Visitor's programme 'Germany's dealings with the history of the 20th century' | 2014

Observe the past, but see the future

Participants' feedback. By Sebastian Blottner

In 2014 we commemorate the centenary of the beginning of World War I and the 75-year anniversary of World War II. On the occasion of these jubilees we wanted to show an international group of historians, museum experts and journalists during a visitor’s program how Germany commemorates these events and which lessons Germany has learned from history concerning European integration and the main approaches in education as well as foreign policies.

The program covered a whole plethora of different subject matters. It consisted of visits to museums, guided tours through historical archives and visits to memorials, discussions with civil society players such as the German War Graves Commission or the German-Franco Youth Office, meetings with representatives of the Federal Foreign Office and of the Federal Ministries, with experts such as Egon Bahr or Dr. Helga Spranger from the association War Children as well as several visits to scientific research centres and institutes.

‘I was surprised by the variety of the programme. The level of the meetings was very high. Also the level of the participants was very high and I have made a lot of professional contacts.’ (Paloma Almudena Ortiz de Urbina Sobrino, University Alcalá de Henares, Madrid)

‘From many angels the programme was very productive and the agenda was very well done, really balanced and very diverse, which was very helpful for us to see, where the problematic parts in the history for Germany are.’ (Hayk Demoyan, Armenian Genocide Museum-Institute)

Apart from the slightly diverging interests amongst journalists on the one hand and museum representatives on the other, it was particularly striking to observe that organisations which are hardly known abroad such as the Federal Agency for Civic Education (BpB) or the Franco-German Youth Office (FGYO) caused a lot of amazement with their activities, as described by Jens Carl Kirchmeier-Andersen, Danish National Museum: ‘We have visited a lot of institutions dealing with things that I didn't know before you were doing in Germany, very good things. The best example maybe is the Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung. I was very surprised about that. I was also very impressed hearing about the Deutsch-Französisches Jugendwerk.’

In Estonia, for example, an institution such as the FGYO would not at all be conceivable, as Olev Liivik, Estonian History Museum, stated regretfully: ‘If I see within Estonia our Russian community, we need such a new approach to handle this community and to explain our aims in national policy.’ Several other participants were very much impressed by the concept of the Federal Agency for Civic Education, which publishes independent articles and essays at affordable prices and makes well-founded and reputable research findings available for general civic education.

The fact that Germany has a very specific, extraordinary perspective on European history and World War I due to its national experience and the fact that there are major differences in the cultures of remembrance in comparison with countries such as France or Great Britain became already apparent during the first meeting with the former Member of Parliament Patrick Kurth (FDP). He explained that World War I as the ‘seminal catastrophe’ of the last century or the ‘The Great War’ are much more present in the collective consciousness of other countries, whereas in German historiography National Socialism and World War II overshadow a lot of other aspects, some even consider it to be a prelude to World War II.

‘There’s a lot of things I learned I didn’t expect. Such in terms of commemoration. A lot of the big countries are centrally focused which I didn’t anticipate.’ (James Whitham, Canadian War Museum)

The German style of dealing with the past and commemoration caused a lot of interest and recognition amongst almost all the participants. István Zoltán Szecsey, Online Community Manager at the Hungarian Ministry of Defence seemed to be convinced that many of the things he learned about in Germany would simply be impossible in Hungary in this day and age. ‘This was my first time in Germany. I take a lot of things home with me, I can't count. You have a different kind of view of history and memory. Your monuments, your foundations, your museums are very interesting. What I've seen here gets me to a whole new level of thinking. I most liked the Holocaust memorial and the memorial of the book burning because of the perspective and the way of how you get in touch with your past.’

While many critical questions concerning the temporary exhibition at the German History Museum on ‘World War I’ were asked during the discussion with the curator Andreas Mix (Where is Serbia? Where is Adolf Hitler? Why don’t you show the Ottoman Empire as one of Germany´s most important allies?), the visit to the Military History Museum of the Federal Armed Forces in Dresden turned out to be the highlight of the week for many of the participants:

‘The museum in Dresden was very professionally done and I consider it to be the best temporary exhibition I've ever seen in Germany. ‘(Olev Liivik)

‘For me it was very interesting to visit the museums because in my country the museums are very conservative, especially museums devoted to the history or World War 2. I have seen some very good examples here how to organize exhibitions, especially in Dresden.’ (Aliaksei Bratachkin, online-magazine ‘Neues Europa’, Belarus)

‘I knew before coming here, that the Zentrum für Militärgeschichte und Sozialwissenschaften der Bundeswehr in Potsdam and the museum in Dresden were doing a very fine job. Still I was impressed by the work they do.’ (Jens Carl Kirchmeier-Andersen)

The expert discussion with Egon Bahr was a highlight. The statements this experienced statesman made in one and a half hours made the trip to Berlin for many participants worth the visit; and the fact that he praised the quality of their questions (which he himself was not always able to answers), indicates that the members of the delegation were very competent and professional.

