Kategorie-Archiv: Europe

Germany and the First World War

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.

A new „Eastern Front“?

As I argued in my previous post a new, serious approach to the Integration of the European East into the European Union is much needed. That integration should not aim to win the East for special interests of the European core – as the setting up of camps for refugees in Albania would be – but to really integrate it into the European Union. Using the East as a source for cheap labour or dumping place for Europe’s unwanted will cause big problems for the Union soon. Symbolic and practical acts that show solidarity and seriousness may be costly but are necessary.

That the East is not waiting for the EU but is moving on its own accord is shown by the formation of an East European Club named „16+1“ in 2012 in which 16 Central and East European Countries (CEEC) are cooperating with China to promote Chinese investments in the area. According to the Chinese website „Cooperation between China and Central and East European Countries“ (china-ceec.org)  Chinese investments exceeded 9 billion US$ by the end of 2017 as a result of the Cooperation.

While some argue that Chinese investments are not yet significant (zeit.de) they might be seen in the context of recent decisions by East European States and Greece to block some of Europe’s efforts to encounter China’s growing influence sphere internationally: Significantly, declarations on China’s records on human rights violations and her behaviour in the South Chinese Sea (zeit.de). Also, it appears that Chinese thoughts are making their ways into the European Union’s Parliament and Commission – transported by Eastern European Representatives.

Some of the investments might also undermine European policies. For example the investment into nuclear power plants or Chinese controlled infrastructure (china-ceec.org).

The Brexit is having a huge impact on the European Budget, so Chinese investments are much welcomed in the East. However, it would be dangerous, if those new relationships undermine European Politics.

It is my opinion that a lack of trust in the solidarity of Europe that opens the East to China. Europe needs to learn that public diplomacy is needed not only outside of Europe but inside it as well. Therefore Germany needs to step up and act in real solidarity. Take the so-called „refugee-problem“ off the table: Germany needs to offer real solutions to the problems and stop trying to export them. That is, taking more refugees in, offering them faster and easier integration into the job-market and counteract ethnic isolation in the cities. Germany needs to enforce its own commitments to the European Union and the European Integration. European policy-makers need to have the capacity to take care of other problems in Europe.

Europa dem Osten – A Europe for the East

Today, the European Union is being understood as the embodiment of the European idea. The dream of a European Community was conceived before and especially during the second World War and was realized first in an Community of Steel and Coal. Steel and Coal were, of course, not only the foundation of any industrial growth at the time but also necessary for any war. Sharing these ressources should hopefully lead to peace in Europe and the emergence of a global counterbalance to the US and the USSR. From there on, the project turned liberal and developed into a supranational institution that influences many areas of our daily lives. But the Institution is under a lot of scrutiny today. The single market and the four freedoms at its core appear to alienate people in many European societies. And as it is dominated by the economic powerhouses of France and Germany many Eastern Europeans understand the European project as a hegemony-project of central Europe.

This situation appears to me as a sad twist of history. It was after all especially states in the East like Poland that first championed a European Union – that was before Poland was occupied by Nazi-Germany. That and the subsequent occupation by the USSR and the creation of the Eastern Bloc burried any hopes for an Eastern Euroean Union.

The point is – the European Union of today needs to understand that it is not yet the institutional realisation of the European dream. It should understand that it can not yet claim the whole history of the European idea for itself and that if it wants to do that, it needs to accept and respect that it cannot substitute the Eastern European dream by the Western European dream.

Europe is a heterogeneous construct. It is heterogeneous not only in its cultural, historical and lingustical aspects but also in the very ideas that form the foundation of the construct itself. Trying to create one unifying narrative for the history of the principles and ideas of Europe should be understood the same way as would any attempt to create one single culture or language for the European Union would be understood.

Now, going forward, the European states are trying to fall back on principles everybody could agree on. Then the European Union would become a Union to encourage growth and to stop wars in Europe. That in itself are important goals and righteous causes but it leaves behind the people, the culture and the European dreams. As in ecumenical discourse falling back on general terms that everybody can agree on is robbing religions of their core characteristics and will leave everybody dissatisfied. Europe, as Religions, must find a way of discourse that incorporates differences rather than ignoring them.