It has been axiomatic through the ages that history is written by the victors. But historical research, like political analysis and even good fiction, usually benefits from an awareness of multiple perspectives.
Last Friday, in our editorial on the 70th anniversary of D-Day, our focus was on the significance of the invasion of Normandy as the turning point of World War II and the debt owed to the generation – those who survived and those who did not – who fought against the Nazi terror. We should have pointed out that the German war dead were honoured too.
Even though we mentioned, in passing, that German Chancellor Angela Merkel was among the assembled world leaders, we failed to acknowledge that German veterans were also present, as they have been for several years now. And we said nothing of how the anniversary might have been viewed in Germany.
Gerhard Schröder was the first German Chancellor to attend the D-Day commemorations in 2004, saying in his speech that D-Day was “not a victory over Germany, but a victory for Germany,” in hastening the end of the war and the Third Reich. In truth, modern Germans do not like to be reminded of their country’s militaristic past.
The centenary of the start of the First World War in 1914, for instance, which is being commemorated on some scale in France, the UK and the USA, is being largely ignored in Germany. The majority of Germans, moreover, would prefer to banish completely the memory of Adolph Hitler and the Third Reich. That was, to put it mildly, a traumatic period in the country’s history. But Germans do face up squarely to the sins of their past, as few other countries have done. In this respect, the evils of the Nazis, in particular, the Holocaust, are fully acknowledged, with guilt, shame and a courageous determination to help make the world a better place.
In Germany, then, D-Day does not hold the same mythic significance as for the Allies, and last week’s significant anniversary was not really that important. Arguably, there are other events more worthy of commemoration this year, such as the 70th anniversary of the July 20 attempted assassination of Herr Hitler and the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9.
In a strange way, though, there is almost a feeling of gratitude, if that is the right word, that the Allies landed at Normandy and opened up a second front, with the Soviet Red Army advancing relentlessly from the east, raping, pillaging and seizing as much territory as possible, exacting revenge for the German invasion of the USSR in 1941. D-Day and the subsequent race to Berlin saved much of Germany from the Communist threat. The end of the Second World War, of course, gave rise to the Cold War but it is perhaps fair to say that most Germans would have preferred to surrender to the Allies than to the Soviets.
In the immediate, painful aftermath of the war, however, Germany was a broken and divided country. Since then, rebuilding from the rubble, beginning with the Marshall Plan, successive generations of Germans have determined that history should not repeat itself.
With the post-WWII Franco-German alliance at the centre of a united Europe, and with Germany playing a key role as a founding member of the European Community in 1957, the precursor to the European Union, Germany is now the most prosperous country in Europe and the fourth largest economy in the world. Today, too, Germany is a pillar of the West, a modern, thriving democracy, a global leader in industry and technology, a champion of environmental awareness and efforts to slow down climate change, a global advocate of anti-corruption measures and transparency in governance, and an influential player in world affairs through the United Nations, NATO, the G-7 and the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.
As has been widely acknowledged, even more so after German reunification in 1990, Germany might have lost the war but it most certainly won the peace.