countries. First, the history of history of the World War is way more complicated. For many contemporaries the war was about civilisations and cultures. It was seen in the light of the predominant notion of social-darwinism, that the stronger nation’s culture or system was superior. In Germany, it was a war of the German government, mainly the prussian king, more than it was the war of the German people. The war ended in an armistice that for them was undermining liberal politicians‘ efforts to democratize Germany. As Max Weber pointed out, it did not undermine the war, it undermined the peace. The armistice created winners and losers, found peoples guilty or righteous and implied that war is really only then a bad thing, if you are on the losing side.
However, for German politicians at the time the armistice was not a forcing reason for another war. They were willing to cope with the new situation and try to realize a democratic Germany. They were willing to accept the conditions even though they did not see Germany, especially not the German people, as the main aggressors or even the „cause“ of the war. Dagdelen opens up a debate that was fiercly discussed not only in Germany but all over the world. My own conclusion is: Most involved governments were willing to go to war. No government fully realized the consequences of their actions. Of course that includes Germany at the war-mongering countries‘ center. However, European nations prepared for a great war long before the outbreak of the first world war. Originally, Britain thought it would come to a final clash between its own Indian-British empire and the Alliance of the Asian-European empire of Russia and the colonial empire of France. All these nations prepared for such a war since the midst of the 19th century. That the great war broke out between Germany and Russia would have been surprising from a perspective of the 1850s but after 1871 definitively not impossible. In certain ways at least, the outbreak of the war moves within a specific coherent logic that prevailed since the 19th century.
With the Nazi’s rise to power the narrative changed. Today many presume that the end of the first world war directly requires the outbreak of the second. No. The second World War was absolutley unasked for and is caused only by Germany’s actions. Even the demise of the German Weimar republic is not a necessary consequence of the historic circumstances. That differentiates the second world war from the first significantly. Therefore the remembrance of it cannot be the same. It is true, however, that the first world war deserves more space in the public thought. Not in a question of „Who is guilty, who was the cause?“ but as a memory for the victims of a deadly mechanic system where industrialisation and automatisation overtook humanity and the norms of nationalism, imperialism and colonialism overshadowed human values. And that is an objective statement that all countries have to face the same way. The subjective, normative aspect would be: I prefer that the allied forces won the war and opened the way for Germany to become a democracy, even if the armistice undermined peace and Germany’s development towards democracy.
Therefore, while the social-darwinistic narrative was not reflected in many countries after the first world war, which is thus interpreted as the conflict between civilisations and remembered as such, in Germany the victims of the first world war are considered victims of a delayed development within Germany. In certain ways their deaths have to be considered, yes, without a cause. They did not fight for a certain value but died within a bloodthirsty machine that most European states were part of. Other countries may not forget that a war could have broken out even between democratic states like France and Britain throughout the 19th and into the 20th century. It should not be thought of as a conflict between democratic and autocratic states (How democratic were France and Britain in their colonies? How democratic was Russia, China or Japan?). The focus of commemoration should be criticism of the willingness of states to go to war because of nationalistic, imperialistic and colonial interests and the inability to end it, once its futileness was realized.
And all in all it should be possible to just pay a tribute to the persons, soldiers and civilians who became victims of that system regardless of their nationality. It was a conflict after all, that included battles like the battle of Verdun that raged on for months where on average more people died daily than on the whole of D-day 1944. The loss of people should be remembered without declaring winners and losers – without trying to find a reason in their deaths, that will always, prove ultimately insufficient to the tragedies.