Germany's Year of 'Liberation.'

By Olshausen, Michael | Contemporary Review, January 1996 | Go to article overview

Germany's Year of 'Liberation.'


Olshausen, Michael, Contemporary Review


ALL proud commemorations are alike, every discordant commemoration seems discordant in its own way. Germany experienced this last year as it took stock of the meaning of an event fifty years before. On the 8th of May 1945, as Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel ratified Germany's unconditional surrender in the Karlshorst headquarters of Marshal Zhukov, The Manchester Guardian reported from many countries' `scenes of rejoicing at the United Nations victory'. The Guardian's guardedly joyful front page carried a chronology that day titled `The Liberation of the Capitals' in which it conspicuously isolated `the Axis capitals', and rejected the word `liberation' in referring to them. Half a century later, The Guardian's international edition and the International Herald Tribune reprinted their historic front pages. The family of nations clearly had been unanimous and emphatic in proclaiming in 1945 `victory' over the collective entity known as `Germany'. This unanimity would endure fifty years of divisions and quarrels wholly unrevised. At the end of that half century, however, a transmuted Germany, once again to use the collective noun, would observe a semi-centennial afflicted by discord. In 1995, Germany's media and her cultural and political elites would outdo themselves exploiting claims and disavowals that Germany had, after all, also been liberated, and that this had been the essential fact. It was the profound dichotomies in the uses of the word `liberation', plus the Germans' difficulties in overcoming these dichotomies that lay at the root of their discord. The fifty-year evolution of Tag der Befreiung, `Day of Liberation', had indeed been tortuous. Yet, the historical revisions embraced by the liberation claim would now provide the armature for a new, and positive, German myth.

The usage of the term liberation sanctioned by the United States Military Authority admitted a crucial dichotomy very early on. In October, 1945, the US Department of State Bulletin declassified a directive written in April of 1945 to General Eisenhower which read, in part, `Germany will not be occupied for the purpose of liberation but as a defeated enemy nation'. This was emphatic. The dichotomous use of `liberation' would, however, emerge shortly thereafter. In March 1946, the American Lt. General Lucius Clay approved the English, and thus the controlling, version of a law drafted by Germans which broached for the first time local administration in the American zone: the `Law for Liberation from National Socialism and Militarism'. This law's preamble speaks of `serious crimes against the German people', and Article I begins: `To liberate our people ...'. Each section thus consciously adopts a collective noun - `our/the German people' - to denote the beneficiaries of liberation. Here, the usage of liberation is frankly the opposite of the Joint Chiefs' of Staff 1945 directive. Individuation first appeared in the law with respect to possible wrong-doers. Indeed, the law's title was to become the source, verbatim, for Article 139 of Germany's constitution, in which continued prosecution of Nazi war criminals was to be guaranteed. General Clay, in approving the law, individuated a step further by demanding that local officials be `anti-Nazis of long standing'. This individualization, this differentiation of war-time experience, as against the dichotomous Allied experience of a collective enemy, Germany, would generate much righteous discord in Germany's press and among her elites fifty years later. Strangely, the dichotomy would remain to all other intents and purposes dormant throughout the Cold War, hostage to yet another, this time ideological, dichotomy.

The future leaders of the future East Germany, Communists Walter Ulbricht and Wilhelm Pieck, living during the war in Moscow, broadcast to the Wehrmacht's soldiers essentially truthful propaganda about their condition: they were deceived; they were the dupes of a fascist-capitalist alliance uninterested in their individual fates. …

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