Trend-setting reminders of a senseless slaughter of peoples Ruthless Criticism

Translated from GegenStandpunkt 3-2014

Political speeches and interpretations on the centenary of the First World War

Trend-setting reminders of a senseless slaughter of peoples

The 100th anniversary of the First World War has been organized as the “biggest media history event of the 21st century to date” (Spiegel 1/14). On the occasion of state proceedings packed with “commemorative events,” people will be able to enjoy highly official announcements about the lessons to be learned from the past for ‘us’ today. The nation, represented by its highest political representatives and with the participation of renowned historians and publicists, is thus presenting its current constitution, as well as its membership and leading position in the EU, as a historically well-founded consequence of the monumental ‘senselessness’ of that war, and thus in a somewhat transformed form. Connecting the current reason of state back to the now hundred-year-old past gives it the prestige of a respectable milestone on a long and difficult path towards a European community based on the values of peace and freedom; a path that also includes the overcoming of national ‘wrong turns’ with catastrophic outcomes. This brings meaning to the national past and present, and is intended to make the latter a little more irrefutable. In other words, old events are used for politics – political propaganda. The name of the game is ‘collective identity creation’ to promote a ‘continental community of remembrance’.

The speeches of politicians: historical meaning for their European program

It’s no secret that the past is used as a “first-class source of meaning” (Spiegel, 1/14). Not even the Federal President is fooling himself or anyone else: He speaks with the greatest matter-of-factness about the “various European narratives” with their “different accounts of the war in Europe.” Of course, as a diplomatic president, he lets this pluralism of nationally biased perspectives stand, even though they must often seem outrageous to him. For example, it does not fit well with the image of the Franco-German ‘Entente Cordiale’ that the two countries are divided by a largely divergent ‘culture of remembrance’. La Grande Nation continues to celebrate its victorious ‘Grande Guerre’ against its former ancestral enemy as a glorious heroic epic. The battles of the Marne and Somme serve as a symbol of the nation’s cohesion and sacrifice against the German aggressor and rank just behind July 14 in France’s official memory keeping. Some French leaders already fear that – especially at a time when the President of the European Parliament sees a rise in “prejudices about other peoples or even enemy images that were believed long overcome” (Schulz, FAS, 3.16) – an all too ghastly flag-waving patriotism could undermine the friendship between nations and the neighboring state on the other side of the Rhine. A danger that does not come from Germany. Here, people are still grappling with the tiresome question of war guilt and trying to make up moral ground with the lukewarm thesis that there were ‘actually’ and ‘ultimately’ no victors in Europe in 1918, meaning that there is nothing to celebrate. In this sense, the “highest representative of the new, good Germany” (FR, 3.8) calls for a higher kind of remembrance: the question, not only for this dedicated European, is “how it might be possible to arrive at a common European narrative of this primordial catastrophe” (Gauck, 6.27). A rhetorical question. Right at the beginning of the commemorative year, the “commemoration pro Gauck” (Spiegel, 4/14) brought an overarching perspective into play that is suitable for overshadowing the victory rhetoric of all nationalities without putting too much strain on the national pride of the former victorious powers: “Gauck can only imagine dealing with the First World War as respect for the suffering of those who were fought by us back then.” (Spiegel 1/14) This sets a tone that is ideally suited to a European-oriented ‘culture of remembrance’:

‘Humanity’ as victim and perpetrator

From a purely human perspective, it is immediately apparent: ‘we’ not only caused a great deal of suffering, but also suffered. At European commemorative events, the speakers nobly disregard all the antagonisms that were fought out in this war and that took the incessantly cited ‘toll in blood’ in such memorable quantities, only to appear ostentatiously “perplexed and stunned” (Gauck, 8.3) that this war, with its countless dead, war-damaged, injured and broken families, brought endless suffering to ‘the people’ of all countries. The President of the European Council at the European Heads of State and Government Remembrance Day in Ypres: “This commemoration is above all about the millions who were killed on all sides, on all fronts.” (van Rompuy) This stylizes the war into a shared story of suffering.

But who inflicted so much suffering on ‘humanity’? This has been the subject of a lot of philosophizing and interpretation. Ultimately, however, there is only one possible answer: ‘Humans’! “It was humans who literally tried and used every means at their disposal to destroy each other. It is humans alone who can act inhumanely.” (Gauck, 8.8.) Which is why ‘inhumane actions’ are typically human. Under the mark of this slander – reminiscent of the idiocy of original sin – it makes no difference who incites people and who allows themselves to be incited, who gives an order to act and who has to obey it. ‘Humans’ attack each other in their pure humanity, stripped of any national uniform. Not to break the will of an enemy state, but to massacre ‘each other’ and ‘by any means necessary’. As if these means existed without state procurement and could be used without a state mandate.

