VIEW: A day of liberation

VIEW: A day of liberation –Michael Mertes

Daily Times – Site Edition Sunday, May 08, 2005

The way people see the past tells us more about their present attitudes
than about the past itself. This is what the term “politics of memory”
is meant to indicate. A violent conflict in the past may survive as
a war of memories in the present, as can be observed in the current
dispute between China and South Korea on one side, and Japan on
the other

When I was seven years old, in 1960, my grandmother Angelica opened
my eyes to the meaning of May 8, 1945, the day when Nazi Germany
surrendered and World War II ended in Europe. We were spending our
summer holidays in Normandy where the liberation of Europe from Nazism
had started on D-Day, June 6, 1944. One evening, I listened to my
parents and my grandmother talking about the past. I have forgotten the
details of their conversation, but I can still hear my grandmother’s
sigh of relief when she said: “Thank God we lost that war!”

>From a child’s perspective, it wasn’t self-evident that losing was
a good thing. But of course, my grandmother was right to equate
defeat with liberation. The more I have thought about the lesson she
taught me 45 years ago, the clearer I have seen another, less obvious
dimension in what she said: It is “we” who lost the war. Collectively,
the Germans had not been the innocent victims of a small gang of
criminal outsiders called “Nazis” — Nazism had been an inside ideology
supported by millions of Germans, and every German was liable for
its atrocities whether or not he or she had adhered to it individually.

In today’s Germany, an overwhelming majority subscribes to the
proposition that May 8, 1945 was a day of liberation — not only
for Europe, but also for Germany itself. Compared to public opinion
in 1960, that’s certainly an enormous progress. But paradoxically,
it may also contain an element of forgetfulness, because it tends to
conceal the fact that liberation required a military defeat. To use
my grandmother’s parlance, it is not “us” who were the liberators,
but “them”.

The way people see the past tells us more about their present attitudes
than about the past itself. This is what the term “politics of memory”
is meant to indicate. And this is why it doesn’t matter whether the
relevant events happened 60 years ago (as World War II), 90 years
(as in the case of the Armenian genocide) or even 600 years (such as
the battle of Kosovo in 1389). A violent conflict in the past may
survive as a war of memories in the present, as can be observed in
the current dispute between China and South Korea on one side, and
Japan on the other. A war of memories, in turn, may sometimes lead
to a violent conflict in the future.

Former perpetrators often try to de-legitimise their former victims’
moral superiority by claiming they were victims themselves. Therefore,
the 60th anniversary of the firebombing of Dresden by Allied forces
on February 13, 1945 has probably been a more crucial moment in terms
of the German “politics of memory” than the 60th anniversary of May 8,
1945 is going to be.

Far-right groups infamously dubbed the attack by which at least 30,000
people were killed “Dresden’s Holocaust of bombs”. Fortunately,
their propaganda campaign has been a failure. Although it is true
that thousands of the civilians killed in Dresden and other German
cities were innocent at an individual level, there can be no doubt
it was morally imperative that Germany be defeated collectively.

On the left side of the German political spectrum, the proposition
that May 8, 1945 was a day of liberation remains unchallenged.
However, it is sometimes repressed that the massive use of force
had been necessary to achieve that result. Left-wing pacifism tends
to overlook this simple fact. Its slogan “Never again war!” is only
half the truth — the other half is “Never again appeasement!” May 8,
1945 was not “zero hour”, as a popular saying in Germany goes. It had
an antecedent, that is, a lack of pre-emptive resistance at home and
abroad to the threat that built up in Nazi Germany during the 1930s.

There is yet another lesson to be learnt. Yes, May 8, 1945 was a day
of liberation to which the Soviet army contributed decisively. But
for millions of Central and East Europeans, liberation was followed
by Stalin’s oppressive regime.

The current war of memories between the Baltic republics and Russia,
with regard to the international celebration in Moscow on May 9,
this year, reminds Germany of a special historic responsibility. The
German-Soviet non-aggression treaty, the so-called Hitler-Stalin pact,
concluded in August 1939, had been supplemented by a secret appendix
dividing the border states — Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania,
Poland and Romania — into spheres of interest for the two parties. But
excusing Nazi atrocities by pointing to Stalinist crimes is an
intellectually and morally unacceptable stratagem. When Chancellor
Schröder travels to Moscow for the Red Square celebrations, he should
bear in mind Nazi Germany’s contribution to the Baltic tragedy.

On May 8, this year, public speakers will remind us how important it
is not to forget. They will stress that if the lessons of history are
not learnt, history is bound to repeat itself. All this is perfectly
true. But personally, I will also remember my grandmother’s sentence
“Thank God we lost that war!” Thank God — and thanks to all those
brave Allied soldiers who sacrificed their lives for the sake of
Europe’s liberty. –DT-PS

Michael Mertes was national security and foreign policy adviser to
former German chancellor Helmut Kohl

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