The greatest achievement of German soldiers during World War Two? Not winning it

Alexander Gauland, lead candidate of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD), recently said that Germans have the right to be proud of the achievements of German soldiers in both World Wars. As a German who has lived in England for the past eight years and will return home right after the September 24 election, I am deeply unsettled by this assertion. Why on earth should I be proud of any “achievement” of German soldiers during those horrific wars? What kind of country am I returning to, where a party with such wayward views may be the third biggest in parliament?

(German version of this essay here. Don’t want to read 2300 words? Here’s an abridged 800 word version.

German soldiers’ best and most important achievement in both world wars was: not winning them. That’s particularly true for the second one. Losing it the best thing ever happening in German history.

My paternal grandfather, Georg Werner Storbeck, was one of the 5 million or so German soldiers who vanished in the Second World War. In May 2014, shortly after my 40th birthday, I stood at his grave for the first time. Seeing my surname on a soldier’s tombstone was moving.

Georg Werner Storbeck fell on May 3, 1945, aged 32, rank “Oberfeldmeister”. He shares his grave with two others, Valentin Nickel and Edmund Löffelholz. All three died on the same day. They died not just fighting for the wrong cause, but for a lost one. Hitler had already committed suicide, Berlin was in Soviet hands. Five days later the war was over. Six weeks on, my dad was born. Standing in front of his grave, I did not feel any pride whatsoever. I was sad, very, very sad. And even more angry. A wild rage against the politicians and generals that got him there.

My English friends tell me that after eight years in London, I have become rather British. I think deep inside, the the opposite is true. Living in in England made me feel more German. I became more aware of the strengths and weaknesses of my home country. When you live abroad, you’re much nre defined by your nationality. Here, I’m not just Olaf. I’m Olaf, the German.

I’ve learned a lot from my English friends. Humour, calmness, generosity. And , oddly enough, visiting German war cemeteries. Beforehand, it had never occurred to me to go to one. Why would you? The learned the answer on a warm and sunny day in June 2013. Back then, I was cycling with a group of 30 or so predominantly British cycling friends in Normandy, on the Cotentin peninsula. That area saw savage fighting after the allied landing in Normandy. In the afternoon of a day 69 years later, we rode throught the little village of Orglandes, We came past the sign to a German war cementary, and one of my English friends said: “Hey, let’s have a break here.”

Orglandes is not just any German war cementery. It’s huge, really massive graveyard. 10152 men are buried here. The burial ground is surrounded by a high stone wall, so you can’t see anything from the outside. As a visitor, you first come in via a small chapel-like building, and then enter the actual cemetery.

I’ll never forget the moment I stepped through the inner door. A large, leafy, park-like area with tall, beautiful trees and lot of shade. Trees and grass and dark gravestones as far as the eye can see. Six names on each tombstone, three on either side. “United in combat, united in death”, one of my English friends, a retired history teacher, said. Apparently the common graves really supposed to be a symbol of comradeship. It’s more likely that there was just a lack to space to bury so many dead individually.

The men buried here died on D-Day shortly afterwards, many still almost kids. Horst Höfler, born September 7, 1924, died June 6, 1944. Werner Sand, born July 12, 1922, died June 10, 1944. Moritz Kiesewetter died on that day too. On June 9, he’d become 19 years old. At that age, I spent my first three-week holiday on my own in France, after my A level exams.

A female friend of mine, a real Londoner, broke down in tears. Another English friend suggested I look up the folder with the names of the men buried here, to see if a Storbeck is among them. I was pretty sure there wasn’t but still followed suit. I didn’t know that every war cemetery had a folder with the names of all the men buried there.

I was speechless, very touched, sad and angry. Such pointless deaths for such an evil cause. And try to imagine the suffering those men had caused for the people in France during the occupation. All the carnage they inflicted on American, British, Canadian soldiers who had come to Normandy to liberate France, and later Germany from German-made barbarism.

Less than a year later, I stood at my grandfather’s grave in Freistadt, Austria, close to Linz. Hitler’s most favourite town, what an irony of history. The same toughts and feelings as in Orglandes rage through my body. My compassion for Georg Werner Storbeck was – and is – limited. According to the family gospel, even in 1945 he wrote his wife optimistic letters about Germany’s certain final victory. On May 3, when he got hit by an American artillery shell, he got what everyone fighting for Nazi Germany deserved. Had my granddad and his comrades been only slightly more successful in their “achievements”, a clique of inhuman criminals would have enslaved Europe, and killed millions more. Pride? Do you really think I should take pride in the fact that my grandfather’s generation was asked by its government to conduct the biggest crime in history, Herr Gauland? To be fair, I can feel pride in some achievements of German soldiers during the wars. The Christmas truce 1914 comes to mind, when German, French and British soldiers disobeyed orders, left the trenches and played football. Or Lieutenant Friedrich Lengfeld, who in 1944 died trying to save a badly wounded American soldier from a German minefield.

And of course July 20, 1944, when Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg and other Wehrmacht officers attempted to kill Hitler.

Does Gauland have similar examples in mind? He did not spell them out in his speech. On Twitter, I asked the AfD to find out which specific Wehrmacht achievement their lead candidate is proud of. As a starting point I suggested the Wikipedia entry on German war crimes. Oddly enough, the AfD has not yet replied.

