Monday, May 09, 2005

Sunday, May 8, the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II in Germany

Yesterday wasn’t only Mothers’ Day. It was also the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe. All over Europe there were ceremonies commemorating the day, and German television reported on Bush’s visit to Holland and Russia. I spent a good part of the afternoon watching TV with my grandmother. It was a great experience, because along with one notably good speech, there was also a lot of footage of the last days of the war, and my grandmother’s commentary was a goldmine of little nuggets of personal experience that I would probably never find in a history book.

She recounted that for her the war was actually over on May 4th, the day when the English rolled into Hamburg. She can remember peeking through the window, although it was forbidden, to watch them riding their tanks through the streets. Her future was very uncertain, and she said she didn’t really know what to feel about the end of the war. She was at an elite school for future Nazi teachers, and she had known what to expect with that, but now her future was up in the air. She was only 17 years old, and three months before the end of the war, her and her classmates were given Nazi party pins to wear on their coats. She says after the capitulation nobody knew what was going to happen, and she buried her pin in the dirt of a flower pot. But the English were “gentle” occupiers she said. A few years later she was changing the dirt in the pot, and found the rusted remains of the pin and was reminded of those last few days.

When pictures of the concentration camps came on the screen, she said at first she couldn’t believe it was true, when she heard about the systematic extermination of Jews and other “undesirables” by the Germans. She said that her mother, a former house maid for a wealthy Jewish family, was often very critical of the government, and her father often admonished her mother’s loose tongue and warned her that if she didn’t watch out, she might end up in a concentration camp. So my grandmother, as a young girl, had definitely known about the concentration camps, but imagined them to be “re-education” camps.

She said that the military knew about the extermination camps and recounted my grandfather’s de-nazification trial after the war. My grandfather was asked by the judge: Mr. ____, did you know about the extermination camps? My grandfather replied: Your honor, did you NOT know about the extermination camps? The judge replied: "Mr. ____, the difference between you and me, is that YOU are on trial." De-nazification was a sticky process, it was to be done by the Germans themselves, but the problem was finding officials and civil servants who would be in charge, but who had a clean slate themselves. In the end, most former Nazis returned to their previous jobs, and worked along side those who suffered under the Third Reich. For example, it was impossible to fire the head professors at the medical schools and university clinics, because of their Nazi past, because that would just result in increased hardship for the medical schools which would be losing teachers, and the hospitals losing experienced doctors.

The television also recounted how the war ended differently all over Germany. The Russians were feared far more than the Americans. One man (a mere teenager at the time) from Dresden recounted how they hoped the Americans would come to Dresden before the Russians, and he was bitter that the Americans just marched to a certain point and then stopped and “played tennis on the Autobahn” while the Russians marched into Dresden. Everyone seemed to think or know that the Americans would be a lot “gentler” than the Russians. And sure enough the Russian troops did loot and had a reputation for rape. Not all liberation was created equal in Germany.

Germany’s new president, Horst Koehler, previously Managing Directorof the International Monetary Fund, held a great speech in front of the German parliament. There is a transcript (in German) online. One of my favorite parts of the speech, was when he talked about the different fates of the two Germany’s, split after the war:

Westdeutschland hatte es viel leichter - auch, weil es vergleichsweise weniger Reparationen leisten musste und mehr Aufbauhilfe bekam. Vor allem aber, weil sich dort Ideen besser entfalten konnten und weil eine freiheitliche Ordnung schneller auf neue Herausforderungen reagieren kann.
Das Kennzeichen dieser politischen Ordnung war - jede Menge Streit! [...]Und darum hat im Ergebnis jede dieser großen Debatten die politische Kultur der Bundesrepublik und das Vertrauen in ihre demokratische Ordnung gestärkt.

[My translation]: West Germany had it much easier – in part because it had comparitively less reparations to pay and received a lot more reconstruction help. Mostly though because there ideas could develop better and because a free order can react quicker to new challenges.
The main trait of this political oder was...a lot of disputes![...] And that is why all of these big debates resulted in the strengthening of the political culture in the Federal Republic and the trust it her democratic order.

He finished the speech with this:

Die nachrückenden Generationen in Deutschland wissen, dass bald keine Zeitzeugen von Krieg und Vernichtung mehr da sein werden. Sie nehmen den Auftrag an, die Erinnerung an das Geschehene wach zu halten und weiterzugeben. Sie sind es, die künftig mit ihren Altersgenossen in der ganzen Welt dafür sorgen werden, dass sich solches Unrecht und Leid nicht wiederholt.

[Once again, my translation]: The suceeding generations in Germany know that soon there will be no more contemporary witnesses of war and extermination. They except the responsibility to keep the memory of the event alive and to pass it on. They are the ones who henceforth with their contemporaries in all the world, have to make sure that such a wrong and suffering never repeats itself.

His speech was well-written and inspiring. And I of course have only taken out excerpts that interest me. But I would encourage anyone who can read German to read it, and hopefully it will be translated into English in the future.

Update: Okay, I'm a slacker, there is an online English version of Koehler's speech. Thanks, Spotless!


Blogger SpotlessMind said...

You can find the English version of the speech in full length on the Federal President's website:,5.623787/Talent-for-Freedom-Speech-by-F.htm

2:26 PM  
Blogger Chris said...

Very, very interesting.

Ah, to be in Europe right now. I would love to witness what you are witnessing.

I don't really have any German in me. I am half Irish, so my first hand accounts of WWII growing up came from both my grandpa's. One fought in Europe and the other in the Pacific.

You are lucky to have the understanding that you do of German history.

Oh and congrats on your dad.

11:15 PM  
Blogger CaliValleyGirl said...

Well, I have many first hand accounts of WWII: my grandmother was in the Dutch resistance (the grandmother I refer to in this text was my grandfather's 2nd wife, and not my biological grandmother)...they divorced after the war. And my mother is English, and she and my grandparents experienced the other side of the war. So very interesting over all.

11:35 PM  

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