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Germany

Commercialization and World War II

Younger Germans are taking a greater interest in World War II but this does not always have positive facets according to the German historian Wolfgang Wippermann who spoke with DW-WORLD.

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Germany's surrender -- was that the country's new beginning?

DW-WORLD: What is the meaning of May 8 for German and world history?

Wolfgang Wippermann: May 8, 1945 is not only an momentous date for German history, but also for world history. It's definitely comparable to the Reformation, the French Revolution and the Bolshevik Revolution. It is simply an epochal date in world history. It was then that a new era began and was the end of a horrendous one -- the era of fascism.

In Germany the date is often spoken of as a new beginning, a Stunde Null, that's to say the country's "zero hour." How do you judge this?

There was no Stunde Null like we viewed it. Instead, there was a strong road of continuity, not a restoration. It was a kind of continuity that revealed itself in the elite before the Third Reich and also afterwards. For example, there were more Nazis in the Foreign Office after 1945 than before. It was wishful thinking to believe that on May 8, 1945 history ended to a more or less greater extent, that a "zero hour" took place and we were reborn. That didn't happen. It must be added, however, that the end of the war or the collapse of the Third Reich was very important for the collective memory of the Germans.

Which catastrophe in Germany had a greater effect on the country, the political or the moral one?

The first problem is the term "catastrophe" which Friedrich Meineke already coined with regard to 1945 in his book "The German Catastrophe" in 1946. Indeed, the end of the war was perceived as a catastrophe for the Germans but that was historically completely wrong. The actual catastrophe was the Shoah, the catastrophe that was carried out on the Jewish people. People didn't want to recognize this in Germany for a long time. It wasn't until after various historical and political discussions that the true meaning of fascism and the Holocaust was recognized: The real catastrophe was the Shoah.

How has the view of the Second World War and the date May 8, 1945 changed in Germany over the past 60 years?

There has been a crucial change. The eighth of May was at one time the day the Third Reich collapsed, or as people said, the German catastrophe. There was a long debate as to whether it was the day of liberation or the day of collapse? Collapse or liberation was a topic of historical-political debates during the 1950's and 60's, but most of all in the 70's and 80's. Finally, those who called it the day of liberation won the upper hand. German President Richard von Weizsäcker made this clear on May 8, 1985. That meant that the important thing was not that it was a German catastrophe but a catastrophe for the Jews. This was a very long, arduous process but one that was concluded positively. But I must also say that history is not just that which happened. A historical event is also that which is made of it.

Does the German perspective of the Second World War conform with that of the world or are there differences?

There are various controversies that spill beyond borders. It can't be classified as strictly nationally historical. One thing that is happening in my opinion is that there is no longer a historical-political discussion or one of how to deal with the past. What's happening is that May 8, World War II, the Shoah and the like are being commercialized. We not only have a historicization but a "Knoppization" [Guido Knopp is a popular historian who has made numerous documentaries about World War II for German national television] of history for commercial purposes. It has more to do with television ratings and not really with history -- Knopp's films are horribly commericialized. That is the negative side of the awakened interest in history, which on the other hand is positive. I view it negatively and think it's also possibly dangerous that history is being commercialized.

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