8 May 1945 shaped our recent past more profoundly than any other day. On this day, the arms fell silent over the graves of more than 40 million people in Europe. The brutal Nazi tyranny and the murder of Europe’s Jews came to an end. It became a day of liberation for millions of people who had been persecuted and deprived of their rights, a day to commemorate the victims, a day when injustice was vanquished.
With the dawning of this day, Germans paid the price for allowing Hitler to rise to power on 30 January 1933 and for their inability to free themselves from National Socialism. In the ruins of German cities, the vast majority of people looked to the future with great fear and desperation. It was not until 40 years later that Richard von Weizsäcker could speak of “liberation” in Germany’s name, in the knowledge that at least in West Germany most people felt the same way. Without the efforts after the Second World War to address Nazi crimes – a process that was often painful and marked by setbacks – this would not have been possible.
This experience shows that one can learn from history – not least from its catastrophes. The conviction that never again can war or crimes against humanity be allowed to emanate from German soil is now a sine qua non of German foreign policy. Our active commitment to a strong and united Europe, to human rights as a universal expression of human dignity and to rules-based international cooperation, as well as our opposition to the idea of Germany ever going it alone, are all informed by the knowledge of the unparalleled crimes perpetrated by Germany in the 20th century, crimes that found their most monstrous expression in the Holocaust.
Those who now want to draw a line under this part of German history not only mock the victims, but also rob Germany of its political credibility. Self-criticism and self-confidence are mutually dependent. This applies more to our country than to any other.
We cannot conceive of politics without history. But conversely? How much politics is good for history? At almost every international meeting, we feel how closely intertwined these two things are. 8 May, for example, is often viewed in fundamentally different ways.
In Russia and other countries of the former Soviet Union, the heroes are commemorated and the end of the war is celebrated with victory parades. The Western Allies also celebrate 8 May. To this day, we too are grateful to all those who fought against the Nazi dictatorship.
However, people in Poland, the Baltic states and other countries in Central, Eastern and Southeast Europe have very mixed feelings about this date. Their joy about the defeat of the Nazis is tinged with the start of another form of oppression and external domination – an experience they share with many people in East Germany.
8 May thus shows one thing very clearly, namely that history shapes who we are, both as people and nations, thus making honesty in how we treat the past all the more important. German history demonstrates the danger of a revisionism that replaces rational thinking with national myths. That – and not a supposed moral superiority – is why we Germans in particular are called on to take a stand when those under attack are depicted as the assailants and victims are portrayed as the perpetrators. The repeated attempt in recent months to rewrite history so disgracefully requires us to speak up loud and clear – something that should not actually be necessary in view of the irrefutable historical facts – and to leave no doubt whatsoever that Germany alone unleashed the Second World War by its invasion of Poland and Germany alone is responsible for the crimes against humanity of the Holocaust. Those who sow doubt about this and thrust other countries into the role of perpetrator do injustice to the victims, exploit history for their own ends and divide Europe.
But how can we make remembrance of 8 May a part of European memory in a way that unites us? We need two things – the willingness to include other people’s perspectives in our own remembrance, that is, both the victims’ pain and the perpetrators’ responsibility; and the courage to make a clear distinction between victims and perpetrators and between myths and historical facts. Working to achieve this remains an aspiration and a task for German politics in dealing with the past. It is good that 8 May reminds us about this.