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The complicated legacy of May 8 in Germany

Written by on 7 mai 2020

Victory Day, or VE day, is celebrated across Europe to mark the end of the Second World War. In France and in Great Britain, everyone enjoys a day off work. However, in Germany, the day has always had a complicated legacy.

This year, the 8th May marks 75 years on from German surrender. The Berlin state government has created a one-off public holiday to mark the date. But there is also debate as to whether the 8th May should be enshrined as a national holiday across all of Germany. With us to discuss the issue is Dr James Koranyi, assistant professor of Modern European Cultural History at the University of Durham.

So James, why is the idea of celebrating May 8 as a national holiday in Germany so controversial?

“What we call VE day has never been a victory day, but has always been about several issues in German history. One is, of course, the idea of liberation. But also the fact that it was a defeat. And that for many Germans, the war doesn’t end on the 8th May 1945, but actually continues in the form of expulsions, and so on. It’s also intricately tied up with with the Holocaust memory.

May 8 has always been a controversial date in German history. The reactions to the proposal to make it a nationwide holiday, particularly by Alexander Gouland and the AFD, may look marginal maybe from the outside. Because nowadays we expect German memory to be so inclusive and so self-critical.

But actually, these debates were mainstream in the 1960s, 70s and 80s, even in the 1990s. So it’s an interesting proposal. And the resistance to it might at the moment be coming from the far-right, but there is a longer term, mainstream tradition of resisting May 8 as a date to be commemorated.

So to understand some of the discomfort around the date, let’s talk about it’s history. Because, for many people in Germany the war doesn’t simply end on the 8th of May 1945?

“Yes, liberation comes at different points. So for pockets of the far West of Germany, the war ends in 1944. And then in other parts, the war ends after the 8th May 1945. And the damage done to various towns and cities looks quite different too. So if you happen to be in the Eifel area, the war is over effectively by the autumn of 1944. If you’re in what is now Wrocław in Poland, or ‘Breslau’, it continues after the 8th of May.

And then you have these kind of proxy wars that go on in the Baltics, between SS units and Soviet troops. And that goes on for years. You have similar stories in the Carpathians between Romanian fascists and communist troops.

And then, of course, you have this this long tail of World War Two in the form of expulsions and POWs for Germans. The last POWs to return from the Soviet Union end up in West Germany in 1955. And you have lots of these German refugees living in camps in West Germany, right up until the 1960s. For example, the concentration camp in Dachau is used as a settlement camp for German refugees from the East.

It’s a very long tail. And so the 8th of May, it’s the official end, it’s when the surrenders is signed. But things don’t just simply stop and go back to normal. It takes a long, long time. Which I think is why the 8th of May is also such a controversial date, because so much flows out of it for decades and decades to come.

And the 8th May had a very different legacy in East and West Germany?

In the GDR, it is central to the way in which the war is remembered; as this great moment of liberation. That is, the Soviets arrived, liberated Germany, and it was celebrated as a day of great relief. What they didn’t do was, of course, talk about issues of mass sexual violence in Berlin, of expulsions, or even of the Holocaust. Many of the victims of the Holocaust were simply included in this blanket category of ‘victims of fascism’. And so every year you have the same commemorative ritual, a very choreographed top-down ritual.

And in fact, if you go on YouTube, you can watch the very last one of the GDR, the 8th of May, 1989. And I think it’s quite instructive because you get a sense of how tired that ritual actually looks by the 1980s. You have Erich Honecker, you have lots of veterans and they’re all old, they’re nearly all men, they’re all wearing gray suits. And there’s not much enthusiasm. It’s an inflexible memory culture that doesn’t really change. 

What they didn’t do was talk about issues of mass sexual violence in Berlin, of expulsions, or even of the Holocaust.

And in some ways, if you compare the GDR to the to the FRG, their memory cultures look very similar for the first two decades after the war. They’re fairly certain with what they say. So in the West, they talk about German victims, about bombing victims, and so on. But then in the 1960s in West Germany, you see changes to the way that is presented by a younger generation. And that doesn’t really happen in the GDR. That that memory turn doesn’t happen. It stays the same.

Can you explain further what you mean by a ‘memory turn’? How was the eighth May commemorated in West Germany before and how does it change?

