Participants and guests of HistoryCampus, our Federal Foreign Minister, Dr. Steinmeier,
In July 2009, almost five years ago, Harry Patch died. Harry Patch was the last British veteran of the First World War. He reached 111 years of age. It was not until his 100th birthday that Harry was able to talk about the horrors of that war. Severely traumatized, he had survived the Third Battle of Ypres around the Belgium town of Passchendaele in July 1917. In the battles around Ypres alone, 320,000 allies and around 260,000 German soldiers were killed. “War isn’t worth one life,” said Harry, nicknamed “the last fighting Tommy” in his home country. It was only at the end of his life that Harry had the courage to revisit the battlefields at Ypres and to visit cemeteries for British and German soldiers, where he lay wreaths on their graves. Patch called the war “organized murder”.
The First World War claimed millions of lives and casualties around the world and has been referred to as “the great seminal catastrophe of this [the 20th] century.” Borders were redefined and the seeds for new wars were planted. Empires were destroyed and new nations were born.
The impact of this “Great War” is still felt today. Many of today’s conflicts can be traced back to the First World War. One needs only to recall the drawing of the borders in the Balkan states and in the Near and Middle East.
The First World War was a global war, but it is largely remembered as a war between certain nations. In Great Britain and in all the countries of the former British Empire, public life comes to a halt at 11 a.m. every year on November 11th. During a minute of silence, soldiers who were killed in action are commemorated. Today this includes all soldiers who were killed in action in all wars. Nearly every adult during Remembrance Week wears a red, paper poppy pinned to his or her chest as a reminder of the blood of the soldiers who were killed in “Flanders Fields” - and elsewhere. Like in Great Britain, the First World War is still thought of as “The Great War” in many countries. The force of it is still present in the world’s collective memory and in the form of commemoration days, monuments, and commemorative plaques.
And even in Germany - where understandably the Second World War and the Holocaust occupy an unrivalled place in the country’s “cultural memory”-, the First World War is being given more attention in this commemorative year than it probably ever has. Books about the First World War have reached the best-seller lists. Documentaries and feature films follow one after another on television. Is this all just a media hype? Or is there something more going on than quotas and number-of-copies-sold?
Yes, something more is going on. The German Federal Agency for Civic Education - together with the Körber Foundation and the Robert Bosch Foundation - has, with Europe 14|14 and HistoryCampus, taken a unique approach to remembering. The slogan for this event is: “Look back, think forward.” Our intention was to look at how the younger generation in Europe sees its shared history - and how it sees the present and the future it shares as well.
Support for this project has come from the brilliant Maxim Gorki Theater, which is not only hosting HistoryCampus but with an impressive array of cultural events for all visitors is also opening up completely new perspectives on the First World War. I would also like to take this opportunity to sincerely thank the German Federal Cultural Foundation and the Federal Ministry for Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth. Without their support, this project, in this form, would never have been possible. Even though we firmly believed in the heart and soul and the European spirit of the project from the very beginning, we still had our worries about how we would come across to you who are sitting here in front of me now. But it looks like we didn’t have to. The sheer number of registrations and the impressive letters we received in support of HistoryCampus have shown us that you see it the same way we do: We want to, we have to look back. We need the past. It is only through investigating and understanding, challenging and remembering that we can develop the tools needed to understand the present and to shape the future. This is why HistoryCampus wasn’t designed as a “retro event” but rather as an opportunity to look forward, at the “here and now”.
It’s also about current political issues, issues in the “here and now” of modern life in Europe. The necessity of learning to understand history from a variety of angles in order to work together for a peaceful future is - unfortunately - as relevant today as it ever was. The financial crisis and the rapid escalation of the conflict in the Ukraine are challenging us and forcing us to ask ourselves: How do we deal with conflicts of interest in the European Union? The German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier recently described the Ukraine crisis as the “worst in Europe since the end of the cold war”. And added: “If we aren’t careful, we could suffer a setback in the progress we have achieved in our civil societies since the dissolution of the east-west conflict. The fact that borders are being newly defined seven decades after the Second World War has, in my opinion, political significance that is impossible to ignore.”
For the last 70 years Europe has largely been at peace. Didn’t we all believe that borders had become more open? And that they were even becoming less important? For you as the young generation, a war in Europe - a part of the globalized world - was something far beyond your imagination. But the world in 1914 was already a “globalized” world. International trade was flourishing, cotton was coming from India, coffee from Central America, the German Empire was a multi-ethnic affair, workers with healthy self-esteems were swearing international solidarity. So how - in spite of this web of transnational relationships - did a war break out that lasted four long years and claimed so many lives? Did those countries just “slide into” the war? Were they perhaps “walking in their sleep”?
The majority of the responsible political stakeholders in the major cities at that time sensed that the war was coming. And although it wasn’t planned, it was welcomed by many and was looked on as a legitimate political tool. This is no longer the case in Europe. But with the events taking place in Europe today, it is easy to see how quickly a conflict can escalate, and how fragile peace and democracy really are. These things are not a given. There is no “ground level” where one can just sit down and enjoy the view. Peace does not just happen on its own. It takes a great deal of effort to bring it about and and a great deal of effort to actively maintain it. Knowing this is essential for Europe’s future as a place where peace reigns. This is why every one of us must learn how peace is to be maintained - and one of the best ways to learn this is from history. It helps us understand the mistakes that were made, and it teaches us how not to repeat them. History is most definitely something we can learn from.
In doing so, history is always to be understood as something constructed, something that is construed. Historical events tell us more about the present than they do about the past. What our goal is is to de-construct this history. To study what has been written and to find traces of the past in the present. How much interpretational leeway do we have when dealing with the past? What are the standards for measuring the quality and the truth of descriptions of historical events?
You have already discussed these questions in your workshops. You’ve researched source material, have challenged various “cultural memories”, and have deconstructed certain myths. All of this can only be done by looking back. But we can’t stop there. We have to turn around and look forward as well. Europe 14|14 - despite the fact that it is commemorating the centennial of the First World War - is a forward-looking event. Looking back in order to think forward. It’s not only about processing the “great seminal catastrophe” and the sweeping after-effects of it. It’s also about examining history - including the cruelty often found in it. Grasping the facts and the circumstances and understanding that history does not “just happen” or isn’t “just fate”. History is always based on stakeholders and decisions. Looking at history from a variety of perspectives allows for a more differentiated examination of it and for considering whether there weren’t alternative courses of action. How did people react? How did those responsible act, were other courses of action taken?
HistoryCampus provides us with a unique opportunity to do this: Because you - 400 young people from 40 different countries - have come together in Berlin to examine and discuss the First World War in a wide variety of ways. This is a place where new horizons are being opened up, views are being exchanged, and where a European union is actually being experienced. I have been very impressed by the creative ways in which you - young Europeans - have come together to search for common answers to the question of what this particular part of history means to you personally and to your generation as a whole. National standpoints are giving way to broader - more transnational - ways of looking at things. And the corner stone is being laid for a common “cultural memory” in a peaceful Europe.
And it was also in 2009 - shortly before the death of Harry Patch - that Henry Allingham died. He was 113 years of age and at that time the oldest surviving soldier of the First World War. He said to the BBC shortly before his death: “War’s stupid. Nobody wins. You might as well talk first, you have to talk last anyway.” How true.
Thank you very much for listening.
- The spoken word applies -