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On the first of January of this year Germany’s last known veteran of the First World War, Erich Kastner, died at the ripe old age of 107. Although not a celebrity in any way, shape, or form, his death was significant in that it betrayed the continued neurosis that Germany as a nation still suffers from. This neurosis is due to its ignominious role during the Second World War and is so powerful that it subsequently still affects the way Germans view themselves in the past, foremost during the 20th century.
Unlike most other countries that participated in the First World War, Germany doesn’t devote much attention to the people or events of that time. As a result, the veterans of the First World War aren’t commemorated as in other countries. Elsewhere, much attention is paid to the last few remaining survivors of that war. Canada, Britain and France are among a long list of countries that publicly commemorate the lives and deaths of the veterans from that war.
In Canada, for instance, the birthday of its last known surviving veteran of the war, John Babcock, is usually commemorated with letters and gifts from high-ranking politicians, among them the Queen of England and the Prime Minister of Canada. Similarly, much attention is paid in France to its remaining veterans from the First World War. In fact when one of the country’s two surviving veterans passed away last week, President Nicolas Sarkozy declared that his death was an occasion to reflect on the millions of French who had sacrificed their lives during the conflict as well as the many more who were wounded.
Yet in Germany when Kastner – considered the last surviving man that fought in the German Imperial Army – died a few weeks ago, his death passed almost unnoticed. Not only was there no news in Germany about his death, there was a cone of silence over the entire matter. The online version of the German weekly news magazine Der Spiegel (www.spiegel.de), which reported the death on its website earlier this week, said it was unable to reach Kastner’s family for confirmation. The German Defence Ministry in Berlin as well as the army’s Military Research Institute were also both unable to provide any information on Kastner.
According to a spokesman for the Military Research Institute, the First World War doesn’t have the same kind of significance as it does in other countries. Hence, German veterans only take part in public ceremonies when they are invited abroad to join commemorative events with veterans from other countries. Aside from this, Germany doesn’t hold its own public commemorations of the First World War.
The reason for this is that there’s a stigma attached to Germany’s track record in the Second World War, and the taint has spread to include the earlier war as well. Consequently, the First World War is seen as part of a historical line that led to the Second World War. Therefore, any form of commemoration is regarded as somewhat problematic.
All this merely demonstrates how deeply ingrained victor’s justice has become within the German psyche, so much so that after more than 60 years a skewed view towards the past is harboured – and harboured in silence. The notion that World War I is seen as part of a historical line that led to World War II is ridiculous. It wasn’t the war which had sown the seeds for the rise of Hitler and Nazism in Germany (not to mention Mussolini and fascism in Italy), but the unjust peace which had followed.
The First World War was an unjust war from all sides, and should not be commemorated as a struggle between good and evil, but an example of man’s inhumanity to man on an apocalyptic scale. Unfortunately, governments in the west still rely upon the First World War for propaganda purposes. A case in point was in 2003 when Canada launched an extensive campaign to commemorate the war which was used to somehow link those ideals with that of the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.
Those who had survived the First World War and are still alive today should be commemorated not because they helped to bring their country to some sort of victory, but because they had lived through the fires of hell that were stoked by their own government and military establishment. What is more, in the end those who survived came through their experience with a greater respect for their fellow man as opposed to the thrill of victory, blood lust, and outright hatred that is characteristic of contemporary conflicts. It shouldn’t be forgotten, however, that not everyone made it through the war in such relatively good shape: many were scarred for life, either mentally or physically, often both.
In the end, what perhaps can be learned from Kastner’s death is that countries such as Canada, Britain, and France need to be more modest in their commemorations of the First World War, and realise that they have just as much blame to share for the conflict as their then foes. The Pogues song „And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda” perhaps best summarises how this disgraceful event in our world history should ultimately be remembered:
‘And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda’
And now every April I sit on my porch
And I watch the parade pass before me
And I watch my old comrades, how proudly they march
Reliving old dreams of past glory
And the old men march slowly, all bent, stiff and sore
The forgotten heroes from a forgotten war
And the young people ask, „What are they marching for?”
And I ask myself the same question
And the band plays Waltzing Matilda
And the old men answer to the call
But year after year their numbers get fewer
Some day no one will march there at all.