Whether the commemorative speakers present ‘human’ as a general victim or as a general perpetrator, both are a diplomatic boon for the Federal Republic of Germany. At least at international commemorative events, the old antagonisms between nations, along with the tiresome obligations, recede into the background. In this way, the suffering of the human subject and its dark side become the common denominator for the “most terrible and darkest times in our common history” (Gauck, 8.3) and at the same time a symbol for the general validity of the lessons that official commemorative speakers derive from this period. Respect for human suffering, like shock at humanity’s infernal possibilities, is regularly the overture to its instrumentalization for political conclusions. In order to avoid any doubt as to what these can only be, a war victim of a higher kind is regularly brought up: ‘the continent’. The European one, of course. Other theaters of war in this world war are not so important in this context. The First World War is thus given a concept tailored to today’s need for meaning:

The self-laceration of the continent

After all, ‘14/18’ marked the beginning of the end of the supremacy of European nations. Although they were bitter enemies at the time, some of them were still global leaders. If you look at their war against each other from the point of view of their current global political ambition of being a united Europe as a collective loss of meaning, the war of hostile powers becomes a “fratricidal war” (Gauck, 8.4) and the struggle for supremacy in Europe becomes a self-laceration of Europe. An excess of senselessness! But what makes no sense – to today – appears to the historicizing politicians as sheer incomprehensible madness from the outset: the war as a “collective madness” that brought a “spiral of self-laceration over this continent of civilized nations” (van Rompuy). It is in this sense that the Chancellor defines the now valid symbolism of legendary battlefields: “Places like Ypres or Verdun stand for the self-laceration of the entire continent of Europe” (6.25). This interpretation of the events of that time is self-evident – who advocates ‘madness’ and ‘self-laceration’?

Lessons for Europe’s future

The statesmen teaching history do not have to wrack their brains much about its substance. What Europe is today, or the idealized form in which its creators want it to be seen in terms of values, is already the entire substance of the historical wisdom: a political unity is to be institutionalized in Europe that makes ‘self-destructive’ armed conflicts impossible and a global political resurgence of the continent possible. Both – thanks to the politicians – have long been in progress. “The unity of Europe is the lesson of history that has been institutionalized.” (Gauck, 3.8.) But here a historic mission is also included: “Tireless work must continue” on the European project. This applies in particular to countries and peoples for whom the advantages of the project are no longer immediately apparent. There must be no “relapse into the nation state” (Gauck, 6.27); one must not “give in to populist movements with anti-European slogans” (Gauck, 3.8.). The Chancellor knows why:

“With European unification, we have learned our lessons from bloody conflicts and a painful history. We citizens of the European Union are united in our happiness ... We must protect the promise of the happiness of a Europe, united in peace and freedom for future generations. It is not the law of the strongest that will prevail in the long term, but the strength of the law; that is our conviction. It secures peace, freedom and prosperity, and that is Europe today. That is why the European Union, despite all its difficulties, is attractive and a good model for the future. I am firmly convinced that the model of a fair balance of interests is the model for the future, and not only for Europe. Those who only focus on their own interests end up harming themselves the most.” (Merkel, June 25)

However, war enemies do not draw shared ‘lessons’ from ‘bloody conflicts and a painful history’ so easily. The first lesson ‘we’ learned was to try again with a fascistically reorganized nation. Peace is not the lesson of war, but rather its result, which winners and losers build new strategies for success on. It was only after the second defeat, which was also the beginning of a global confrontation between superpowers, that most of the ruling nationalists in Europe realized that their nations could only achieve relative world dominance not against each other, but only together vis-a-vis the American superpower and in alliance with it against the Soviet Union. The Chancellor celebrates this strategic reorientation in the form of a hymn to happy values such as peace and unity. This is a revealing praise: it thrives on a war that does not take place because states, which are still capable of war, which have already demonstrated in practice that they are able to master the transition to war in the interests of maintaining and expanding their power, are eschewing it. The fact that this eschewal of military, rather than economic, competition in Western Europe – the competition of weapons had its new addressee in the East – was owed to extremely ambitious global political goals does not necessarily have to be made a big deal of in ceremonial commemorative speeches. It is more appropriate to talk about ‘our happiness’, which Europe bestows on its state members and their human inventory simply by granting them ‘peace and freedom’. Of course, this kind of ‘happiness’ is becoming less evident so drastically in some areas that the Chancellor takes the precaution of pointing out that it must be protected by the state for ‘future generations’.

