My personal VE Day

Matthias Matussek
5 May 2005

It seems to be an act of public suicide for a post-war German to criticise the British view of history on a day like VE day. To do so is to be cursed as a Nazi nostalgic or an irredeemable loser.

But several British colleagues have asked me for an strongly worded polemic about the British obsession with Germany and the war.

So, here goes: we Germans consider VE day the day when the Hitler terror was finally vanquished.

We have learnt the meaning of mourning and have a determination never to allow another genocide.

In contrast, our British neighbours have not learnt much more than the triumphalist trumpeting of the victor.

We Germans confront the guilt and shame of our past daily, and more thoroughly and obsessively than probably any other nation on earth has done. Even 60 years after the end of the horrors, we are still preoccupied, perhaps even more so now than before. In the heart of the capital a holocaust memorial in the shape of a forest of grey cement posts has just been inaugurated.

Every German schoolchild knows the tales of German atrocities. But in England Prince Harry parties with a swastika arm band. Eighty per cent of youngsters don’t know what Auschwitz was about, but each one will be familiar with the heroic films about the “Battle of Britain” as if they personally had kicked the Hun up the backside.

Where does this giddy pride come from – and the lack of sensitivity toward the victims?

The Russians in the meantime consider us friends, even though they lost 25 million people in the fight against the Nazi horde. They respect us as a hard-working, peace-loving people who have emerged renewed from the devastation.

The British, who only survived thanks to the Russians and Americans, behave as if they had conquered Hitler’s hordes single-handedly. And they continue to see us as Nazis, as if they had to refight the battles every evening. They are positively enchanted by this Nazi dimension.

The British love to hate us Germans. So much so that my ten year old son was chased by English school kids chanting “Nazi, Nazi”. In fact, the hunt for Nazis has become a neurotic English parlour game. The British really enjoy raking over the German past instead of devoting themselves to their own. In psychoanalysis this is called a “substitute act”.

Perhaps VE day is, as my friend Anthony Barnett from openDemocracy wrote to me, the perfect point in time for the British to grow up and say goodbye to their subterfuges. For example, the delusion that war was declared on Germany in solidarity with the persecuted Jews, as Tony Blair claimed not so long ago in an Observer interview.

This is far from the truth, as is well known outside the island. The British policy of appeasement handed Hitler a victory over Czechoslovakia. By delaying the war it made it worse. Nazi Germany enjoyed great sympathy, above all from the British aristocracy. Israel’s prime minister Kazav rightly pointed this out during the recent Auschwitz ceremonies: the British did nothing to stop the holocaust.

The English history books say nothing about the passivity of the Allies towards the holocaust. They also ignore, as recently demonstrated in the Independent, other dark sides to the empire. A new revisionism is afoot. Gordon Brown has just declared that there is nothing about the Empire of which the British need be ashamed. Instead, New Labour increasingly philosophises about the blessings of being British, with no sense of their being a dark side, as with all other peoples.

Back to the war. The Churchill government had evidence from Polish resistance forces about the Nazi camps as early as 1940. And by 1944 there were precise aerial photographs of the Auschwitz concentration camp. A few bombs targeting the railway lines would have stopped the death transports. Nothing like this happened. Instead of saving Jews, the British preferred bombing Dresden and other German towns in order to destroy the cultural face of their hated neighbour once and for all.

Of course this is terrible.

Even when the horrors of the Nazis were laid bare, the British colonial powers did not exactly treat the Jews with great care. I have never understood how the British colonial masters could send the starved survivors of the concentration camps who hoped to emigrate to Palestine straight back, often to the very camps from which they had been released.

This is not talked about. Instead the British peruse the third post-war German generation carefully for signs of Nazi contamination.

This was evident again recently. I had been asked to a panel discussion about Oliver Hirschbiegel’s film The Downfall.

The panellists, chaired by Max Hastings, insisted on seeing the film, which showed Hitler’s last dark days in the bunker, as evidence of a new German Hitler nostalgia.

This was supported by the daftest arguments. For example: the music had been very tragic. What is one supposed to expect in a film about murder and suicide, about senseless soldierly loyalty and the sinister swallowing of cyanide capsules? The Beatles?

The film showed youngsters abandoning their loyalty to Hitler in the final days of the war. Didn’t happen, the panellists pronounced. They were all enthusiastic Hitler youths, right to the end. And that makes the foundations of the new Germany highly suspect, even today.

Some thought Hitler had been portrayed as too human, others felt he was shown to be too inhuman. It was his inhumanity that made the German people look like victims. And so on. You can twirl these pirouettes of interpretation endlessly. But the intention is always the same: to show the barbaric nature of Germans, that they are still not civilised. The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung recently, and rightly, called this “moral arrogance”.

Meanwhile the British have no shortage of good subjects for debate. I suggested to the panel that my British friends should occupy themselves with the problems of Britain’s past, with the massacres of the Boer war, with the infamous Opium wars, with the concentration camps of Kenya in the 50s.

There was a fluster of excitement about this in the press. But that evening I received applause for these remarks. Applause from a thoughtful British public.

I believe the official British triumphalism has to do with the Iraq war. If you continuously inflate your self importance with memories of grandeur in the Second World War, if you endlessly replay your “finest hour”, you will have a distorted view of the moral problems of today.

A Britain which assumes itself too much in possession of all virtue has dangerously self-aggrandising features. Through deception and manoeuvrings you can find yourself going into a war that breaks international law and costs thousands of innocent civilian lives – simply because of an uncritical faith in a historic mission. For Tony Blair, it seems to me, “Rule Britannia” applies to the moral sphere as well.

I have learnt from history that Germany did not lose on VE Day, but on the day when Hitler took power. On the day, when a leader and manipulator appeared, who was convinced of his own historic mission and trampled on right and humanity.

On this day the losers were German culture, spirit, decency. The losers were Luther, Goethe and Bach. VE day also is the day on which they won again, with the help of the Russians, the Americans and the British.

And incidentally, if it had not been for VE Day I would not be here today. My father, who as a Catholic had a mistrust of the regime (though he had been dazzled in the early days) told me how he had longed for this VE Day. Not least because he did not want to die in a senseless war that had already been lost two years earlier in the battle for Stalingrad.

For me VE Day is an occasion for joy and gratitude, but also for soul searching. Like so many of my generation I have visited Buchenwald concentration camp – near Weimar, where Goethe and Schiller shaped the pinnacle of German classic culture, and I was stunned to the core at what man can do to man. And sad. Sadder than I ever could tell. And helpless.

And the worst of it: I knew that this continues. Man continues to do this to man. War, massacres, holocaust, these are – sadly – not German specialities. They are universal. Perhaps that is one of the lessons we should all learn from VE day: that those too are guilty who look the other way and don’t interfere when a people is decimated, whether Jews, Tutsi, Armenian, Cambodian, Russian or Chinese.

We all must learn, losers as well as victors, British and Germans together. Only then will this VE day be one for mankind.

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