Envoy Sent to London: Berlin Denies Rift with UK over WWI Centenary

By Friederike Heine

German troops advancing into France in August 1914. Germany says it isn't trying to influence the way Britain commemorates the event. Zoom
DPA

German troops advancing into France in August 1914. Germany says it isn't trying to influence the way Britain commemorates the event.

The German government has denied British media reports that it tried to influence the tone of Britain's planned ceremonies to mark the centenary of the outbreak of World War I. A spokesman has confirmed Germany sent an envoy to London to discuss the plans, though.

The German Foreign Ministry on Monday denied allegations that it was attempting to influence Britain's plans to commemorate the 2014 centenary of the outbreak of World War I.

A spokesman for the ministry confirmed reports that it had sent an envoy to London in early August to discuss the centenary ceremonies. But he added: "There was no intervention of any kind in how our friends and partners intend to shape their commemoration of World War I."

The Daily Telegraph reported on Sunday that the visit by Andreas Meitzner, a German diplomat tasked with coordinating European commemoration plans for the centenary, was prompted by German concerns that the ceremonies might have an excessively "declamatory tone," placing more emphasis on victory rather than reconciliation.

The Daily Mail even reported that the envoy had been sent to prevent WWI victory celebrations altogether.

The Foreign Ministry spokesman told SPIEGEL ONLINE that Meitzner had met his British counterpart Andrew Murrison to exchange ideas about the planned commemoration.

The Daily Telegraph reported that Norman Walter, the spokesman for the German embassy in London, had said the UK should place less emphasis on who caused the war, and focus instead on the subsequent achievements of the European Union in preserving peace. The embassy declined to give a comment to SPIEGEL ONLINE.

Different Approaches

Perhaps unsurprisingly, there are major differences in the way Germany and Britain commemorate World War I.

For Germans, the memory is tainted not just by defeat and the chaos that followed, but by the crimes of World War II. The death in 2008 of Erich Kästner, the last veteran believed to have served in the German Imperial Army, was largely ignored in Germany. By contrast, when Harry Patch, the last British veteran to have fought in the trenches, died in 2009 at the age of 111, there was live TV coverage of his funeral in Wells Cathedral.

It was a similar story with the discovery in 2011 of the remains of 21 German soldiers in an underground shelter in Alsace. The news got little attention in Germany. Had those men been British, it would have dominated the front pages and TV documentaries would have traced their descendants.

Yet despite those differences, the German and British war graves commissions insisted on Monday that they're in total agreement about preparations for commemorating the centenary.

Close Cooperation

"We work very closely with the Germans, and we are on the same page in terms of what we want to achieve," the spokesman for the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, Peter Francis, told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "Not only do we want to commemorate what was and still is a deeply personal event, we also want to inform and educate our younger visitors about the realities of war."

Indeed, the respective graves commissions are putting their heads together to make sure that British and German graves across Europe are maintained to a similar standard. There will also be joint educational initiatives for younger visitors.

Fritz Kirchmeier, the spokesman of the Volksbund Deutsche Kriegsgräberfürsorge, the German War Graves Commission, said: "My general sense is that both Germany and the UK are placing a strong emphasis on Europe. Naturally, different nations have a different take on the war, but Britain is sensible enough not to conduct a full-blown victory ceremony."

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1. Nobel laureate's views
allegraofchapelhill 08/19/2013
This past year I published a novel about the true story of Harvard University’s 1932 fight over how to memorialize Harvard students who had fought for the Kaiser. The novel is called HARVARD 1914. In the process of writing, I came across the thoughts of Seamus Heaney, a nobel laureate in how to consider the very real truth that peace treaties do not heal the wounds of war. The commemoration provides just such an opportunity to explore two truths that Seamus Heaney, a nobel laureate, talked about when he won his prize. He said it's hard: “We are rightly suspicious of that which gives too much consolation in these circumstances; the very extremity of our late twentieth century knowledge puts much of our cultural heritage to an extreme test. Only the very stupid or the very deprived can any longer help knowing that the documents of civilization have been written in blood and tears, blood and tears no less real for being very remote. And when this intellectual predisposition co-exists with the actualities of Ulster and Israel and Bosnia and Rwanda and a host of other wounded spots on the face of the earth, the inclination is not only not to credit human nature with much constructive potential but not to credit anything too positive in the work of art.” Heaney then pointed out that there is another truth. He quoted a poem by Yeats that, he said pointed to another truth. /States Heaney/ “I have heard this poem repeated...It knows that the massacre will happen again on the roadside, that the workers in the minibus are going to be lined up and shot down just after quitting time; but it also credits as a reality the squeeze of the hand, the actuality of sympathy and protectiveness between living creatures. It satisfies the contradictory needs which consciousness experiences at times of extreme crisis, the need on the one hand for a truth telling that will be hard and retributive, and on the other hand, the need not to harden the mind to a point where it denies its own yearnings for sweetness and trust.” In short, Heaney states we must remember that in these commemorations there is the murderous – the very unsympathetic realities. There is also the marvelous – the ability of humans to connect and restore. Both are completely true. And both are messy.
2. optional
drawde 08/20/2013
It was a stupid and futile war caused by selfish and posturing politicians, determined to win at all cost. My father's regiment suffered 80% casualties and he was a POW for 2 years. Are the same type of politicians in power now?
3. NATO not EU
pmoseley 08/20/2013
"Norman Walter, the spokesman for the German embassy in London, had said the UK should place less emphasis on who caused the war, and focus instead on the subsequent achievements of the European Union in preserving peace." The EU has not been pivotal in maintaining peace in Europe since WWII. That responsibility has been on the shoulders of NATO. From maintaining the integrity of W. Germany and most other states bordering the Iron Curtain, to preventing its associate member France and member Germany from going to war, the major cause of conflict in Europe for hundreds of years. The EU did little to prevent or stop the wars in the former Yugoslavia, but NATO was instrumental in that. I resent Berlin trying to use propaganda to further its cause of further European integration. from which it greatly profits, or diverting attention from the origins of WWI. Of course, Germany, France, the UK and most other European countries suffered greatly in both wars and the occasion of the anniversary of the start of WWI should be used only for educational purposes on the tragedy of wars. I hope Berlin is 'sensible enough' to realise that.
4. Can a war be the reason for celebration?
Inglenda2 08/20/2013
Why on earth does anybody worry about what the British media (or for that matter, the British government), say or do? The media are only interested in sensation, the government in moving the interest of the electorate away from the mess it has made at home. It is hard to believe that the German government would in any way intervene, because they have long since accepted the anti-German propaganda – whether true or not - from two world wars, as a basis for the historical education of their own children. How it is at all possible to celebrate an unnecessary war, is a riddle for those who were forced to take part. It does not take much research to show that the world wars could quite well have been avoided. Not the people, but the governments involved, (supported by large industrialists), were to blame for these conflicts! A glance at Iraq, Afghanistan or even Israel, and the way the populations of western countries are still being misled by those in power, gives a clear indication of little change behind the scenes. Europe would do well to remember those who died rather than glorifying battles. A full blown victory ceremony of any sort is an insult to all victims.
5. optional
spon-facebook-36914778 08/21/2013
The general perception in the UK is that World War I was a horrific waste of life, fought by incompetent generals who were completely removed from and indifferent to the loss of life they were causing. And while World War II is still viewed as a necessary and unavoidable response to Nazi aggression, you'd struggle to find somebody in the UK who could tell you why World War I was fought in the first place. That said, it seems a little distasteful to try to use the tragedy of the war to promote some contemporary political agenda like EU integration.
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