The Chancellor presents the ‘strength of the law’ as the guarantor of war-free European welfare. Clauses in law books are to substitute for war. This equation reveals a lot about the law, which Mrs. Merkel praises with the euphemistic label of a ‘fair balance of interests’. In fact, the validity of a legal system means that interests are subordinated to the law. That is why the ‘strength’ of the law is important. The validity of the law is not given with its existence on paper. However, in order to function, these forms of interstate competition depend on states agreeing with their monopolistic ‘strength’ on binding rules for their competition, which thereby gives them the form of binding legal relationships. This does not put an end to the struggle for national gains in wealth and power, but rather serves it, in that all states involved in this set of rules agree to seek their fortunes in ‘peaceful’ competition for business and profit, and rely on this agreement to make their competitors the source of national progress. However, the less than happy results of this competition, which nowadays have nothing to do with prosperity in an ever-increasing number of European countries, but rather with ‘over-indebtedness’ and drastic EU requirements to restore their debt capacity, must be accepted or dealt with constructively. The citizens of such countries are having their own experiences with ‘our happiness’ à la Merkel.

This does not mean that the ‘promise of happiness’ will not be kept: Over the years, winning and losing nations have separated within European ‘unity’ in very peaceful and different ways. In the meantime, the Federal Republic has even achieved a leading role in Europe – which is not dissimilar to Germany’s war aims in both world wars. [1] No wonder, then, that the ‘European community of states’ has replaced war, in the eyes of the Chancellor, with law. It is no coincidence that she praises the principle of mutually agreed competition as an attractive ‘model for the future’, even beyond the scope of European law. A state that does not play by the rules will ‘end up hurting itself the most’. That is the Chancellor’s ‘firm conviction’, and it should not be confused with a non-binding expression of opinion: Mrs. Merkel, who is appearing here in the name of the great ‘we’ of European ‘citizens’, ultimately belongs to the exclusive circle of those who will use their power, if necessary, to cause the hurt.

In this and similar ways, the arias on Europe’s civilizational achievements are constantly accompanied by warnings of an impending relapse into old confrontations. The French President emphasizes the “urgent need for a united Europe in order to guarantee solidarity and peace” and does not even notice which monsters he assumes to be the subjects of this peace. Apparently, they have to be persuaded with all kinds of precautions and offers not to attack each other with their competing national claims and dissatisfactions. With this in mind, the President of the European Commission takes the precaution of pointing out that it can be dangerous if anyone starts to doubt the ‘happiness’ that Europe offers its members or even starts to think otherwise: “Anyone who doubts Europe, who despairs of Europe, should visit military cemeteries.” (Junker, FAZ, 6.27) The anniversary of the beginning of the war is therefore preferably commemorated at military cemeteries and memorials to the fallen, which “symbolize the senselessness and horror of those years” (Gauck on the “Man-Eater Mountain” Hergensweiler, 8.3) and thus “can give meaning to the Europe of today” (Hollande, ibid., 8.3). Of course, none of the speakers really believes that the emergency case of their chit-chat is imminent. But the potential emergency, the elimination of which obviously took two world wars and today the containment of an entire European unification project and the constantly renewed will to hold on to this alliance of states despite all the dissatisfaction, because such dissatisfaction threatens to quickly lead to a completely different competition between the powers, comes in handy for their European advertising. Where law replaces war, war can also replace law. So when the ‘strength of law’ fades, many things that have been forgotten in Europe’s affluent societies become ‘imaginable’ again. And this idea is healing, a killer of any criticism of the EU in general and its leading power in particular: “It is true: Europe is a difficult project. But our ancestors on the battlefields would have liked to have had our difficulties.” (Gauck, 8.3) How uplifting: compared to the absolute horror of gas warfare, Europe is not doing so badly.

The small contradiction that it is the same subjects who ethically praise their peace among themselves as an epochal achievement, but at the same time have the most modern war equipment at the ready as a last resort to defend their interests, does not bother the government-authorized speakers. On the contrary: “Is it impossible that something similar could happen again today? That is entirely up to us, who bear responsibility today, and the lessons we learn from history.” (Steinmeier, FAZ, 1.25) The Foreign Minister paints a pessimistic picture of the danger of war, which only powerful politicians like him can escalate into an emergency, in order to point out – with its potential danger – the importance of people like him drawing the right lessons from the war. The potential cannon fodder can be happy that the nation has such a man in office!

