CAT | Special blogs
I have engaged in a controversy with a former colleague and old friend about May 8, 1945. I had sent him my lecture, which we posted on our blog, and he sent me a paper which he had presented to his students. He thinks my lecture is too radical, I consider his too mild.
My friend builds his paper around the tension between “defeat versus liberation”. Of course, great majorities in the countries conquered, oppressed, or devastated by the German armies and their allies felt and actually were liberated, as were the survivors in the camps. In Germany, however, in contrast to those in the camps, in the prisons, in hiding or in exile, the great majority rather felt defeated, even though most of them were glad that the war had finally come to an end. They feared for their future, their freedom, or even their lives. Many became prisoners of war, others went to gaol, millions had to leave their homes and flee, and yes, very many died. For the great majority who survived, everyday-life was extremely harsh.
But these were not the only reasons why the concept of liberation was rejected by most Germans at the time. Even though almost everybody accepted that the mass murder of the Jews had been a monstrous crime and the attack on Russia at least a “mistake”, and even though many were critical of Nazis bosses, less of Hitler himself, their identification with the regime and much of its ideology and practice had been so great that they felt disillusioned at best, not liberated.
So one would think that the gradual acceptance of the term, over years, even decades represented progress and a growing disassociation from the Nazi past. In fact, our Federal President Richard von Weizsaecker said as much in his speech at the Bundestag on May 8, 1985: “(…) with every day something became clearer, and this must be stated on behalf of all of us today: the 8th of May was a day of liberation. It liberated all of us from the inhumanity and tyranny of the National-socialist regime.” The old and the new Nazis did not like this speech at all and many conservatives had problems with it. Yet many Germans and many officials and common people among Germany’s allies and former enemies considered it one of the best speeches
ever given by a high-ranking German politician in the post-war years.
Well, use of the term liberation is neither unequivocal nor uniformly positive and Weizsaecker’s speech not as faultless as it may seem at first glance.
The Communists had quickly declared May 8, 1945 the “day of liberation of the German people from Hitler’s fascism”; in 1950 it became a public holiday in the German Democratic Republic. One of at least two bitter ironies in this was, of course, that they threw East Germany into another, although much less powerful dictatorship. The other was that they rejected any responsibility for the consequences of the Nazi regime and also denied the historical co-responsibility of the Soviet Union, the Communist International, and the German Communists for the destruction of the European order and German democracy between the wars. In 1975, the GDR even celebrated May 8 as the day of victory!
In his famous speech, Richard von Weizsaecker describes and analyzes (West) Germany’s moral, political, and historical place in the community of nations 40 years after May 8, 1945. The speech is well worded, very open, and very honest. (It is available in English under www.mediaculture-online.de/fileadmin/bibliothek/weizsaecker_speech_may85/
weizsaecker_speech_may 85.pdf). He strongly connects May 8, 1945 with January 30, 1933, i.e. the defeat and the burdens which it brought on the German people with Hitler’s regime, and he lists all the damages and suffering which it caused, including not only the suffering of Russians and Poles and the mass murder of the Jews but also – which is rarely done – of Sinti and Roma, of homosexuals, of handicapped children and adults. He calls for remembering the victims of the resistance in territories occupied “by us” and he honors the victims of the resistance within Germany, including the Communist resistance, rarely acknowledged officially in West Germany.
He also states very clearly that every German, even if he or she had not been involved in the Holocaust directly, could have seen what happened to the Jews. Whoever wanted to know could easily find out that trains were deporting people: “When the unspeakable truth of the Holocaust then became known at the end of the war, all too many of us claimed that they had not known anything about it or even suspected anything.” So Weizsaecker acknowledges that the elder generation had left a grave legacy to the majority of the Germans of 1985, who were born during or after the war: “All of us, whether guilty or not, whether old or young, must accept the past. We are all affected by its consequences and liable for it.”
There is much more which is valuable and important in Weizsaecker’s speech, but in a few places he was not honest enough or too timid, for whatever reasons. He says, for example, that Hitler made the entire German nation “a tool of (his) immeasurable hatred against our Jewish compatriots,” but that the genocide of the Jews, unparalleled in history, had been “in the hands of a few people”. He does call for everyone who directly experienced the Nazi era to “quietly ask himself about his involvement then”. The English translation is very generous here. Weizsaecker uses the term “Verstrickung”, which suggests much less agency than the term “involvement”; it might easily be translated as “becoming enmeshed in” or as “getting entangled or caught up in”.
