March 2019 saw me in my new home city in Central Germany and a year on we are living in a time of a pandemic.
The current political eye watering back drops to my Life in a Time of Covid-19; Donald Trump is gambling that sending health workers into the bullets will make him be seen by Americans as winning the war against the virus for the economy. In the UK, recent newspaper headlines harangued teachers’ unions for pushing back against pressuring their members to heroically face the guns. Conversely, there is no glory in prevention, only sacrifice will do, ‘beautiful’ sacrifice.
On May 8th, 1945, the Nazi death cult which had brutalised a continent ended, and for me it was interesting to be in Germany to witness the 75-year anniversary of this event. In Germany for many the aftermath of the Second World War has proved a struggle to comprehend; it is not just about how a civilised nation could sink into or toward becoming a rogue state. In the light of the rise of populist politics it now has become apparent that this is not just a ´German thing´, but one also has to ask: how can a nation move forward from once having been the architects of a charnel house. The question I ponder at this time is whether I should see May 8 as a defeat or as liberation for Germany? It is a question that weighs on many German minds and has made Germany anxious about its´ place in the World.
In the UK there is no reflective discussion – it is celebrated as a British victory by the draping of celebratory Union Jack bunting on 10 Downing Street and across the country.
Covid-19 virus social distancing saw May 8 memorials and street parties etc., kept to the barest minimum. In the United Kingdom VE Day was made a national holiday for the first-time replacing May Day. For many conservative politicians etc., the ´Workers’ Day´ has never been popular and over the years there have been calls to replace it with another notable date in British history. Therefore, a VE Day holiday was a perfect fit in the post-Brexit new world order. In Germany, Berlin declared an unprecedented one-off holiday (in addition to May day) and this was not mirrored elsewhere.
When I look at history, I wonder what if the French Revolution had not had to fight against an assembly of autocratic (mostly absolutist) Royal Houses leading to years of conflict and the rise of Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte. In the UK our hearts are with the Georgian Royal House (of Hannover) and the English way, seeing the French Revolution as anti-democratic and a worthy enough cause for heroes such as Admiral Nelson and the Duke of Wellington to fight against. In Britain and on Continental Europe there were people inspired by the ideas of the French Revolution who wanted to end or reform autocratic rule. Reformist voices included Ludwig Van Beethoven and Thomas Paine; Paine having written the Rights of Man which was influential in both the French and American Revolutions. He advocated similar ideas to those made by the Levellers and others who championed universal suffrage during the English Civil War in the 17th Century. So, it is odd even today for me to find myself supporting the Georgian Navy in any swashbuckling film epic (I would also say that I am with a Roundhead over a Cavalier in any costume drama).
History can be tricky and for the Germans it´s a minefield. President Frank-Walter Steinmeier speaking on behalf of the German nation in his VE Day speech warned of the ‘temptation of new nationalism’. He asked the German people ´to jointly remember their family histories and the history of their country. These are histories of both perpetrators and victims´.
May 8, 1945 is clearly a day of liberation for all those enslaved by the Nazi regime, but was it a day of liberation or defeat for the German people? Post WW2 in the Soviet Union backed East Germany they early on adopted the idea that it was a liberation from fascism and tyranny. The East German leadership for instance made the Peasants’ War (1524/25) battle site at Frankenhausen (situated within the East) into a purpose-built place for East Germans to visit where they could foster their revolutionary credentials. The museum features the World´s biggest painting, the Peasants’ War Panorama (Bauernkriegspanorama), created from 1976 to 1987.
In the West it took until the 1970´s for the idea of liberation to take hold instead of being simply labelled as the guilty losers (the escalating Cold War also helped soften this narrative). Looking through my eyes and from talking to Germans I can see the struggle they were/are having – the hard right wing see May 8th as a defeat and wish to sanitise the Nazi legacy so they can do it again (but somehow differently sic.) and then there is the idea that West Germany never really purged the Nazis from society and was thus corrupt. And, materialistic. Even the iconic Bauhaus design house is interpreted differently – in the West Bauhaus became emblematic of democratic freedoms, not communism whilst in the East it was seen as a pragmatic socialist design style in the support of the people and not the elites.
In the early 1800s the idea of uniting the German speaking people into a nation was a popular notion and liberal reformists saw it as a way to replace the autocratic rule in the myriad of independent statelets (Kingdoms, Dukedoms, principalities, and bishoprics). The current German flag and surprisingly the national anthem (Deutschland, Deutschland Uber Alles) were both created to further liberal reform and unity. The German peoples’ flag was a simple three coloured design and importantly without royalist symbolism or reference. It was one of the first flags of a people rather than a royal house (the USA and France being the first) and the anthem, it can be argued, reflected the idea of a reformist national parliament taking precedence over any regional kingdoms etc. (not necessarily lording German supremacy over other nations).
The seeds of this reform movement had grown strongly following the devastating Thirty Years War in the 17th Century which had come after a rare 70 years of peace since the warring parties agreed a historic compromise across the protestant and catholic fault lines of the Reformation. The horror of this war and the later occupation by Napoleon is embedded in the German psyche and this helped lead to the growth of a liberal argument that became a catalyst for the German Revolution of 1848. At this pivotal moment in German history the forces of the status quo pushed back, and autocratic rule prevailed. Otto von Bismarck (The Blacksmith) supported the old order and his policy of uniting the German speaking peoples into one nation with ´Blood and Iron´ won the day. There was to be no liberal or reformist unification by peaceful means, instead it would be by force along established autocratic lines.
The first German nation came into being in 1871 shortly after the defeat of France in the Franco Prussian War (1870/71). Bismarck had used the moment to give the autocratic Prussians power to rule and this ultimately set the new Empire on a course to devastating defeat in World War One. Then, for just 17 years, the first national democracy in German history was run from Weimar (not Berlin) until it was defeated by the weight of political violence, global economic melt-down and the lie that the German Volk in WW1 had been stabbed in the back by ´democracy´.
The rest is history, as they say. The Nazi death cult came to power in the 1930´s aided and abetted by the ruling establishment elites (as in 1848 – army, aristocrats, business, religion, and the judiciary).
May 8, 2020 was marked in Germany by formal ceremonies attended by leading political figures (including the President), there were also many thoughtful articles written and TV programmes aired reflecting upon the end of WW2 and the horrors that had been perpetrated in the name of the German people.
The complete defeat of the Nazi state in 1945 for me is a liberation for Germany because it finally saw the end of a long history of autocratic (and often fascist) governance in Central Europe that so many had pushed to abolish over the centuries. It had taken over 100 years and many wars including two world conflicts since 1848 to see democracy finally established in Germany, and for all its flaws it is worth cherishing over populism in the modern day.
May 8, 1945 was a victory over unquestionable evil, a battle fought by an amazing alliance of peoples of differing heritages, societies, and countries which must rightly be remembered. I think it would have been appropriate if the bunting flown outside Number 10 in the UK had reflected that.
Maybe this allows me some insight into how Germany and the UK see themselves in the World and whether their differing attitudes to transparency and democracy and their own self-worth can be seen in their responses to the Covid-19 pandemic?
Picture: A section of the Bauernkriegspanorama.