May 8, 1945 - a key date for Germany. After 70 years, the "downfall" sentiment from back then has long been replaced by a completely different point of view, writes Felix Steiner. The trauma, however, is here to stay.
For Germans, May 8, 1945, remains the most difficult date of recent history - because of the contradictions involved. At first glance, everything has seemed clear and simple for 30 years: "May 8 was a day of liberation. All of us were liberated from the inhuman system of Nazi tyranny" - these were the words of former German President Richard von Weizsäcker, directed at his compatriots, commemorating the 40th anniversary of the end of World War II. In contrast to the first decades after 1945, that view is shared today by nine out of ten Germans.
However, if May 8 were a "day of liberation" exclusively, that would be a reason to celebrate. We Germans could follow the convivial and joyful example of many of our European neighbors. But that would be inappropriate, even 70 years later. Or, as Richard von Weizsäcker put it in his historic 1985 speech, using presidential language: "We Germans are commemorating that date among ourselves, as is indeed necessary. We must find our own standards." He correctly used the plural form, because there is no such thing as a single standard.
Guilt, grief, shame and gratitude
Firstly, there are guilt and responsibility for all the crimes committed in Germany's name until May 8, 1945. Guilt and responsibility, which also involve later generations on a permanent basis. They must make sure that the memory of those crimes is kept alive and that they can never be repeated.
Secondly, there is mourning of the victims and the suffering of one's own people: those who died when the war, which the Germans had inflicted on almost all of Europe for five and a half years, backfired into their own country in full force. Those who died in the bombing of German cities, in the course of their escape from Germany's East, during the conquest of the country. Women and girls who were raped by the thousands in the wake of the invasion and during celebrations of victory - certainly not just by Red Army soldiers. The German soldiers who died as prisoners of war, on the Rhine meadows as well as in Siberian camps. And the 12 million Germans who were driven from their homes after May 8, 1945. To mention all of this, too, is legitimate and necessary, because this does neither entail a settling of casualty accounts, nor a diminishing of guilt.
Thirdly, there is shame. Shame resulting from Germany's inability to rid itself of the plague of Nazism. Shame resulting from the fact that the Nazi state worked like a well-oiled machine practically everywhere until its final hour, although its downfall was imminent. Many of those who raised a white flag prematurely, or cleared useless tank barriers, paid for it with their lives; likewise deserters, who were executed by kangaroo court martials even as allied troops were already in sight. Mindless destruction everywhere - exactly as envisaged by Hitler. Bridges left intact until May 8, 1945, were few and far between. The houses of countless farmers and craftsmen in nameless villages were set ablaze because some fanatic sergeant believed he could pave the way to the "ultimate victory" there. We are taken aback by all of this today, and yet it is part of our history.
Finally, there is gratitude. We Germans are grateful because, despite Nazism, we were given a second chance. We were given the opportunity to not just remain an occupied colony, but to find our way into the future as an independent nation in freedom and self-determination. France, the UK - and especially the US - made this possible very quickly. On May 8, 1949, exactly four years after Germany's unconditional surrender, 65 men and women passed the Basic Law - the German Constitution - which is in force to this day and which, in 1990, finally received the Soviet Union's seal of approval. From then on, the German Basic Law applied to all Germans in the formerly divided country.
On May 8, 1945, very few Germans saw that day as a day of liberation. At the time, the situation seemed hopeless and uncertain. For many, it was simply a matter of survival when the terror of the Nazi state was replaced by arbitrariness of the occupying powers. With the benefit of hindsight, however, that day was the crucial turning point for Germany's way into the present: freedom, respect for human rights, liberality, of which we are so proud in Germany today, would not have been possible without the 8th of May, 1945.
So May 8,1945, is both trauma and godsend in one. Those who wonder why the Germans are holding back when it comes to international military interventions, why we prefer to negotiate and mediate in crisis areas, instead of providing weapons to the warring parties, and why it is primarily Berlin which consistently advocates fresh talks with Moscow to solve the Ukraine crisis, will find the answer in the events which took place in 1945. The violence of the war in our own country remains a national trauma, which will stay with us much longer than the surviving contemporary witnesses.
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