Enough of the polemics. Even Gauland cannot possibly be proud about the war crimes of our soldiers. What he may mean is that during the war, there were myriad acts of personal bravery shown by German soldiers who selflessly risked their lives to save comrades.

Yet such good acts on the micro level cannot be looked at without the context they were happening in. Can there be good in evil? I have no idea. But the individual soldier’s bravery is on the operational level is completely overshadowed by the bad cause they were fighting for. It does make a difference if you are heroic while landing on Omaha beach or while holding out in Stalingrad.

True, ordinary German soldiers per se had little choice in taking part in the war. They were conscripted into the Wehrmacht. But way too many quickly turned into willing executioners, and too few engaged in at least passive resistance. One exception was general John Ansat. He forbid his soldiern on the eastern front to implement the notorious order to execute any captured Red Army political commissar.

I am obviously not personally responsible for the deeds of my grandfather and his comrades. But my generation, and those who come after us, need to be aware of them. Germans in particular, but actually everyone. Nazi Germany is a horrific example how quickly a modern, civilised, culturally advanced country can fall back to barbarism. Fortunately, we live in a different world. But the veneer of civilisation might be thinner than we think.

Gauland explicitly also mentions the First World War. It deserves a more nuanced assessment. It’s start was the deadliest misunderstanding in human history. All participating countries deserve blame. Making Germany solely responsible for the war, as the Versailles treaty did, is ridiculous.

I’m nonetheless glad Germany did not win. It was an undemocratic, imperialistic power that in the course of the war turned into a de facto military dictatorship. The extraordinarily harsh terms of the 1917 Brest-Litovsk peace treaty with Russia shows how Germany thought it should deal with defeated countries. A Europe dominated by Kaiser Wilhelm II, Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff had been a terrible place to live.

I’m not sure what Gauland means when the says that we have the “right” to be proud of our soldier’s achievements. Of course we have. There is no law precluding that. You do get in legal trouble in Germany if you deny the Shoa, or use anti-constitutional symbols like the swastika.  I hope Gauland and his party agrees these laws are a good thing.  But there are no legal restrictions regarding your sense of pride, no matter how warped.

Gauland’s “we have the right” wording is of course a red herring, and a good example of dog whistling. He doesn’t say it, and he surely probably woud deny any intention of meaning it, but what the real mpeople will understand is: “We should really and truly be proud of what German soldiers accomplished during the two world wars.”

This rhetoric is a cynical attempt to exploit the fate of two generations of German men who were betrayed by criminal politicians and generals. Gauland is trying to turn these tragedies into votes. He is abusing those who were unlucky enough to be drafted into unnecessary, pointless wars.

What’s his motivation? Many votes for the AfDwill be coming from disgruntled middle-class voters. They are upset about Angela Merkel’s refugee policy and in fear of an increasing Islamisation of the country. Those AfD voters are right of center, but most of them are not neo-Nazis.

Gauland’s rhetorics is probably a strategic move to woo supporters of fringe right wing parties like the neo-Nazi NPD. This could bolster the AfD’svote share by one percentage point or two. The risk is that moderate middle-class supporters are dispelled. But the AfD’s core constituency is so upset about Merkel’s 2015 decision to open the borders to Syrian war refugees that it will probably vote for the party anyway.

It is a shame that for the first time in decades, far right politicians are set to enter the Bundestag. The AfD’s campaign claims, as well as Facebook and Twitter posts of its top brass, are beyond good taste and decency. Moreover, the AfD suffers from many intellectual contradictions. One refer to how to deal with Gemany’s history. On the one hand, the party says it should not be reduces to the twelve years from 1933 to 1945. On the other hand, Gauland says we should be proud about our soldiers in the world wars. So we should generally look beyond the war. Apart from when we don’t, but then we should do so with positive emotions? ?

With regard to Germany’s history, the AfD has created a strawman.

Nobody actually reduces the German history to the Nazi era. That’s a myth. Fake news. Just think of the “Germany – memories of a nation” exhibition shown recently in the British Museum. It was a celebration of our country’s cultural heritage, its depth and variety, its history and its intellectual and artistic heft just in the heart of the UK’s capital. Currently, Tate Liverpool is running a well-reviewd exhibition on German art from 1919 to 1933.

Overall, the level of acknowledgement, admiration and slight envy of Germany in the UK, and abroad generally, is astonishing.. People marvel at German cars, German engineering, German efficiency, German economic might. They miss that Germany’s supposed strengths don’t live up to their reputation. Just think of Volkswagen’s emissions fraud. People abroad also envy us – yes, I know, it’s a bit embarrassing – for Angela Merkel, also known as “leader of the free world” (The Guardian) .She’s held in high regard for her no-nonsense style of governing, her personal integrity and her seemingly successful economic policies. This is of course a biased perception. The grass is always greener on the other side. But the times are surely gone where you were frowned upon in Europe for being German or when. The time when “those twelve years” were constantly held against us has long become history, Herr Gauland!

And there are good reasons to be proud of Germany Our deeply-rooted federalism. Martin Luther. The early parliamentarism of 1848 in Frankfurt. The creation of the welfare state under Bismarck. The Grundgesetz. Our constitutional court. Willy Brandt’s Ostpolitik and the Nobel prize he received for it. The bloodless revolution of 1989. The peaceful re-unification. But the achievements of our soldiers in the world wars? Don’t bother.



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