Germany looking forward rather than dwelling on its past

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With the centenary of the start of the First World War fast approaching how will Germany mark the occasion and what is the conflict’s legacy there? Chris Bond reports.

WEISSENSEE is a peaceful and prosperous district on the outskirts of Berlin. As well as being a much sought after place to live it’s also home to one of the largest Jewish cemetery in Europe.

Among the 115,000 graves are those of more than 12,000 German Jewish soldiers who fought in the First World War.

Adolf Hitler tried to lay the blame for Germany’s defeat in the Great War at the feet of the country’s Jews, when in actual fact they rallied to the flag in greater proportion than their numbers in the population warranted.

It’s just one of the many little known, but pertinent, facts about a war that was far more complex than it’s often portrayed to be.

Today, with the centenary of the start of the conflict fast approaching commemoration plans are gathering pace not only in Britain but all over
 the world, as nations seek to remember the sacrifice made by so many men and women who unwittingly found themselves caught up in arguably the defining event of the 20th century.

However, Germany has been accused in some quarters of down-playing the anniversary and its significance.

This has been refuted by the country’s politicians who point to the exhibitions and events in its museums, galleries and universities.

It is, though, probably fair to say that the First World War doesn’t have the same resonance in Germany as it does in Britain and isn’t seen as a moment of national reflection.

Claudia Sternberg, a senior lecturer at the University of Leeds, was born and raised in Germany and has taken a keen interest in what has been happening in her homeland.

She believes there are both differences and similarities in the way Germany and Britain are marking the anniversary.

“There are a lot of exhibitions and projects and Press coverage, but there is also a different kind of commemoration in Germany.

“There isn’t one singular anniversary because this year it’s also 75 years since the start of the Second World War and 25 years since the fall of the Berlin wall.”

To a large extent the First World War has been overshadowed by the Second World War which is far more ingrained in the German psyche, which is perhaps understandable given the horrors unleashed in the notorious death camps.

“My generation grew up with the Holocaust and everyone who went to school had to face up to this,” says Sternberg.

“It wasn’t just a part of history it was central to our sense of citizenship.”

In the aftermath of Hitler’s defeat in 1945, Germany was forced to confront its own recent and violent past.

“German society had to be rebuilt and in the 1960s and 70s and a new generation came of age which looked very critically at their parents’ and grandparents’ generations.

“They had to reinvent themselves as a non-militaristic country and they needed to present themselves to the outside world as non-threatenting.”

Today, the First World War is regarded as the antithesis of how to conduct politics.

However, it’s perhaps sadly ironic that on the eve of the centenary of the start of a conflict riven with nationalism we’re seeing a wave of anti-European sentiment building in some parts of the continent.

“In Germany the European project today is seen as a peace project that must not be jeopardised,” says Sternberg.

“This why German politicians keep re-iterating the importance of European unity because the danger is we could go back to how it was.”