Today, on the 60th anniversary of D-day, Gerhard Schroeder will become the first chancellor of Germany to stand side by side with his country’s former enemies to commemorate the Normandy landings. Ten years ago, by contrast, then-Chancellor Helmut Kohl was not even invited to attend the 50th-anniversary celebrations, after letting it be known that he would not welcome an invitation.
Schroeder is clearly pleased with French President Jacques Chirac’s invitation. “The meaning of this invitation,” the German chancellor said, “is that the Second World War is definitively over.”
His presence in Normandy, Schroeder asserted, will “make clear the meaning of D-day -- namely the liberation from National Socialism, which was not only the liberation of Europe but also the liberation of Germany.”
But is that in fact the meaning of D-day?
Behind Schroeder’s uplifting rhetoric lies a powerful revisionism, meant to convey a troubling contemporary political message. The idea that Germany was “liberated” at the end of the war marks a clear departure from the postwar consensus. Germans, after all, were not the victims in World War II -- they were the aggressors. And they were certainly not “liberated” in the months after D-day, but defeated.
It is true that the defeat of German forces in Normandy marked the beginning of the end of a long national nightmare that cost countless German lives and the near total ruin of the national heritage. But it was not a liberation.
Schroeder is not the first to use such language; German President Richard von Weizsaecker also used the imagery of liberation in 1985, during the 40th anniversary of his country’s capitulation. But today, such talk carries even more impact. With the challenges of the Cold War and reunification now relegated to history, present-day Germany is in the midst of a far-reaching reappraisal of both its historical and contemporary role.
The Germany of Konrad Adenauer, Willy Brandt, Helmut Schmidt and Helmut Kohl, which in a truly exemplary fashion confronted the crimes of an earlier generation and applied the lessons to contemporary problems, is gone. In the new Germany, where the overwhelming majority of the population was born after the war, there is a widespread desire for a sense of normalcy, and for an escape from the shackles of history.
Schroeder is in many respects characteristic of Germany’s generational change. Whereas Kohl, his immediate predecessor, could recollect the immediate horror of having lost a brother to an Allied air raid, Schroeder was only 2 months old when the Allies stormed Omaha Beach. Although he lost his father in the war, he never had a chance to meet him.
For Germans with a firsthand recollection of the war, D-day marked the beginning of Germany’s final defeat, and they refer to war’s end as the “collapse.” Kohl, for example, said about D-day in 1984 that there was “no reason for a German chancellor to celebrate” someone else’s victory, in which tens of thousands of Germans were killed.
For those fortunate enough to have been born later, history seems less clear-cut. Insinuating the Germans into the ranks of those liberated in some sense places postwar Germans on the side of the victors. In the end, according to this version, the Germans also won.
The new historical revisionism is not directed at minimizing the Holocaust or denying contemporary Germany’s special responsibility for the security of Israel. Rather, it is an effort to construct a new founding myth from which to draw moral authority in pursuit of an enhanced international role.
Through the imagery of liberation, Schroeder seeks to bring an end to the vision of Germany as a defeated power and an end to a postwar order in which Germany remained a stigmatized power.
For this chancellor, for instance, a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council is not a means to other ends; it is an end in itself. And Schroeder jealously guards what he sees as the special rights of the “Big Three” -- France, Germany and Britain -- to run the show in the European Union. This relies on his vision of Germany as an equal partner, a “normal” nation, not a loser.
But it is a dangerous revision. The Allies did not invade Normandy to liberate the Germans, and Nazism did not just happen. Its roots lay deep in German society. To suggest that Germany was liberated from a foreign ideology in 1945, or that Germans were victims in the same way the French were, diminishes the very real accomplishments of postwar Germans who worked hard for half a century to come to terms with their mistakes and transform their society into a model democracy.
Schroeder’s desire to play a larger role in international affairs is understandable enough, particularly given his inability to revive a moribund economy at home.
But international leadership is not a right. It is a responsibility accorded to those willing to shoulder the attendant burdens. The Allies paid the price of leadership on D-day. The question is whether Germany is able to do so today.
James W. Davis is a professor of international relations at the University of Munich.