The 8th May is celebrated in the UK as VE (Victory in Europe) Day. This year, as it is the 75th Anniversary, special celebrations have been planned, and even the Early May Bank Holiday has been moved to mark this day. For Germany, the day has significance as well, but the perspective is from the “losing side”. The 8th May has been marked on the calendar for the past 35 years as “Tag der Befreiung” – day of liberation. It is a day not so much for celebration, but for contemplation and remembrance, a day which signifies liberation from tyranny, from the Nazi regime, and an end to one of the most difficult periods in German history. However, the day has not always been seen in this light. Its significance and perception have to be seen in the context of the evolution of two cultural phenomena: “Erinnerungskultur” – a culture of remembrance, and “Vergangenheitsbewältigung” – coming to terms with the past.
I am a German citizen who has lived in the UK for almost 20 years. I have experienced this day both as VE Day and as Day of Liberation. I also studied history in Germany and have experienced the coming to terms with the past first-hand. Today, on VE Day, I want to give you the point of view from the nation over whom the victory was achieved, how the way Germans engaged with their past changed over the decades, and how the celebration of this particular day fits in.
Immediately after the end of the war, Germans were forced to face up to the consequences of the Nazi regime’s actions. They had witnessed the liberation of concentration camps, and often they were made to visit the camps and were shown photos and films of what had happened there.
Even so, many Germans were focussed more on their own suffering. Their houses were destroyed, they had lost family members, they had to fight for survival, and that tended to overshadow any attempts at reflection.
One early measure to get some kind of normal society going again was the “de-nazification” process. In order to get work people had to obtain a paper which confirmed that they were not the worst kind of Nazi and hadn’t committed any crimes. This paper was quickly nicknamed “Persilschein” – “Persil certificate”, because it washed you white. This process however led not to objective reflection about the past but to excuses and evasions. Obviously people were not keen to incriminate themselves. Often the simple need to feed their families drove many men to obtain this paper by any means necessary. During the immediate post-war period, little thought was given to the causes of the rise of Nazism in Germany. Many talked of being led astray by a terror regime, again casting the majority of Germans as victims. Generally speaking there was a desire to draw a line under the past and start again with a blank slate.
With the foundation of the German Federal Republic there also appeared to be a need to integrate former Nazi party members and members of the armed forces into society. There was a fear that without integration these groups would feel so disenfranchised that they could threaten the stability of the new democracy. Therefore laws were passed in 1949 and 1954 which gave amnesty to former Nazis who had originally been convicted in the immediate aftermath of the war. The rebuilding of Germany was the number one priority, and it seemed better to ignore moral failings than to exclude large groups from the new state. This is how former Nazis obtained high offices in government and the justice system, a circumstance that would lead to conflict later.
By the end of the 1950s, public attitudes had shifted slightly. Germany had been largely rebuilt, the “economic miracle” was in full swing, and the need to sort out the present was not so pressing anymore. Public discussion of the past increased, fuelled by a number of high-profile trials, such as that of members of so-called “Einsatzgruppen” in 1958, who were held responsible for killing a large number of Jews; of Adolf Eichmann in 1961 in Jerusalem; and in 1963 of 20 former guards in Auschwitz. In this last trial the outcome was widely seen as unsatisfactory and the sentences as too lenient. The reasoning of the judges was that the trial could not be anything else but the individual judging of individual crimes, but there was a feeling that this should have been a wider-ranging indictment of Germany’s past.
The feeling that there had not been a clean break with the past was one of the motivating factors of the student revolt in the late 1960s. One of the arguments was that the “de-nazification” had been no such thing, and that there had been much continuity between the Nazi establishment and the establishment of the new state. This has already been mentioned with regard to the government and judicial system, but it was equally widespread at German universities, which is another reason why it was students who protested so strongly and who were so keen to point out the questionable past of so many authority figures.
By the 1970s a general change in attitude had taken place. There was a greater readiness to face up to the past, to admit responsibility, not just by finding particular individuals guilty of particular crimes, but by expressing regret and shame publicly, as a nation.
