German politicians mark Volkstrauertag—Remembrance Sunday—on 16th November 2008 © Sean Gallup/Getty Images
Read more: 10 forgotten facts of the First World War
The centenary of the First World War is upon us. The opening shots have already been fired, and not just in Britain. In Bonn, one of the most important exhibitions marking the anniversary, which falls in early August (marking Germany’s declaration of war on Russia and France in 1914), has already closed. A number of further exhibitions will be mounted in Germany, whose collective memory of the war has been overshadowed for understandable and proper reasons by that of the Second World War and the Holocaust, though most of these are being organised at state as opposed to federal level. Its universities are as obsessed with holding conferences on the subject as are those in Britain and France.
There is one big difference, however, between the Federal Republic and its western neighbours. The governments of its erstwhile enemies, now allies, have devoted considerable resources to the centenary. In November 2011, for example, the then-president of France, Nicolas Sarkozy, declared that the First World War was second only to the revolution of 1789 in its significance for his country. French losses in the war were twice those of Britain, but British losses in 1914-18 were twice those of 1939-45. Given the impact on British society of those losses, Prime Minister David Cameron’s announcement in October 2012 that the government would play a role in the commemoration of the outbreak of war was equally logical.
The German government, meanwhile, has been largely silent. The Bonn exhibition enjoyed the patronage of Joachim Gauck, the President, but Chancellor Angela Merkel has remained aloof. Last year’s elections were one reason. However, the formation of a new governing coalition between Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union and the Social Democrats has not produced the major statement many expected. When she came to Britain on 27th February, she paid tribute to Britain’s role in both world wars and to the losses incurred by its armed forces, but went no further.
The British press is not alone in noticing her uncertainty as to how to deal with the legacy of the First World War; so, increasingly, are many Germans. At the end of February, a spokesperson for the left-wing party Die Linke regretted that Germany had allocated…