Academic journal article
By Wittlinger, Ruth
German Politics and Society , Vol. 25, No. 3
British-German relations have undergone a considerable transformation since 1945 with both countries having to adapt to significant changes in their own status, as well as a very different international environment. Germany's status as a morally and militarily defeated and occupied power in 1945 is in stark contrast to the confident role it is playing at the beginning of the new millennium when--sixty years after the end of World War II--the German chancellor for the first time took part in the VE--Day celebrations of the victors. This article analyzes recent dynamics of collective memory in both countries and examine if and to what extent their collective memories play a role in British-German relations.
Keywords: British-German relations; collective memory; World War II; National Socialism; national identity; Britain; Germany
Since 1945, there has been a slow but steady development that has changed (West) Germany's status from its inferior position in moral, military and economic terms after the end of World War II into a reunited and sovereign state, which seems to feel at ease once again playing a more confident role in international politics and expressing its national interest more readily than at any other time since 1945. For British-German relations this has meant that Germany's position has changed from one of military and moral subordination to Britain to one of an equal partner. Judging by the quality of bilateral relations between Britain and Germany at the elite level in the post-Thatcher era, it appears as if Germany's role between 1933 and 1945 has been largely forgiven and forgotten.
In stark contrast to this are the wider British public's perceptions of Germany and the Germans where collective memory of the National Socialist period still plays a key role. Apart from a multitude of examples of an anti-German discourse provided by the media, evidence from surveys suggests that young Britons' perceptions of Germany and the Germans are largely dominated by images of Germany's National Socialist past and World War II. (1)
The aim of this article is to assess the role and significance of collective memory of the "Third Reich," the Holocaust, and World War II for British-German relations. (2) It thus contributes to the discussion of British-German relations with a new analytical perspective, drawing on recent research in memory studies. It argues that recent dynamics in the collective memories of Britain and Germany have considerably altered the framework for the bilateral relationship between the two countries and--rather than improving relations through the increasing temporal distance to the "Third Reich"--are likely to put a strain on the relationship.
Providing the conceptual background for the paper, the first part discusses the power and politics of memory and its relevance for bilateral relations. The second part traces the significance of Germany's National Socialist past for British-German relations since 1945 at the elite level, as well as for British perceptions of Germany and the Germans on a broader scale. Part three examines the relationship between memory and identity in Germany and Britain. It also identifies and analyzes the key constituent parts of British and German collective memories and considers their impact on wider questions of identity. The fourth section looks at the recent events and debates surrounding the 60th anniversary of the end of the war in order to identify and assess the current dynamics of German and British collective memories and their implications for the bilateral relationship.
The Power and Politics of Memory: Relevance for Bilateral Relations
As in Germany's other bilateral relationships, as well as in the multilateral framework in which it has been operating since World War II, history has played an important role in British-German relations since 1945. (3) Although the study of history clearly has its merits when examining British-German relations, the focus on collective memory provides an important additional dimension for an understanding of the complex domestic mindsets of Britain and Germany which provide the basis for their bilateral relationship. …