8 May in different perspectives – part 5

8 May does not only stand for the end of the war in Germany, but also for the end of the Nazi regime and its crimes. Remembering it has changed significantly over the last 75 years.

Aleida Assmann, one of the leading researchers on the culture of remembrance, has identified three important events for the public revision of National Socialism:

Photo: Anonimowy pracownik Polskiej Agencji Prasowej/Anonymous employee of the Polish Press Agency / Public domain

Chancellor Willy Brandt kneeling down in the former Warsaw Ghetto in 1970 (“Warsaw Genuflection”) was the first time a German politician asked for forgiveness for Nazi crimes.

On 8 May 1985 Richard von Weizsäcker was the first German head of state to speak of a “Day of Liberation” in a widely acclaimed speech.

Another 20 years later, the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe was inaugurated in 2005 as a central memorial in Berlin.

(Photo: K. Weisser, WikiCommons, CC-BY-SA 2.0)

With this selection, the development in East Germany is disregarded. In the GDR, 8 May was already celebrated as an official holiday in the years 1950–1967 as well as in 1985 as a “Day of Liberation of the German People from Hitler’s Fascism”. At its centre stood the significant role of the Soviet Red Army.

Photo: Axb / CC BY-SA

1970 Federal Chancellor Willy Brandt lays down a wreath at the memorial for the victims of the uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto (1944). By kneeling down he pleads for forgiveness for the German crimes. 

1985 – President Richard von Weizsäcker calls the 8 May the “Day of Liberation” for the first time in his speech. (From 01:45 to 04:56)

“ For us, the 8 of May is above all a date to remember what people had to suffer. It is also a date to reflect on the course taken by our history. The greater honesty we show in commemorating this day, the freer we are to face the consequences with due responsibility. For us Germans, 8 May is not a day of celebration. Those who actually witnessed that day in 1945 think back on highly personal and hence highly different experiences. Some returned home, others lost their homes. Some were liberated, whilst for others it was the start of captivity. Many were simply grateful that the bombing at night and fear had passed and that they had survived. Others felt first and foremost grief at the complete defeat suffered by their country. Some Germans felt bitterness about their shattered illusions, whilst others were grateful for the gift of a new start. It was difficult to find one’s bearings straight away. Uncertainty prevailed throughout the country. The military capitulation was unconditional, placing our destiny in the hands of our enemies. The past had been terrible, especially for many of those enemies, too.

Would they not make us pay many times over for what we had done to them? Most Germans had believed that they were fighting and suffering for the good of their country. And now it turned out that their efforts were not only in vain and futile, but had served the inhuman goals of a criminal regime. The feelings of most people were those of exhaustion, despair and new anxiety. Had one’s next of kin survived?Did a new start from those ruins make sense at all? Looking back, they saw the dark abyss of the past and, looking forward, they saw an uncertain, dark future. Yet with every day something became clearer, and this must be stated on behalf of all of us today: the 8 of May was a day of liberation. It liberated all of us from the inhumanity and tyranny of the National-Socialist regime.

Nobody will, because of that liberation, forget the grave suffering that only started for many people on 8 May. But we must not regard the end of the war as the cause of flight, expulsion and deprivation of freedom. The cause goes back to the start of the tyranny that brought about war. We must not separate 8 May 1945 from 30 January 1933.”

The “Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe” opened in 2005 in the heart of Berlin, seen from afar. (Photo: Alexander Blum, WikiCommons, CC-BY-SA 4.0)

Close-up of the total of 2710 concrete stelae. (Photo: K. Weisser, WikiCommons, CC-BY-SA 2.0)