World War One: Germany is different and mostly forgets

Cemetery in Tempelhof, Berlin
Image caption Translated, the plinth reads: "We died so Germany can live, so let us live through you"

We remember World War One in different ways.

If you grow up in any Welsh town, it's part of the collective memory.

You will have seen the annual parade on Remembrance Sunday.

In my own home town of Bridgend, representatives of many organisations walk respectfully every year to the Cenotaph. Wreaths of red poppies - the poppies of Flanders - are laid.

Older men march with stiffer joints than they once had, weighed down by age and perhaps by the array of medals from later wars they display on proud chests.

In Germany, it is different.

Memorials like the Cenotaph do exist but there aren't many of them and they aren't prominent.

This centenary year, there are commemorations, but they are mostly for leaders and not the mass of the people.

There are debates among the learned, and history books about the causes have sold well. But WW1 does not feature in the collective memory of Germans as strongly as it does in the minds of the Welsh and the British.

In Berlin, for example, there are two very moving graveyards for the dead of WW1 and they are both largely unvisited.

Near Tempelhof airfield, the graves of 7,200 soldiers lie in long rows. These are the people who returned from the front injured and who then died in Berlin, mostly in hospitals.

And in the Jewish cemetery in Wei╬▓ensee are the graves of 200 Jewish soldiers who died for Germany, the land which would murder their children. It is one of the most moving experiences you can have to walk through the cemetery to the enclosed plot of land and sit under the trees among these graves.

But few do.

To contemplate the dead of the Great War is to open all kinds of painful questions.

Germans do not dodge their past. In contrast to the Japanese, for example, or the British with the mass killing of aborigines in Tasmania in the early 19th Century, Germany continually debates its own dark deeds - but that debate centres on the World War Two, with WW1 as a cause, as the original catastrophe which spawned the greater one.

Germans do analyse history but both wars are bundled in together.

On top of that, defeat for Germany was total in WW1.

During it, Germans at home starved and the misery generated a revolution. It went into the war with the Kaiser on the throne and ended it without the monarchy.

In Britain, in contrast, the disaster was not so all-consuming.

Image caption Contemplating the war dead "open all kinds of painful questions," says Stephen Evans

While the British still go on pilgrimages to the war graves in Flanders, Germans don't visit the graves of the war dead on their own doorsteps.

Dr Ingolf Wernicke, who tends the graves at Tempelhof, told the BBC: "Nobody knows about these graves. Forgotten. Nobody is interested. They are not our heroes because Germany lost. And everything that happened in the First World War was taken in by what happened in the Second World War".

In the cemetery in Tempelhof in Berlin, there is another war memorial which speaks volumes. A short distance from the rows of graves of the ordinary people who became battle-fodder is the memorial built by the garrison, and so the Establishment, after the war.

It is a great black marble plinth on which there is a huge figure of a dead soldier under a shroud.

On his chest are a helmet and a sword. His fist is protruding from the cloth into the air. The words underneath say: "Wir starben, auf dass Deutschland lebe, so lasset uns leben in Euch" - "We died so Germany can live, so let us live through you".

This played into the "stab in the back" theory which was then propounded by Hitler to such ill effect. The argument made was that the dead of WW1 were betrayed, primarily by Jews and Communists at home. It was the duty of Germans after the war, the statue of the dead soldier exhorts, to make good that betrayal.

It is easy to see why Germans don't want to open arguments about how their own dead should be remembered. The argument is too dangerous.

In Germany, the folk-memory of WW1 is of overwhelming catastrophe: the disaster which took a nation into a criminal madness which led to the industrial mass murder of millions. In Britain, in contrast, the narrative became of heroism by ordinary people doing their duty despite the stupidity of the rulers - "lions led by donkeys", as the phrase is.

Having said that, there are similarities between the way Wales and Germany reacted and remembered. The pain of the bereaved and the soldiers is described in the German novel "All Quiet on the Western Front" and also in the short stories of the great Welsh writer, Kate Roberts, whose brother was killed in the war. Both could be read together.

In one of her stories, she describes the arrival of a death notice at the dirt-poor cottage in north Wales and the stunned grief of the dead man's bereaved family. It chimes with the desolation of ordinary people in the German novel.

There is one other similarity which resonates a hundred years on, and that is about the role of Christian leaders.

In Germany, there is a debate about why the church was so gung-ho for war. The Kaiser said at the outbreak of war: "Forward with God who is with us". The Protestant church held "Kriegsbetstunden" - war prayer hours - every evening of the week in Berlin. The church promoted the war. Pacifists were lone voices.

And so it was in Wales. There was, for example, John Williams, a Methodist minister from Bynsiencyn on Anglesey, who, according to the National Library of Wales, was "very active in the recruiting campaign, especially in some of the more rural and Welsh speaking areas of Wales. He would preach wearing his military uniform and his ministerial collar, emphasising the rights of small nations and encouraging men to join the army".

Image copyright Getty Images/Hulton Archive
Image caption A WW1 recruitment queue in Britain

It remains a wonder how the war permeated to the furthest corners of Welsh rural life.

Next door to my grandparents in a hamlet of four houses in the far west of Pembrokeshire lived a couple I knew only as Mr and Mrs Davies. I was told that he had only been east of Haverfordwest once in his life - to the trenches.

He returned and lived quietly among his chickens and tomato plants for the next seventy years.

How did Mr Davies from Druidston Cross end up in the mud and blood of Flanders?

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