Germans aren't eager to commemorate WWI

British Prime Minister David Cameron lay wreaths at a World War I monument in Ypres, Belgium.

Europeans will mark a grim centenary this August: The 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War. A multi-million dollar series of events will span four years, and at least three participating nations -- Britain, France, and Belgium.

 Missing from the list? Germany. All of this commemoration has proven tricky for the nation on the other side of the battle lines.

 "The German government  is fundamentally uninterested  in marking this important anniversary," Gerd Krumeich, a historian at Dusseldorf University, said. "And this reflects the mentality of most Germans today. They don’t seem to feel  that the war had anything to do with Germany even though almost 2 million of our soldiers died in the trenches."

 British Prime Minister David Cameron has added to the Germans discomfiture. Britain is spending some $80 million dollars on commemorative concerts, school visits to battlefields and other events. Cameron says Britain and its allies were fighting a just war against German aggression. Many historians agree.

 "The Germans fought a war of conquest," said military historian Garry Sheffield of Wolverhampton University. "And the British and the French found themselves  fighting a defensive war against an aggressive neighbor, bent on achieving hegemony in Europe." 

 These words have  an uncomfortable resonance today. 

 The German government’s  insistence on austerity measures in southern Europe has stirred up a lot of anti-German sentiment, and there is widespread concern about  perceived German dominance.  In a recent poll , 88 percent of Spaniards and 82 percent of Italians complained that Germany wields too much influence in the European Union. 

 Does this explain the apparent reluctance of the German authorities to commemorate the World War I centenary? Are they nervous about raking over the past?

 Andreas Meitzner – the senior German diplomat in charge of the country’s commemorative plans – denies that he has been dragging his feet, and insists German politicians and officials will take part in numerous events abroad. He says the government may yet decide to organize some commemorative activities at home. But he doesn’t expect the country to dwell on the issue of culpability.

 "It’s not about responsibility, about who is to blame. It’s about joint lessons to be drawn from the First World War,” Meitzner said. 

 Meitzner hopes Europe will use the commemoration as a lesson on the huge economic benefit of peaceful integration. But one German newspaper has written about the danger of "tearing open old wounds."

 With four years of eventson the horizon, this, like the Great War, won’t be short and sharp. And it won't be over before Christmas.

About the author

Stephen Beard is the European bureau chief and provides daily coverage of Europe’s business and economic developments for the entire Marketplace portfolio.

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