8 May in different perspectives – part 4

For a long time one would refer to the so-called Hour Zero in relation to 8 May 1945 in Germany. The term relates to the unconditional surrender and the new beginning associated with it. Nowadays, the term “Myth of Hour Zero” has become popular because it has become clear that the term is more of an interpretation than a fact: Although drastic cuts happened in 1945 – the fascist dictatorship of the National Socialists ended, Germany was occupied and divided by the Allies – the twelve years of National Socialist rule had left a lasting mark on the country and its people. Be it in politics or the economy, many actors remained the same after 1945. Numerous judges, professors, teachers and even politicians for instance kept their positions. Various continuities thus persisted.

The following timeline shows the development in the assessment of 8 May in Germany. It also shows how difficult it was for the two German states to come to terms with the Nazi era. It is based on research by the historian Peter Hoeres.

Photo: English: Work of the United States Government / Public domain

In the immediate post-war period, politicians and the public perceive the end of the war as defeat and collapse. This is connected to criticizing the occupying powers and the division of Germany.

West German politics do not celebrate official ceremonies; at the same time, the issue of German guilt is absent from the political discourse. The later Federal President Theodor Heuss coined the term of 8 May as a “paradox of history”. He describes the Germans as both “redeemed and destroyed at the same time” on this day. He uses the term “collective shame” and thus rejects a collective guilt.

In the GDR, on 8 May the liberation by the Red Army is commemorated under the badge of anti-fascism. From 1950 to 1967 the day is even a non-working day.

The 10th anniversary of the end of the war is overshadowed by the remembrance of the poet Friedrich Schiller, whose 150th anniversary of death is celebrated this year. The FAZ´s headline on 7 May: “Ten years ago: Collapse”.

Against the background of clouded relations with the Allies, the national perspective assumes central ground. Federal Chancellor Ludwig Erhard criticizes the “collective guilt” that weighs upon the Germans. Willy Brandt, head of the SPD, demands a closure: “Twenty years are enough”.

At the same time, other social groups also commemorate 8 May 1945: in the same year, the Federation of Expellees (the interest group of those expelled from the former Eastern territories) places all those who “have helped prisoners of war, the persecuted, Jews and other people in need of protection” at the center of a memorial service. At a memorial service at Frankfurt University, political scientist and jurist Wolfgang Abendroth calls the “German upper class” a group of perpetrators. Radical left-wing groups commemorate the resistance fighters – like in the GDR . 

The remembrance of 8 May becomes institutionalised: Federal President Gustav Heinemann speaks for the first time on this occasion. He focuses on the German victims of the war. The Social Democrats speak of “German perpetrators” for the first time in a memorial service. The newspaper “Frankfurter Rundschau” names 8 May as “Liberation Day” for the first time.

In the official commemoration speech, Federal President Walter Scheel emphasises the responsibility of the older generation to settle “guilt and shame” with themselves. He says that liberation came from outside and that the Germans were not able to shake off National Socialism on their own. The opposition is demonstratively absent from the event, including the later Chancellor Helmut Kohl.

Only now, alternative images of history are developing in oppositional groups in the GDR.

No official commemoration ceremony takes place. Peace activists and the young party “Die Grünen” (“The Greens”) are protesting in Berlin against the rearmament of Germany and utilize the commemoration for their politics.

The press terms 8 May a “collapse”. Well-known historians oppose the term “liberation”, whereas historian Alexander Demandt speaks of the “low point of German history”. Federal President Richard von Weizsäcker officially speaks of “Liberation Day”. On this basis, a great social debate about the collective guilt of the Germans develops.

The extent to which the collective guilt debate is interwoven with 8 May, becomes apparent on 8 May 1995, when numerous intellectuals place an advertisement in the “Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung” titled “Against Forgetting”, in which they point at the paradox of redemption & defeat and blank out the debates about guilt.

The emphasis on German guilt has become an essential part of the remembrance. In a publication, the Military History Research Office identifies a “decision for murder and lies” to have been taken by the entire German society in the 1930s and 1940s.

For the first time, Federal President Joachim Gauck also thanks the Red Army for the liberation. The suffering of German soldiers in Soviet captivity, which was often emphasized upon earlier, is only mentioned in passing in the name of reconciliation.