But it should not rejoice too soon. The lessons of history also tell us that maintaining peace, both European and global, also requires war, and the most powerful power in Europe can no longer ‘hold back’. The President of the Federal Republic of Germany has recently stated this repeatedly without any historical backing. On the occasion of the commemoration ceremonies, however, he does not miss the opportunity to exaggerate Europe’s order-endowing emergence as a “shared responsibility for the world” resulting from the war. And he also lists the modern war headings: “We cannot remain indifferent when human rights are disregarded, when violence is threatened or practiced. We must actively stand up for freedom and justice, for enlightenment and tolerance, for justice and humanity.” (Gauck, 8.4) The lesson from a ‘senseless’ war is not no war, but a meaningful one.

The politics of commemoration culture – a challenge for the historians’ guild

Where politicians, in their ceremonial speeches on major anniversaries, give their politics the beautiful appearance of being a responsible use of state power that is saturated with historical experience, where, by referring to historical lessons that they have taken to heart today, they describe their competition for power as the fulfillment of a higher obligation to their own and other nations that ennobles all political interests and calculations, and with this exaggeration of the value of their current actions, they claim an irrefutable right to their use of power – this is where historians are in their element. When dealing with state affairs of their own and other nations’ past, they start from the ironclad premise that the relevant interpretations, the “national view of history,” are the guiding maxims of political action – in fact, ultimately the really decisive ones – but are all too rarely consciously followed by historically ‘blind’ politicians who are caught up in ‘day-to-day business’. With corresponding seriousness and partisan zeal, they see it as their task to ensure a correct, ‘deeper’ historical understanding and awareness among the relevant actors and their national rank and file. With this in mind, a representative of the historical profession publicly justifies the national importance of scholarly engagement with the First World War:

“It is hardly possible to pursue responsible politics in Europe today if you have the idea that we were to blame for everything. (...) When it comes to foreign policy, we tend to think: Because we are historically guilty, we don’t have to, or may not, participate anywhere in foreign policy; so we’d rather buy our freedom when it comes to stabilizing Europe on the edges of the crisis.” (Münkler, SZ, 1.4)

The man of science is convinced that the correct view of the past is what enables state-makers to act responsibly in the first place. In doing so, he resolutely looks away from all the national business and power interests that make up today’s German policy in Europe and beyond and furthermore defines the responsibility of the activists of a leading German power. In his eyes, the current ambitions and power interests of German European and world politics are only the ostensible, superficial appearance of underlying, deeper determinants of political action, the mere result of a correct or incorrect image of the historically guaranteed higher tasks of ‘responsible’ politics. Their responsibility is therefore not defined alongside the democratically established value horizon of a policy based on the spirit of obligation to the citizens, but rather on an obligation to ‘history’ that goes far beyond this. Current politicians are missing out on this if they do not allow themselves to be guided and inspired by the correct, historically powerful idea of a world-historic mission that reaches ‘beyond all daily conflicts’. The critical academic goes on to say what this mission – at present – consists of: acting decisively and self-confidently as an ‘ordering’ and ‘stabilizing’ power, at least in Europe, and ultimately, of course, beyond!

From this high vantage point, he believes that there is a lot wrong with this country. To his historically trained eye, Germany’s not exactly restrained actions as a leading European power in its immediate and wider state environment appear to be a meek renunciation of global political ‘shaping’. And he finds the reason for this in a false historical self-image, a morally proven view of the national past that paralyzes German politics. This is crazy enough in view of practical politics as well as in view of the offensive justifications given by Merkel & Co. Where German politicians refer to the disastrous historical experience to agitate for more expansive national and also increased military responsibility, the concerned historian sees nothing but hesitation and shying away from the obligations that power, including and especially German power, has historically, due to a morally wrongly polarized national collective memory.

As historians, they must liberate politics from this -- according to their self-image – by making politicians aware of their responsibility to history and providing the nation with a correct historical image: one that relieves the actors of the paralyzing sense of guilt that they have supposedly acquired from two world wars, frees them from political scruples and inspires them to intervene energetically as a leading power commissioned by history, at least in Europe and, of course, beyond. Historians owe it to themselves not to make this task easy for themselves.

The article will be continued in the next GegenStandpunkt in order to provide an insight into the history of the First World War.

[1] From the ‘September Program’ of the then Reich Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg (1914), for example, it emerges that “the entire continent should be brought together in an economic association under the dominance of Germany” (J. Röhl, SZ 3.5)