As Europe commemorates the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War I this year, a re-assessment is taking place in Germany of what is called Europe’s Urkatastrophe, or “original catastrophe” – in other words, the one that led to all the others. In particular, influenced by books such as Christopher Clark’s Sleepwalkers (published in Germany in 2013) and Herfried Münkler’s Der große Krieg (also 2013) – both best sellers in Germany – many are rejecting the once widely held idea that the war was caused above all by German aggression. A poll in January showed that only 19 percent of Germans thought Germany was chiefly responsible for the outbreak of war. It seems to me that this is part of a broader trend in collective memory and national identity in Germany since around the Millennium that I have written about previously: Germans now think of themselves less as “perpetrators” and more as “victims”.
What is particularly interesting about the re-assessment in Germany of World War I and of national identity is the way that it informs, and is informed by, the euro crisis. Since the crisis began, there has been much debate in Europe of a re-emergence of the “German question” – that is, the problem of German power that played a critical role in European history between 1871 and 1945. While a few German historians such as Domink Geppert (whose recently published book, Ein Europa, das es nicht gibt, I am reviewing for the TLS) share the idea that there are echoes in the current crisis of the classical German question, most reject such parallels (some even see them as a pretext for extortion) and see 1914 simply as a vindication of the European Union and of Germany’s rejection of military force since 1945. But the re-assessment of the past may be strengthening a sense of German victimhood in the present. I get the sense that many Germans resent being unfairly blamed for the euro crisis – as they increasingly feel they once were for World War I.