This mood still prevailed in the 1980s, which is the time when I personally became conscious of these issues. I went to school in the 1980s, and the history curriculum put special emphasis on the time of the Nazi regime, the rise to power, the war and the aftermath. These subjects were talked about in great detail, and there was a feeling that this period was qualitatively different from other periods. It had an aura of being more terrible and more affecting, it somehow still concerned us. My generation, born thirty years after the war ended, did not feel any personal responsibility or guilt, but we were conscious of having a responsibility to prevent anything like it from happening again.
The 1980s and 1990s saw the emergence of “Erinnerungskultur” – a culture of remembrance. As the past receded more and more, there was a drive to keep the memory alive. Many sites connected with the Nazi period, for example those grand edifices they built in Nuremberg for their rallies, and sites of concentration camps, were turned into places of remembrance, often with museums attached, and where no physical evidence was left there were plaques and monuments. I have visited many of those sites myself with my fellow students at school and university, and we never felt that this remembrance was something that was forced on us. What I experienced was that the culture of remembrance was genuine. When I was studying history at university, there was another sign of this eagerness to really come to terms with the past. At my university, senior citizens could obtain a study pass for a modest sum per semester, which enabled them to attend any lectures and seminars they liked. It was noticeable that any lectures and seminars on aspects of the Nazi period were always attended by a number of men in their seventies. Sometimes they contributed personal experiences to discussions, but mostly they just wanted to learn more to put their experience into context. They did not want to draw a line under the past and forget about it.
The shift in attitude is also evident in a speech by the German President Richard von Weizsäcker in 1985. He first called the 8th May “Day of Liberation”, whereas before it was more seen as the day of defeat and downfall, not of liberation from tyranny. Growing up, I have always known is as Day of Liberation.
About 10 years ago I spoke to my old history teacher and asked if my memory of my school history lessons was correct. He confirmed that it was educational policy at the time that this period should be studied intensely, and also that students were really interested. I then asked him what it was like in the present. He told me that it was still policy to study the Nazi period in great detail, although now there was not as much time for it. There were now 20 more years of history to get through, and besides secondary school had just been cut from 9 to 8 years. There had also been a shift in attitude from the students. The Nazi period is no longer seen as somehow different from other periods of history. Students are still interested, but they see it as just another historical period, like the time of Bismarck or the French Revolution. One of the reasons might be that there are fewer and fewer people around who actually witnessed that time. The grandparents of today’s schoolchildren were born after the war, and so the personal connection has disappeared. In contrast the grandparents of my generation were adults during the war.
And what of remembrance today? The passage of time will inevitably weaken that direct link with the past. The same is experienced in this country of course. Those who fought for Britain as young men are in their nineties today. And, as already mentioned, the longer time goes on, the more history has to be dealt with in the curriculum. It is perhaps not surprising that for today’s schoolchildren, the Nazi period loses its special significance and simply becomes part of the larger picture of the past.
In Germany, this is seen with dismay. For decades the emphasis has been on keeping the memory alive, both to honour those who suffered and as a warning to future generations. Links are being made between the rise of far right political parties and the weakening of the emotional resonance of the Nazi period. Where my generation felt that the past put a particular responsibility on us in the present, the younger generation might feel that the past has nothing to do with them.
The culture of remembrance is not dead however. It has taken on new forms in recent years, for example in the form of so-called stumbling stones – small plaques shaped like cobblestones, with a metal surface, which have appeared in the pavements of towns and cities all over Germany. If for example a family was deported to a concentration camp from a particular house, these stones are set into the pavement in front of that house, bearing the names of the family members. The intention is to make passers-by stumble over the stones – mentally, not literally – and make them think and remember. It is a low-key but effective way of keeping the remembrance alive.
Will Germans mark the 8th of May this year in some way? Certainly they will. There were even discussions about making the day a Bank Holiday, although apparently this will only apply in Berlin. But it will be an occasion for Germans to focus their minds on their past once more. Even if the meaning of the day is different, Germany is united with Britain in marking the 8th May 1945 as a significant milestone in history.
Elin Bornemann, Collections Officer
Featured Image: Generaloberst Jodl’s signature confirms Germany’s capitulation on 8 May 1945