I found this interesting interview at Deutsche Welle (DW) Germany's international broadcasting network. (By the way, we don't necessarily endorse the commentators we present on Roads to the Great War. They are shared here to give our readers something to think about.)
Münkler: "World War I defined a century"
Political scientist Herfried Münkler of Berlin's Humboldt University is the first German in a long time to attempt an overarching analysis of World War I. DW talks with him about Germany's special role and the lessons from World War I.
|Professor Herfried Münkler|
DW: Mr. Münkler, since the beginning of the commemorative year 2014 the media have published features about the outbreak of the war 100 years ago. Is this really just because of the commemoration day in summer, or are we experiencing a new attempt at processing history?
Herfried Münkler (HM): Those two possibilities are not mutually exclusive. Such anniversaries often provide a fresh opportunity to thoroughly analyze the issue. And it's clear to see that this "Great War" — as the British, French and Italians sometimes call it — set the tone for the 20th century. You can take many lessons from it, primarily what not to do. And for this reason I can imagine this becoming a huge event, during which Europe pauses to focus on what went wrong in the first half of the 20th century, in the hope of doing better in the 21st century.
DW: In Germany we tend to call the war from 1914 to 1918 "World War I". Why did you name your book "The Great War"?
HM: Firstly, the term "Great War" has a disconcerting quality. And secondly it has a defining or seminal character, at least to a German ear. This is the European war which defined the rest of the 20th century. One can argue that, without this war, there wouldn't have been World War II, probably no National Socialism, no Stalinism and no Bolshevik takeover in Petrograd. It would have been a completely different century. In this sense, the term "Great War" fits quite well.
DW: If the First World War had such a defining effect on the 20th century, why is there so little discussion about it as part of German attempts to come to terms with the past? At least when compared to the domestic attention on World War II.
HM: There you have to differentiate. In our neighbors to the west like Italy, France, and Great Britain, World War I or "The Great War" does have this sort of presence. This is partly because the casualties caused by this war were much higher than the losses incurred in World War II. That is different in Germany, where World War II is firstly associated with expulsions [of Germans living in eastern Europe at the war's end], secondly with the massive damages [in Germany] from aerial bombardment, and thirdly with the Germans' war crimes and guilt. Similarly, when you go further to the East, then World War II has a much more dominant place in the public memory. You could almost argue that there is something of a West-East divide in Europe's culture of remembrance.
|Reims Cathedral: Symbol of the War's Destruction|
DW: One hundred years after the beginning of the war a new debate over war guilt has flared up. Australian historian Christopher Clark's book The Sleepwalkers has sparked it. In his book he is revising the long-accepted thesis of Germany's sole blame and he shows that all great powers were unable to prevent a war whose seeds were sown in the Balkans. What is your position in the debate about the war guilt — and does such talk achieve anything?
HM: I think in this context the term "guilt" is not very helpful. It is a moral term and maybe a legal term. At least according to the formulation of Article 231 in the Treaty of Versailles, Germany bears the sole blame. But this is a discussion which we don't need anymore today. Therefore it is more useful to talk about the responsibility and to focus our gaze on the misjudgments and bad decisions that were made. These are the discussions which I believe to be helpful in order to learn something from the conflict 100 years later.
DW: What was the responsibility of the German Reich in the center of Europe?
HM: Germany had not understood its special role in the geopolitical center of Europe. It can't be ruled out that one or several wars would have taken place anyway around this time in the 20th century [without Germany's involvement], but the focus would have been on localizing and containing these wars. What the Germans did was to bring together this collection of very different conflicts — unifying the longstanding conflict in the Balkans with the latent and by no means acute conflict over Alsace-Lorraine, or the battle over control over the North Sea. At the end of the day, doing this was political stupidity.
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