Looking Back to Move Forward: Remembering War in Germany

When I was 16, I visited the D-Day beaches in the Normandy. Standing next to a family from America that had brought flowers for an ancestor who’d died here, I couldn’t help but feel a little out of place. Like my being there was somehow inappropriate.

My name is Milena. I’m from Kiel, Germany, and one of the participants of the Make Film, Make History (MFMH) project. On the first evening of our first residential in Ypres, Belgium, we went to the Last Post Ceremony at the Menin Gate. In Ypres, this is where people gather to remember those Soldiers from the Commonwealth who were killed in the area around Ypres during the First World War but whose bodies were never found. This tradition started in the 1920s, and has been carried on every evening, ever-since.

The reactions of the participants varied, which I found especially interesting: A fellow German had felt uncomfortable at the ceremony, since most of the soldiers commemorated at the Menin Gate had probably been killed by Germans. It made sense to me: Our country had started and lost both the First as well as the Second World War, with devastating consequences for Europe. When it all was finally over, no one wanted to be associated with the horrors brought upon the continent and the many, many lives lost. Safe to say, the first half of the twentieth century wasn’t our finest hour. (Or our finest 50 years, for that matter.)

Make Film, Make History participants at Menin Gate

Our remembrance of these tragedies seems to be very much linked with a sense of guilt, in school, by dramatic documentaries on television or recently, every time there is a public discussion on whether it’s alright for people to let the German flag fly during a sport event. Many people argue that it is especially important for Germany to keep the memory of what happened alive so we’re making sure it won’t ever happen again.

When I went home after the residential, I talked about this with a friend of mine, who disagreed fiercely: How could what happened decades before our birth still be considered our fault? And yes, of course we should do all in our power to stop any repeat of those wars, but shouldn’t that be more because we’re reasonable people who know better than out of some old national burden? “I don’t want to be held accountable for what Germany did a hundred years ago.” He shrugged. “And I’m pretty sure young people from the other parties in that war would agree, actually. Shouldn’t we instead focus on what we’ve achieved since then and what we can still achieve for the future?”

Sure. That made sense. It also felt uneasily easy: Yay, at least we’re not shooting at each other anymore? For our generation, which has known next to nothing but peace, those seem like pretty low standards. But then again, historically speaking, they’re anything but.

Aside from the personal connection of having lost a relative on either side of the fighting, World War I has both been called the big seminal tragedy of the twentieth century and a watershed event in the emergence of the modern world. The MFMH project surely wouldn’t have been possible hundred years ago. Europe is far from perfect but when compared to history, we’ve come a long way. And that’s what I choose to take from remembering war — the unapologetic optimistic idea that of course we can do better. Because we already have.