The Centenary in Germany
In Germany, the First World War doesn’t have the same resonance as it does in France and on the face of it, it is difficult to find traces of it. In fact, whilst the Second World War, which brought ruin to the people of Germany , its economy and its morale, and left many scars on the German psyche, what is now the Federal Republic of Germany was unaffected physically by the fighting between 1914 and 1918. Even so, more than a year before the beginning of the Centenary, Germany is already at an advanced stage in its planning for the remembrance of the conflict. In the 16 Länder (states), as a whole there are around 80 projects already underway, whilst a further ten are at the planning stage. It’s clearly at regional level, within a country which has historically been decentralised, that the preparation of the Centenary is at its most advanced.
Strong interest in the Länder (States which make up Germany)
At local level
The Länder are the reflection of a rich local history and a tradition of autonomy which is still very perceptible. Because of the long history that Germany has (the importance attached to jubilees and anniversaries is significant), they have explored and analysed their own past in minute detail. It is therefore not surprising that more than half of the projects launched to mark the Centenary are focussed on regional history, at town or/and small region and/or Länder level. So, in the industrial North Rhine-Westphalia state, the Landschaftsverband Rheinland (which is a grouping of cultural associations in the State) has, this year launched the project “1914 – at the heart of Europe” (1914 – Mitten in Europa) : a series of events involving eleven museums and cultural institutions, with the principal aim of depicting the North Rhine-Westphalia as it was as a European industrial centre on the eve of the conflict. On a more modest scale, the spa towns of Wiesbaden and Bad Wildungen are planning exhibitions about their towns as they were during the war, as part of a more general project for the Hesse museums on the spa towns at war (Der Kurort im Krieg).
From local to national scale
However many projects have developed beyond their local dimension in order to deal with more general subjects.
This happens sometimes when a local theme is used which is likely to also attract visitors from the surrounding towns and cities. So it is with a project about “Weimar, symbol of German culture before and during the First World War” that the Klassik Stiftung (cultural foundation) of Weimar will deal with in a much wider theme: “The war of minds” (Krieg der Geister).
Other transversal subjects are based on the special characteristics of the cultural institutions, like the petroleum museum of Wietze (Lower Saxony), which will be organising an exhibition on petroleum in the First World War. On a wider angle, the German History Museum in Berlin (Deutsches Historisches Museum) will be staging a major exhibition from June to October 1914 on “the war of the empires” (Krieg der Imperien – der Erste Weltkrieg 1914-1918).
Education and teaching will be very much a part of the projects. Although it is too early to see what all the school projects will be like, teachers are already making preparations. For example, the association of history teachers of Lower Saxony (Niedersächsischer Geschichtslehrerverband) will, during a seminar to be held in Hanover in February 2014, be looking at teaching in the First World War, by studying notably what Franco-German history course books have to say about it.
An international dimension
Taking this principle of expansion a step further, several projects involve bi-national or international cooperation. This involves other countries in varying ways.
- A twinning or local particular arrangement: the city of Hohenlockstedt (Schleswig-Holstein) is planning to devote an exhibition to the teaching which was done here by Finnish volunteers (finnische Jäger) from 1915 onwards. This exhibition will also be organised in the twin city of Lapua, in Finland.
- A university or cultural partnership: the French Institute for History in Germany (IFHA) , based in Frankfurt-am-Main, plans to add an extra day for study to the exhibition which is planned for 2014 at the city’s history museum (Historisches Museum) about the colonial soldiers during the First World War.
Projects for understanding and learning lessons
This overview also gives an insight to the strong civic characteristics of the projects, in accordance with the way in which history is taught and explained in Germany today. Indeed many people think it should be used to examine the causes, the effects and the consequences of the war and to learn the lessons from it for the present and the future. The regional museum of Bonn, through an exhibition of colour photographs on the eve of the war (1914 – Welt in Farbe – Farbfotografie vor dem Krieg), intends to draw a parallel between the colour picture, seen as an international means of communication for promoting understanding between peoples and the “war of images” which would soon break out. At the other end of the timescale, the documentation centre Reichsparteitagsgelände of Nuremberg is planning an exhibition which examines how the First World War opened the door to the Second World War.
An unequal investment
To finish on, we should note that not all the Länder appear, for the moment at least, to be showing the same level of investment. This contrast is perhaps explained by the heterogeneity of their stature or their involvement in the First World War. Although the “City-States” of Bremen and Hamburg have nothing planned for the time being, North Rhine Westphalia and Lower Saxony, whose industrial base was affected by the First World War, are the most active States with 19 and 11 projects respectively. Added to this is the special case of Berlin. The capital, which has always had a very strong cultural scene, already has 16 projects underway, of which eleven are coordinated and run by the Berlin organisation of State museums (Staatliche Museen zu Berlin).
The involvement of the federal government
In contrast, the involvement of the federal government seems at the moment to be more limited. In a country where the Länder have very considerable autonomy, the room for manoeuvre of the Bund is particularly limited. Furthermore, the federal Republic is not geared up to big days of national unity. Its very restricted commemorative calendar does not go back before 1945 and its “unity day” (Tag der Einheit) is reunification day, on 3 October 1990. The fact that there is no existing anniversary date for the First World War in the national calendar makes the task even more complicated.
The chancellery does not for the moment have a working group dedicated to the Centenary. However, in order to be able to respond to the entreaties from numerous foreign countries, the Foreign Affairs Ministry (Auswärtiges Amt) has appointed a contact person, Mr. Andreas Meitzner, who is deputy director of the culture and communication department.
This is no doubt a first sign of an acknowledgement of the issues surrounding this anniversary which goes well beyond national borders.