Varus and Vergangenheitsbewältigung (2)

Merkel at the

Merkel opening one of the expositions

In the first part of this article, I noticed a discrepancy between the way Germans deal with their ancient past and the way the French, Belgians, and Dutch deal with theirs. While great nineteenth-century national myths about Vercingetorix, Ambiorix, and Julius Civilis have almost disappeared, and while German scholars correctly observe that the Battle in the Teutoburg Forest was not decisive, Germany is now commemorating that battle with beautiful expositions. They were opened by the Chancellor, Mrs Merkel, suggesting that the events of September 9 are still very much part of Germany’s shared past.

Why can’t the Germans say goodbye to it, as the French, Belgians, and Dutch have done to their distant pasts? I would like to suggest that it has something to do with the tremendous difficulties the Germans have with their more recent past.

If there is one thing I admire in modern Germans, it’s the process of Vergangenheitsbewältigung, the often difficult struggle to come to terms with their (parents’) past. Their will to face and, if possible, to expiate what has been done is almost heroic, and contrasts favorably with the lack of such ambition in several other countries. As a consequence, however, modern Germans have few certainties about their recent past.

Take, for instance, the interpretation of Von Stauffenberg, the German officer who on July 20, 1944, tried to assassinate Hitler. Von Stauffenberg knew this was high treason and it is not surprising that he has been called a traitor, which meant that his wife did not receive a war veteran’s pension. In 1952, he was rehabilitated during the Remer Trial, and has become a hero of the Federal Republic, honored with a statue, busts, stamps, temporary and permanent exhibitions, and annual celebrations. The documentary The Valkyrie Legacy offers a good summary, and concludes that Von Stauffenberg’s failure might be seen as a triumph, because it proved to future generations that the spirit of liberty had always lived on in Nazi Germany. It gave the Germans a past to be proud of, and created the conditions of the nation’s rebirth.

All this is very true. And yet, the text known as the “Schwur” of the conspirators proves that they had different things on their mind: they explicitly stated that they despised “the equality lie” and demanded respect for the aristocracy  (“wir verachten die Gleichheitslüge und fordern die Anerkennung der naturgegebenen Ränge”). Next to the freedom fighter of the Federal Republic now stands an aristocratic hero. This development proves that Germany has become a stable nation, “ein kerngesundes Land” capable of entertaining more than one vision on its recent past. That’s quite an achievement, which -perhaps- was crowned today with the rehabilitation of the deserters during the Second World War.

But no one can live with a past that is completely in flux. Every nation needs to have some kind of shared past that is beyond debate. What I here suggest is that the importance the Germans still attach to the battle in the Teutoburg Forest, is the necessary corollary of their successful coming-to-terms with their more recent past. France, Belgium, and the Netherlands can leave behind Vercingetorix, Ambiorix, and Julius Civilis, but leaving behind Arminius is a luxury the Federal Republic cannot afford yet.

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