A complicated relationship with the past

by Till Geiger, Disley

This is one of a series of pieces written by members and staff from NFPB, reflecting on how the second world war shaped them, their families, and thinking and action for peace

I am reluctant to write this blog post and not quite sure whether to publish it, but let’s take the first step and write it.

I am reluctant to write about my feelings about the second world war, because I was born in Germany. Therefore, I bring with me a complicated relationship with that difficult past bound up with the wartime experiences of my parent’s generation. My own family’s past inevitably shaped my life as well as the confrontation with all the atrocities committed by German soldiers wherever I travel within Europe. This started on school trips when as fourteen year olds, we were taken to see the Natzweiler-Struthof concentration camp near Natzwiller in the Alsace region of France. Or on family holidays to the South of France, we tended to stay near the beaches of La Croix Valmer where the allies landed to liberate Southern France, but also encountered plaques commemorating the acts of German soldiers against French civilians. On one of our trips into the French countryside, my parents to took us to see an exhibition of Picasso’s Guernica at the Fondation Maeght in St Paul de Vance – this painting has stayed with me as an image that captures the horror of the air war [I wonder how my mother experienced this visit having lived through the air raids on Mannheim as a young child in primary school.]

Different perpsectives

As a foreign exchange student in rural Minnesota, my fellow high school students called me a Nazi forcing me to think about Germany’s past in a different way. Many citizens of New Ulm (Minnesota) descended from German immigrants that had come to the United States in the late nineteenth century fleeing political persecution and economic hardship. Their relationship with “the old country’ was uncomplicatedly positive and seemed to ignore what happened during the Third Reich. At the same time, this relationship was mediated through the gratefulness of my parent’s generations for the Allied victory in the second world war, American aid for West German reconstruction and support preserving the West German state as a western democracy in the cold war. While I was oddly fascinated with the portrayal of Germans as buffoons in Hogan’s Heroes, my eyes were opened to the darker sides of the German past by watching the TV drama Holocaust first in the US (1978) and then a year later in Germany (1979). In this context, I started to realise how the second world war deeply shaped my life without necessarily having the courage to ask my parents about my family’s actions during the second world war, in itself a complicated and difficult story.

After the war

As a historian of the immediate post-1945 period, I have explored how this complicated relationship with the past shaped the emerging postwar societies in Western Europe. For the resistance groups against the Nazis, European co-operation became the way to overcome the nationalism which had led war in Europe twice within a generation. Their ideas paved the way to European economic and political integration. Due to their hard work, many Europeans (and not just a small elite) believe that the European integration projects has assured relative peace in Europe since VE-Day. And yes, this narrative is a foundation myth which pushes away a more complex history and distracts from a more complicated past.

For Germans on both sides of the iron curtain, the defeat of the Nazi regime allowed them to reconstruct themselves as new states within different spheres of the cold war. After the horrors of the war, Germans rejected the Nazi past and held up their reconstruction efforts as the path to a brighter peaceful future. Having become model citizens of the West and Soviet orbit, many Germans could not comprehend the apprehensions of other Europeans in respect of German re-unification following the fall of the war. Those apprehensions reflected concerns about the stability of postwar German democracy given the Nazi past and the experiences during the second world war.

In Britain, the second world war shaped the political consensus that underpinned the postwar welfare state and the National Health Service as well as the continued increased military establishment and militarisation of British society to maintain the “hard-won people’s peace” after VE-Day. Since 1945, the British armed forces and defence budget have been an unquestioned part of the postwar political consensus. Driven by a fear of appeasing another dictator, British politicians have supported military intervention to maintain British political power. The ‘heroism’ of British armed forces in the second world war provides the justification for British exceptionalism and continued attempts to project power overseas despite the increasing global irrelevance of Britain and the relative weakness of its armed forces in a nuclear age.

VE Day

Against this background, we struggle as peace campaigners to raise our voices against the celebrations of VE-Day particular in a period of government-enforced lockdown and social distancing. Indeed, the government and the established institutions fall back on the language and symbolism of the second world war in order to employ it to mobilise the British public and an ‘army of volunteers’ (as in a flyer distributed by Derbyshire County Council) to defeat the new ‘enemy’ in form of a virus. At a time of a global health emergency we should be working together with others and not othering them. We will not be able go out and engage others that feel moved to toast the fallen British heroes. We will not be able to insist that war (like the virus) does not differentiate between its victims. Those that died in the war did not neatly divide into ‘heroes’ and victims on one side and perpetrators committing evil acts on the other. The evil acts of many does never morally justify the inevitable suffering that defeating these forces necessarily entailed.

In marking VE-Day, we need to remind ourselves of the suffering of everyone caught up in the second world war: children, parents, civilians, those persecuted for their race, ethnicity, sexuality and political views, conscripts and volunteers. Let’s not forget those heroes excluded from the discourse of our heroic armed forces, the colonial troops, the refugees who volunteered to serve in the British armed forces, evacuees, conscientious objectors, pacifist and everyone else. In contrast to our myths, the past is complicated. Let’s embrace it in our attempts to build the kingdom of peace on Earth.

Other pieces in this series of WW2 reflections

| Seventy five years on | A Complicated Relationship | A necessary war? | A lasting influence |
Personal histories and challenges | A pacifist’s experiences of WW2 and some reflections |

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