Friday, May 6, 2005

Egon Bahr on the meaning of Germany's defeat in the Second World War

One of the elder statesmen of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) reflects on "the total defeat and the burden of power": Die totale Niederlage und die Last der Macht by Egon Bahr Frankfurter Rundschau 07.05.2005

Bahr writes of his own memories of May 8 (V-E Day):

Es war eine Befreiung von der Bedrohung durch den Krieg und das Regime. Die totale Niederlage löste bei mir keinerlei Gefühl der Befreiung zur Demokratie aus. Trümmer, Tote, Vermisste, Vertriebene und blanke Not waren nicht dazu angetan, lichte Erwartungen auf demokratische Wunder zu wecken. Niemand wusste, was aus uns werden sollte und was die Sieger über uns beschließen würden. Von Demokratie hatte ich mit gerade 23 Jahren keine praktische Vorstellung.

[Translation: It was a liberation from the threats from the war and the regime.  The total defeat did not bring out any kind of feeling in me of liberation to democracy.  Ruins, the dead, the missing, the expellees and plain desperation were not conducive to awakening bright expectations for a democratic miracle.  No one knew what would become of us and what the victors would decide about us.  Of democracy, at 23 years old I had no practical concept.]

A note on terminology:  In the official Allied vocabulary, the capture of countries occupied by Germany was called "liberation."  The capture of Germany and Italy was called "conquest."  It wasn't just a semantic difference, it had legal and practical implications for the postwar period.  Austria, for instance, was treated differently in some ways because it was considered an "occupied" country, even though popular support for the Nazis may have been stronger in Austria than in Germany.

Bahr recalls that former German President
Richard von Weizsäcker in 1985 spoke of the "conquest" of Germany as having also been a "liberation" for the German people.  By that time, democracy had developed strong roots in Germany.  But Bahr recalls that in 1985, the country still suffered from one of the major consequences of the war, the division of the country into East and West Germany.

Noting that full and formal sovereignty was restored to Germany only in 1991 "with the ratification of the peace treaty, which was with good reason called the 'two plus four' treaty.  Since then, we have had the final responsibility for what we do or don't do.  Therefore we are a normal state."

Noting that the German people still have reservations about that status, he imagines that it "will still be that way for a long while."

Interestingly enough, though Bahr is an advocate of a much more independent stance for Europe in relation to the United States, he suggests that some anti-American statements from Germans stem from a reluctance to see their own country, Germany, exercise power in the world as a normal country, i.e., no longer a pariah state.

He also observes that one of the consequences of the defeat in the Second World War is that Germany, more than other EU countries, would like for "Europe" to absorb the separate national identities into a larger community.  As I would put it, the main impetus for Germany to be a solid partner in the EU 15 years ago (it was still called the European Community then) was so that other countries wouldn't be afraid of an independent Germany.  Whereas the main impetus for other members to be strong EU partners is that they were afraid of an independent Germany.

We can't say that any more.  But Bahr's point is that Germany will be a distinct country within the EU, as all the others will be, for years to come.  "It is high time," he writes, "that the country becomes conscious of that and get clear on its identity as a nation and not leave that discussion to the rightwingers."

He ends by quoting Willy Brandt, the former Chancellor who had also been active in the anti-Nazi underground during the war, both in Germany and outside it:  "Die Vergangenheit darf die Zukunft nicht belasten."  ("The past should not be allowed to weigh down the future.")

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