This past weekend (8 and 9 May) brought two anniversaries that are decisive for Europe’s history of the past 75 years. On 8 May 1945, World War II ended and on 9 May 1950, French foreign minister Robert Schuman set out his idea for a new form of political cooperation in Europe, which would make war between Europe's nations unthinkable. These two days are closely linked with each, both for Germany, the aggressor and ‘loser’ of World War II, and Europe. Both days have very personal meanings for me, as I want to discuss in the following. They have even more meaning for me now that I have joined the Robert Schuman Centre at the European University Institute.
For decades, 8 May was an anniversary of ambivalent feelings in Germany – the end of the Nazi terror regime, on the one hand, total military defeat of Germany, on the other hand. My late parents told me that, growing up in the 1950s, this topic was rather avoided in school - history has been traditionally taught chronologically in German high school, starting with Greek and Roman history and ending with the 20th century; but my late mother told me that somehow history teachers always ran out of time towards the end of grade 10 and ended the history curriculum with World War I. My own school experience was very different – in grades 5 and 6 (even though formal history classes did not start until grade 7), our classroom teacher insisted on discussing with us different Nazi period anniversaries – appointment of Hitler on 30 January 1933, Reichskristallnacht (Night of Broken Glass) on 9 November 1938, start of World War II on 1 September 1939 but also the 20 July resistance plot in 1944 – to sensitise us for recent German history. But there was a continuous ambiguity about 8 May 1945 and heavy discussion among us high school students whether this day was to be a day of celebration or a day of national humiliation. Federal president Richard von Weizsaecker set a clear political signal in 1985 on the 40th anniversary, defining the 8 May as day of liberation, adding that even though younger generation do not bear responsibility for the past, Germans must accept the past – “ there can be no reconciliation without remembrance”. Over the past decades, Germany has developed a more open relationship to its past - it has become clear that 8 May is as much a day of celebration for us as for other countries in Europe, though also a day of somber remembrance and gratitude; looking at my own children (who have never lived in Germany) it seems obvious that they do not bear responsibility for this darkest of all chapters in European history, but collectively Germans have a responsibility to remember, even more important in the time of rising right-wing populism. Studying history in grades 12 and 13, I read eagerly about German history to better understand a regime that my grandparents did not want to talk about and that seemed so completely foreign to my own little world in late 20th century West Germany. However, it was not until the past few years that I finally learned more about my own grandparents, only after my parents had passed away. And it was only a few years ago, that I learned about the psychological struggles for my parents’ generation (but to a certain extent also for my own generation), as described in this Economist article from 2015.
As much as 8 May 1945 closed the darkest chapter of modern European history, 9 May 1950 opened the most successful chapter in modern European history! This anniversary allows us to remember that the European Union was founded as peace project and continues to be one; it is easy to forget over the daily politics of budget negotiations, parliamentary discussions, and disputes between countries what our continent has collectively achieved! And it is important to remember on a regular basis, as memories of the dark chapters fade.
Considering these two anniversaries, together, however, also carries an important but maybe uncomfortable message for Germans! The project of the European Community and later Union allowed first West Germany and later a unified Germany to be at the core of building and maintaining peace in Europe, only a few years after having unleashed terror across the continent; however, this also carries a responsibility with it. Being the largest country and economy in the EU and the anchor country of the euro, Germany has benefitted enormously from European integration; we also owe it – even more than other countries - our full support; we owe this both to history and to future generations.
A third anniversary this weekend was the 100th birthday of Sophie Scholl, part of the resistance group White Rose in Munich, executed (or rather murdered) in 1943 by the Nazi regime. Even though the group failed in its attempt to incite broader resistance against the Nazi regime, their example stands as shining beacon of personal courage in the darkest hours of a country. The more despicable is that some anti-lockdown protestors pretend to be a modern version of Sophie Scholl. Drawing such ludicrous and abusive parallels does as much damage to the process of remembering and learning as simply forgetting history.
10. May, 2021