One of the most important results of the program was the possibility to establish networks with the interlocutors as well as other members of the group. Regarding the highly topical nature of the subjects at international level very valuable contacts were established and ideas exchanged for the participants to promote their activities in their home countries, to foster future cooperation and develop follow-up projects. James Whitham described this as the most important effect of the programme. ‘As a country, as a nation Canada has to maybe work harder to establish better partnerships. Throughout the week I have actually established a number of different projects and initiatives. It's enlightened me as to where Canada fits into the international spectrum and it allowed me to establish networks for the Canadian War Museum to gain a greater presence in the international scene. It will never be one of the big players, but with the connections made through this week I hope we become a group of interest.’

‘To say in three words what I took from the program – it's new visions, ideas and plans. On the spot I made sketches on possible books and dissertations and exhibitions.’ (Hayk Demoyan)

The participating journalists confirmed unanimously that they had received more than enough ‘food’ for new publications and articles. The South Korean journalist Madi Yoo was very much inspired by the different views that exist in Asia and Europe regarding the Great Wars of the 20th century. ‘How Europeans deal with history is very important knowledge for me. I will write a few articles about the different perspectives in Asia and Europe on history.’

‘Having come here I have a precise story to tell as a journalist and to this all meetings contributed.’ (Konstantin von Eggert, Radio Kommersant, Russia)

One very important point that many participants made concerned the objectives that Germany pursues with its commemorative activities. For participants from Asia for example the mere fact that people talk so much about the past was quite remarkable, as Shota Kobayashi stated, journalist for the Japanese daily newspaper ‘Nikkei’. ‘The most surprising thing for me was the intention of the German people not to forget about World War 1 and 2, the intention of memorizing what happened.’

Saad Bashir Eskander, National Library of the Iraqi National Archive, too, is familiar with such a mentality in his home country where attempts are being made constantly to impede necessary dealings with national history. ‘Germany in many ways is a role model dealing with the past. For example, in Iraq we are afraid of talking frankly about the past. When we talk, we are polarized, left or right, there is no common ground. We don't agree like you do it here. Almost all agree on how to overcome that. Maybe we are ashamed on the inside to shed light on the crimes we committed. Instead of solving the problem of division we created more. We need some sort of forgiveness and dialogue.’

Instead of reconciliation and active dialogue in many of the participants’ home countries such as Iraq, still today a rather static public historiography prevails. How this could be changed was discussed several times during the program. Once again Saad Bashir Eskander: ‘I knew that Germany deals well with the past but I needed some more practical and direct information to make the most of this opportunity. In the Middle East as a region there are a lot of similarities, racist policies, wars, invasions, so Germany for me has been very important in terms of how to deal with the past and how to get over the wounds of the past and build a better future. That was for me important.’

Of course it is a very fundamental question to ask whether Germany could be a role model for other countries, which is what many of the participants confirmed. Learning a lesson from history instead of just exhibiting it was a major aspect of concern for the chief historian of the New Zealand Ministry for Culture and Cultural Heritage, Neill Brent Atkinson. ‘We tend to focus more on the past rather than what it means today. Which is in some ways a quite conservative form of commemoration.’

All the participants identified a wide-reaching societal consensus as a very important part of the German culture of remembrance, which is a prerequisite for special debates and most definitely not a matter of course in many other countries, Tatiana Nekrasova, Lomonossow University in Moscow, when drawing a comparison with Russia, stated: ‘I work the topic of German memorial policy quite a long time, it’s not that I didn’t know things before. But still the trip was very useful for me because I got an understanding of the sources and where it all comes from and that the whole society is involved in this process of keeping memory. The important question is how the consensus is achieved. We have problematic points, too, but we have no achievements to make consensus about it. Just different opinions.’

Tomás Bouška, Shoa Memorial in Prague Bubny indicated that this program really broadened his horizon – ‘After this trip I understand that the past of the whole past one hundred years are a big issue for Germany, not only the Second World War’ – and James Whitham again alluded to the broader historical context against the backdrop of which a most important and recent chapter of European history is being dealt with from a German viewpoint:

‘The End of the First World War created so many of the countries here today represented at our table. A lot of these places were not existing beforehand. But they still have hundreds of years of history.’

This part of history will make it necessary and exciting also in the future to discuss and learn how to come to terms with it and deal with it – and obviously Germany can make a major contribution to this discussion due to its experience. This is what all the participants became aware of according to their statements.

Ion Ionitá, chief editor of ‘Historia’ and journalist from Rumania concluded: ‘We have to keep memories. We have to find ways to attract new generations to be interested in the past but also looking into the future. This is very important – to observe the past but to see the future. I think this is the message of Germany today.’