Later in the speech, Weizsaecker says: “Along the road to disaster Hitler became the driving force. He wipped up and exploited mass hysteria. (…) The initiative for the war (…) came from Germany, not from the Soviet Union. It was Hitler who resorted to the use of force. (…) In the course of that war the Nazi regime tormented and defiled many nations.” So Hitler and the Nazi regime again become the central agents of the great European catastrophe. Where are the German elites, where the many rank and file who not only supported the regime but were its active participants? About half a million Germans alone had been involved, in different roles, in the murder of the Jews, and millions more in the German armies had fought a war of aggression, conquest, destruction and annihilation, particularly in the East. How could it be that “most Germans had believed that they were fighting and suffering for the good of their country”, as the Federal President says at the beginning. How could conquest, aggression, and war crimes have been regarded as a way of “fighting for the good of your country”?
Nowhere does Weizsaecker mention that too many of the active perpetrators had never been called to account for their deeds, or only in very limited ways. Too many of them had made easy fortunes again in the liberated Germany. Yes, of course we had been liberated on May 8, 1945, from a terrible regime and from the war. But liberation from Nazism in German hearts and minds took much, much longer, and it still has not been fully completed. And for many Germans, liberation became a way of liberating themselves from their responsibilities. Hitler and the Nazis had not come over Germany and fortunately been taken away again.
Toward the very end of his speech, Weizsaecker says: “We in the older generation owe to young people not the fulfilment of dreams but honesty. (…) We want to help them to accept historical truth soberly, not one-sidedly, without taking refuge in utopian doctrines, but also without moral arrogance. (…) let us face up as well as we can to the truth.” But how can I – without moral arrogance – begin to forgive my father for his involvement, if he never told me the complete truth about it? What he told me was only part of the truth, and what he told my half-brother was at least partly a cover-up. Weizsaecker spoke big and important truths; his speech was a huge step forward. But even he did not tell the complete truth. Perhaps he made a deliberate decision that it would be imprudent, even counterproductive, to address more of the taboos in the German debate about the Nazi era and May 8, 1945 than he already had.
Special travel blog by Gert Krell
We are back from a week in Leipzig, where we had never been before. One reason to go was this year’s Bach festival there. I had read “Bach und ich” by the famous Dutch novelist Marten t’Haart in spring. I had also heard a long interview with him on the radio, where he indicated to my surprise that he did not regard the Netherlands as enlightened and as liberal as it seemed to many Germans. He indicated that he might even emigrate, if things (i.e. right-wing populism) got worse. When asked where he might go, he answered: probably to Leipzig. I now understand why.
Today, after twenty years of continuous restoration, Leipzig is a beautiful city again. It has the largest concentration of “Gründerzeit” buildings in Germany, large rows of big apartment buildings from the second half of the 19th century with richly decorated facades, stately but never pompous. The whole atmosphere in the city is one of spacious generosity. Leipzig also has two of the most prominent Protestant churches in Germany: the Thomaskirche with the famous Thomas Choir, which will celebrate its 800th birthday next year; and the Nikolaikirche, which was the center of the peaceful revolution in the German Democratic Republic in 1989.
Leipzig once was the fourth largest German city, but it lost about one sixth of its population during the years of Communist rule; after the “Wende” (the “turning point”, i.e. the end of the Communist regime), another 30.000 left for the “golden West”. Today, many Saxons work in Austria’s and West Germany’s gastronomy, as bus drivers or conductors, or in the security services. Leipzig is only no. 12 in the list of major cities now, but it is growing again.
Leipzig used to be an important industrial and political center, it was the cradle of both the German workers’and the womens’ movements in the mid-nineteenth-century. Most of all, it was a cultural focal point. It housed many famous publishers of literature, including music publishers. In the course of the 19th century, it had more than 100 piano factories, at one time about 20 simultaneously. With few exceptions, that is all gone. Fortunately, Leipzig still is a center of musical performance and education, which it has almost always been since the days of Johann Sebastian Bach, Robert and Clara Schumann, and Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy. It still has one of the best musical schools in Germany, founded by FMB in 1843 and still (or rather: again) carrying his name. And it has one of the world’s best orchestras, the famous “Gewandhausorchester”. There is music in the city everywhere.