In the West, May 8 played a really important role. But it had a controversial position, because the story of liberation doesn’t work. West Germany is an ally in the Cold War of the U.S.. It is very, very hostile towards the Soviet Union. And so the idea of commemorating this is as a liberation is difficult.

Certainly by the 70s and 80s there is far more pressure to talk about the 8th of May in in more nuanced terms, rather than talking about Germans as victims; victims of history, victims of the Soviet Union, victims of expulsions.

Probably the hottest moment of commemorating the 8th of May is in 1985. There are a number of famous faux pas: Ronald Reagan accidentally visits and commemorates the graves of SS soldiers. But then Richard von Weizsäcker, the president of West Germany gives a fairly important speech. He admonishes Germans to think about the 8th of May as complex. It’s not just a day of of liberation, but it’s also not just a day of defeat. 

He talks about how you have to think about why the 8th May happened. And one crucial point that he mentions – and then becomes symbolic for the kind of Holocaust memory that emerges in the 80s and 90s – is that you can’t disentangle the 8th May 1945 from the 30th of January 1933, when Hitler comes to power.

It’s something that the ‘victim’ story of the 40s, 50s and 60s tried to disavow. They always spoke about the 1945 expulsions, but never spoke about 1933. And Richard von Weizsäcker sets the tone for a new form of memory, one that we nowadays recognise maybe in Germany more broadly. A kind of introspective, self-critical way of talking about Holocaust memory.

That’s still the dominant way of thinking about it, even though memory cultures in Germany have been for a while under pressure.

Where do you think this current tension around the way that World War Two is remembered come from? One term you hear quite a lot is ‘Holocaust fatigue’. If we leave aside the alt-right, who obviously capitalise on this idea in order to trivialise the Holocaust, for others in society, why might they be questioning the mainstream forms of remembrance in Germany?

So much has been exposed about Germany’s colonial history before 1933. Part of it is a battle for space in memory.

Holocaust fatigue comes of a number of corners. One is that you have a generation that simply grew up with a very strong emphasis on the Holocaust in education. There is a sense of having talked about the same thing, in the same manner, so many times.

The second one is that the Holocaust memory, and also the memory of the war, emerged out of an assumption that German history and society was very uniform. It took no account, for example, of migrants. And how migrants might relate to a history that never affected their own family. And for them it’s very difficult to buy into this in the way that it’s been presented.

The third one is also thinking about Germany’s colonial history. So much has been exposed about Germany’s colonial history before 1933, or before 1918. For example, you can talk about the genocide in what is now Namibia. And so part of it is a battle for space in memory. If the Holocaust is central to everything, where do other debates about racism fit in?

The left are pushing for the 8th May to become a national holiday, the far right are against it. Merkel’s party, the CDU, haven’t come out on either side. Is that because this is too controversial an issue? Is it better for them to leave it alone?

“Well, first, it’s a classic Merkel response; say nothing and let time tell how things pan out. I think we should probably cut them some slack as well. We are in the middle of a pandemic and it’s difficult to take decisions on this.

Coronavirus has forced us to think about new forms of memory to commemorate without eyewitnesses.

It’s a topic that been bubbling away in the background. But I think it’s a very topical and timely debate, because what we’re seeing, what the corona crisis has forced, is to think about new forms of memory. So whether this is the moment to turn May 8 into a national holiday, or whether that’s a completely outdated mode of thinking about memory, is a debate that has to be had.

Much of the commemorative landscape has been kicked online. It’s become very virtual and very good in many ways. There are some really interesting apps and platforms, which allow people to think about moments of liberation of various concentration camps. You can go to the 75th anniversary website of Berlin and see how the city looked on the day of liberation.

Coronavirus has forced us to commemorate without eyewitnesses. I think it makes sense to think about what comes next.

How does the 8th of May in Germany fit in to the picture of how the day is celebrated in the rest of Europe?

The 8th of May is a European date of course. But it’s also the one commemorative date where everyone retreats into their own national shell. They think about their own national narrative that exists around that day. You see it most prominently in Britain and in Russia. It’s very much about the nation, and very little else.

What makes the 8th May in Germany so interesting is that it can’t escape the European context. That is another reason, apart from the historical connotations, why the 8th May is so complex in Germany. There’s no simple story to tell.

Dr James Koranyi is an assistant professor of Modern European Cultural History at the University of Durham.


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