Reflections on the Eighth of May

Erhard Crome on the current German politics of history and the foreign policy of the European Union – on the occasion of the 76th anniversary of the victory over the Nazi regime.

For 22 June 1941, the day Hitler’s Germany and its satellites invaded the Soviet Union – Poland and a number of other countries had already been conquered – the Germans pulled together everything they could in the way of troops they did not need in occupying other parts of Europe. For the invasion, 5.5 million men, more than 47,000 cannon and grenade launchers, 4,300 tanks and assault guns, and about 5,000 fighter planes were made available. The ‘German Reich’s’ 153 divisions were supported by units from Italy, Romania, Finland, Hungary, and Slovakia. It was the largest army of aggression ever mobilised in world history. In order to distract the German population’s attention the finals of the German soccer championship were held precisely on 22 June in Berlin’s Olympic Stadium – Rapid Wien won over Schalke 04 four to three.

The Germans had lost the First World War – in a war of attrition because they could not carry out the war of manoeuvre they had planned. After the 1918 defeat the general staff prepared militarily for a war of revenge; the ‘stab-in-the-back legend’ shifted blame for the defeat on the labour movement and the democratic parties; racism and anti-Semitism framed the defeat as part of an international conspiracy against Germany. The NSDAP under Hitler’s leadership and the National-Socialist state created the conditions for the war. It was the Soviet Union that bore the main burden of victory and that, in the end, between murdered civilians and fallen soldiers, mourned up to 27 million deaths. The historian John Lukács recalled a saying of Bismarck’s: ‘Russia is never as strong or as weak as it appears.’

On 8 May 2020, Federal German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier gave an address on the 75th anniversary of the liberation from Nazism. Federal President Richard von Weizsäcker address on the fortieth anniversary of the liberation on 8 May 1985 is still cited as a milestone in German history. Especially noteworthy – for a West German politician – was his designation of this day as the ‘Day of Liberation’ for the German people as well, and most particularly his emphasis on the role of the Soviet Union. He stressed: ‘We must not separate 8 May 1945 from 30 January 1933’, the day of Hitler’s and the NSDAP’s takeover. ‘The division of Europe into two different political systems’ characterised post-war history, but, Weizsäcker insisted, ‘without the war that Hitler began this [division] would never have existed’.

By contrast, in 2020 Steinmeier gave a businesslike speech on current policy. He interpreted the background of the ‘Day of Liberation’ differently. To be sure, he used the word ‘liberation’ nine times. He began: ‘The eighth of May marked the end of National Socialist tyranny, the end of nights of bombing and death marches, the end of unparalleled German crimes, and of the breach of civilisation which was the Shoah.’ In so doing he had apparently enumerated everything that belonged to the current catechism of historical invocation. However, he presented Nazi rule and its results as of equal rank. Of the origin of Nazi rule he said nothing. Weizsäcker particularly emphasised: ‘we must not see the end of the war as the cause of flight, expulsion, and unfreedom. Instead, it lies in its beginning and in the beginning of that tyranny which led to war’.

In Steinmeier’s address, ‘National-Socialist tyranny’ is cited but not clearly named as the cause of the war. And then he places it on the same level as the ‘nights of bombing’ under which Germany’s civil population suffered, and the ‘death marches’ which the remaining concentration camp inmates were forced to undertake at the end of 1944 and in 1945 on order of the German military and police. Causes and results and victims and perpetrators are intermixed. Steinmeier intensifies this when he assigns a victim role to the Germans: ‘Famine, flight, violence, expulsion’ – now completely detached from the causes and the cited ‘unparalleled German crimes’. Does the breach of civilisation reduce to the Shoah or does it also go for the murder of millions of Russians, Poles, Belorussians, and others? What about the 1.4 million Soviet prisoners of war whom the Germans already in 1941/42 purposely had starve to death?

‘In 1945 liberation came from outside’, Steinmeier says. Then he accomplishes a turn – from the liberation that came over us to the ‘inner liberation’ that is part of ‘reappraising history and of enlightenment’. Now we have our history ‘reappraised’ and our ‘inner liberation’ accomplished. And so we arrive ‘at the happiest moment of liberation: the peaceful revolution and reunification’. In this way, German unification in 1990 was complete liberation; 1945 was only a prelude.

That Steinmeier never mentioned Russia on 8 May 2020 is no accident; it is the background music to the new European order. We Germans no longer have to thank the Russians since we owe our ‘inner liberation’ to ourselves. It is only fitting then that the majority of the German Bundestag refused to commemorate the invasion of the Soviet Union on 22 June 2021.

We recommend:

 – Respect for Historical Memory in Europe. Open Letter, 9 Nov. 2019
 – Luciana Castellina, The European Parliament Inured to Wiping Out Memory, 26 Sept. 2019