The major reason why we went to Leipzig was that Lutz, one of our closest friends, had invited us to visit the city where he was born during the war and raised under the Communists. Lutz had been an active member of the Protestant Church then and showed this at school. His reports included the sentence: “Lutz does not show any willingness to join in the building of socialism.” This meant that he was not allowed to go to high school. All that was offered him was to become a cement mixer. The family then decided to leave their home and move to West Germany via Berlin, which was still possible in the late 1950s.
When I got to know Lutz in my student years, his lively and authentic discussion of “real socialism” was a very important corrective against my naïve illusions about the other German state. Well, there are still people all over my country who believe that the German Democratic Republic had been a “genuine alternative democratic experiment”. That is ridiculous, if you consider how the Communists treated any opposition to their total political control, including death sentences and strategies of personal psychological “Zersetzung”. That was the official term; it means something like “decomposition”! The Nazis had used the term widely to discredit non-conformism.
Some of the scars of our history are more visible than these stories of individual suffering. There are still many empty spaces in Leipzig’s built-up areas, gaps from the war which the GDR had not filled. In addition, the Communists let many of the old buildings which had survived go to rack and ruin; there was very little maintenance or renovation. Towards the end or the regime, much of the whole country looked dark and drab. You can still see many dilapidated houses in between which urgently need repair.
The greatest scar, however, is the destruction of the Jewish community. Until 1933, more than 12.000 Jews lived in Leipzig, which had 17 synagogues. Only about 2.400 Jews survived the Nazi terror, almost all of them in exile – Josef Burg, an important Israeli politician and Avraham Burg’s father, being one of them. Like in so many other places, the Jewish community in Leipzig had been one of the most active economically, socially, culturally, and intellectually. In 1988, only 35 Jews still lived there. Now the community is growing again, due to immigration from Russia.
140 empty bronze chairs at the place of the former main synagogue remind inhabitants and visitors of the more than 10.000 Jews deported and murdered by the Nazis. (I have seen figures between 11.000 and 14.000) The monument was built in 2001.
In 2008, a replica of the Mendelssohn monument was placed near the Thomaskirche. It was rebuilt as a faithful copy, with the help of computers on the basis of old photographs. The deputy mayor of Leizpig, who was a Nazi, had let the original be destroyed in November 1936, while Carl Goerdeler, the chief mayor of the city, was away. Goerdeler resigned in protest and later became a central figure in the resistance against Hitler. He was murdered by the Nazis after the failure of the coup in July 1944.
In 1997, 150 years after his early death, the house where Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy had lived with his family in his final years was reopened after restoration and renovation. The beletage now is a museum, where they often have concerts in the old music room. Since 2007, the Mendelssohn Foundation has awarded an International Mendelssohn Prize Leipzig every year to people who work in FMB’s tradition, either politically or culturally. This year, we joined the Gala concert and the presentation of the prizes to Lang Lang, the famous Chinese pianist and a great admirer of Mendelssohn, and Iris Berben, a well-known and courageous German actress who works for tolerance and understanding. After the concert, which ended with Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy’s fifth, the “Reformation Symphony”, the whole audience rose in applause and enthusiasm, not only for a brilliant orchestral performance but also in reverence for FMB, I am sure. There has been a virtual Mendelssohn renaissance in recent years, and the prejudice against his music, which had outlived Wagner and the Nazis in some circles, seems finally to have been put to rest.
So some healing has been done. On Leipzig’s main street, the Grimmaische Straße, we met Alex Jacobowitz with his huge marimba. Alex, who was born in New York in 1960 and now lives in Jerusalem, is one of a handful of professional xylophone soloists in the world. In summertime, he travels Europe’s major cities to play Klezmer, traditional Jewish, and classical music and to talk to people, about music, tolerance, and humanism. When we heard him, he mostly played Bach, but also a Spanish classicist. It was then when he spoke about the old golden Spanish period of Christian, Jewish, and Muslim neighbourhood and intensive cultural exchange.