Remembering WWI German Hopes for Centenary May Be Dashed

Germany sees the World War I centenary as a chance to promote European integration and arrive at a shared remembrance of the disaster. But that may be too ambitious. For many countries, remembering the war is likely to remain a national affair.

David Crossland

By in Ypres, Belgium

Tyne Cot is the largest British and Commonwealth war cemetery, with 11,956 graves, 8,369 of them unidentified. Many of the men here were killed in the rain-soaked Battle of Passchendaele in 1917, when the area around Ypres was churned into a stinking swamp, and wounded men who slipped off duckboards vanished into the sucking mud.

The soldiers buried at Tyne Cot have not been resting in peace this year. Workers equipped with roaring generators and pneumatic engraving tools have been re-inscribing and replacing thousands of headstones here and at British cemeteries across Belgium and France to prepare for an expected surge in visitors for next year's centenary of the outbreak of World War I.

"Our cemeteries and memorials are very powerful places, particularly for young people," said Peter Francis, a spokesman for the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. "With the centenary, we want to ensure that our sites are ready for that whole four-year period."

The world is getting ready to commemorate the start of the war that shaped the last century, killed 16 million people and has become synonymous with the futile loss of life and the onset of industrial warfare, where the individual counted for nothing in the face of artillery, machine guns, poison gas, flamethrowers, tanks and mud.

But hopes that the centenary will result in a truly common remembrance of the war may be dashed. Each nation is preoccupied with planning its own ceremonies, and Germany currently has no firm plans at all.

Britain has announced a £50 million (€58 million/$80 million) program of remembrance with events to mark the centenaries of landmarks including the 1916 Battle of the Somme, the 1916 naval Battle of Jutland and the 1918 armistice. Australia is spending a similar amount. France, which most of the 440-mile Western Front ran through, is staging a host of projects and exhibitions and, in 2011, opened a €28 million Museum of the Great War in Meaux, near Paris.

Muted Preparations in Germany

In Germany, preparations are far more low-key. The government has yet to even outline its plans. "We are in close contact with our partners to coordinate commemoration activities," a German government official told SPIEGEL ONLINE.

"Given the global and complex nature of the event a century ago, there is in each country a diversity of experiences and feelings," the official added. "Every nation has the right to its own approach. However, we see great will and engagement to strengthen the bridges between our peoples on the occasion of the centenary."

Berlin's Free University and the Bavarian State Library have launched the largest-ever international research project into the war, and the German Historical Museum in Berlin is planning a major exhibition next year. But the country isn't gearing up for big public ceremonies of national remembrance.

"For us, everything is secondary to World War II and Nazi rule, which dominates people's memories," said Fritz Kirchmeier, spokesman for the German war graves commission.

Kirchmeier said the centenary is an opportunity for Europe to find a unified way of commemorating the war. "The war doesn't divide us as much as World War II and Nazi tyranny; it doesn't polarize as much. It wasn't marked by war crimes like World War II," he said. "One could overcome national perspectives by looking at the losses suffered by the other side. For example, if you read out the names of the fallen, why not read out the names of Germans, British, Italians or Russians all together?"

It's a laudable suggestion. But there's a risk that Europe, amid all the pledges for common ceremonies, will miss that opportunity. There is little sense at present of a shared goal behind the preparations.

A Message of European Unity?

What could that goal be? Reconciliation? That's been achieved.

Sending a message that Europe, bound by the memory of the wars that devastated it, shares a common destiny and must keep on uniting? Bad timing. The euro crisis has put solidarity among European countries under severe strain. Besides, the new generation of leaders who have no experience of war no longer embody a link between the bloody past and today's need for unity.

Former Chancellor Helmut Kohl, who helped pull dead people from the rubble of Allied bombardments when he was a schoolboy in Ludwigshafen in World War II, often cited European integration as the key to lasting peace. His mantra was that disputes once settled on battlefields are now solved in the conference halls of Brussels.

He and French President François Mitterrand made a powerful gesture of reconciliation and unity in 1984, when they held hands during a ceremony at a war cemetery in Verdun, the site of one of the bloodiest battles of World War I.

The German government would like to see ceremonies next year convey a similar message.

"We must not forget the incredible suffering this cataclysm meant for a whole generation," the government official said. "We wish to stress the great achievement of reconciliation in Europe. Closer cooperation and integration in Europe proved to be the right way out of the dark shadows of the first half of the 20th century."

But many Europeans take peace for granted these days. And the ceremonies are unlikely to sway critics of further integration.


Discuss this issue with other readers!
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kenny 10/29/2013
1. optional
These large wars were total disasters for everyone involved. The only thing that should be remembered about them is their stupidity.
dtechba 10/30/2013
2. Memorium
What should be remembered is the loss of so many, so very many.
sylvesterthecat 10/31/2013
Each country needs to commemorate WW1 in its own way while at the same time showing due respect to other nations involved. Using the occasion as an excuse to promote European unity is to bring politics into what should be a sombre and introspective series of national events. If people want to talk about European unity they should wait for the EU elections where most of us can safely ignore the issue with a clear conscience.
geroldf 10/31/2013
4. the forgotten remembrance
No surprise that Britain, France and Russia prefer not to acknowledge their role in planning and starting WWI. Perhaps a little more surprising that Germany is willing to go along with the deception. Here's a prediction: that gigantic encyclopedia will avoid discussing the deliberate instigation of war by the Allies. Even 100 years later, Western culture doesn't dare admit the cause and culpability for that disastrous crime.
tuttyk 10/31/2013
5. Remembering WWI
Circa 2004, National Public radio in America had a fascinating story about Armistice Day in Nov. when WW1 ended. It was about a small town in France where they celebrated that day. The band played the Marseillaise, the whole town went to the cemetery to raise the French flag and lay wreaths to commemorate the soldiers from that town who died in the war. And then the reporter noticed, even though it was the French anthem and French flags, all the names were German. It was a town in Lorraine. C'est la vie. C'est la mort. What a shame. My father served for Germany in that war, almost died in Verdun, was a prisoner in France. Then later, he married a a girl born in Metz (now France). Went on the honeymoon to visit the farmers where he was a prisoner.
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