There are many anniversaries in 2015 tied to the end of World War II, now seven decades ago. The capitulation of Germany and Japan ended a war in which many millions died across multiple continents. The world had never experienced such wartime casualties—nor had it experienced such organized barbarism.
Countries in Europe will recall May 8, 1945, as the occasion of victory and liberation, and as the beginning of a rebuilding effort after so much devastation. Russia will mark the anniversary with a nationalistic emphasis on victory in the war against fascism and can readily use that populist energy in the conflict in Ukraine. And in the United States, VE Day will again be celebrated as the victory it was for the Allies, and as they are called in America, “the greatest generation.”
In Germany, this day will be marked, as it has been in the past, as a moment in which the country was thoroughly defeated, but was still given a chance to remember, redeem, reconcile, and rebuild. The utter devastation in German cities ran parallel to the revelations of the horrors of the Holocaust. The occupation of Germany by the Four Powers—the U.S., Great Britain, France, and the Soviet Union—saturated every corner of the country and made defeat visible in multiple dimensions.
Former President Richard von Weizsäcker elegantly described the meaning of May 8, 1945, in a speech given in Bonn thirty years ago. He said, “There is truly no reason for us today to participate in victory celebrations. But there is every reason for us to perceive 8 May 1945 as the end of an aberration in German history, an end bearing seeds of hope for a better future.”
Accepting Responsibility for a Difficult Legacy
In walking along the streets of Berlin these days, there are many reminders of how Germany looked in the spring of 1945. There are also displays of the havoc inflicted on other countries. As von Weizsäcker reminded his citizens on the 40th anniversary of Germany’s defeat, May 8, 1945 can never be separated from January 30, 1933, the day Hitler took power. Germany must always grasp its responsibility for that legacy.
Germany did just that over the next decades. Another walk through Berlin always includes reminders of the legacy all those who suffered, most especially the Jews. West Germany followed a path of accepting responsibility for the atrocities of the Third Reich and seeking reconciliation with its victims, a process that extended to the former East Germany after it joined the Federal Republic in 1990.
Today, seventy years later, Germans recognize that the legacy of WWII is and will remain a part of German identity. Indeed, President Joachim Gauck’s recent statement that “there is no German identity without Auschwitz” went unchallenged.
Building a Democracy, Gaining Respect
Today, the Federal Republic is one of the richest countries in the world, widely respected and capable—if not always ready and willing—to assume leadership and responsibility as part of its role on the global stage. It is not without its blemishes or its internal arguments, a trait of every liberal democracy. But all things considered, Germany in 2015 is likely everything that could have been hoped for in von Weizsäcker’s speech thirty years ago.
Even so, today’s German debates often fail to grasp the magnitude of the country’s rehabilitation, as President Gauck remarked in his 2014 speech to the Munich Security Conference: “Just look at where Germany stands today: it’s a stable democracy, free and peace-loving, prosperous and open. It champions human rights. It’s a reliable partner in Europe and the world: an equal partner with equal responsibilities. All of that fills me with gratitude and joy.”
Of course there are warts. What country does not have them? But the success of a democracy is its ability to recognize those warts and deal with them accordingly, without constantly wondering whether they are possibly cancerous.
From Adversaries to Allies
The relationship between Germany and the United States over the last seven decades has been consistent: there has been an ongoing need to coordinate policies under constantly changing conditions. That process continues today. It has always involved making adjustments to each other’s expectations and to the respective domestic political debates (even if Germany has often had to make more adjustments due to its security dependence on the U.S.). That equation has been changing in the twenty-five years since Germany achieved unification. Bureaucracies and government policies are often behind the curve of these changes. The current tensions over the NSA-BND affair is just the latest example.
After seven fairly successful decades for Germany, there is an explosion of angst and anger over the revelations of one of its intelligence agencies. Parallel to that, there is ongoing resentment directed toward the NSA and its behavior on German soil. Were it not for some efforts to examine this current clash as a result of inadequate oversight and accountability—shared, in some cases—one might draw from the German debate that the country is in danger of being completely undermined by the United States. The same United States was around seventy years ago to help rebuild and is still present seven decades later to work as a partner—if, admittedly, not always an easy one.
But what the current clash does not exemplify is a full scale effort to thwart the stability and security of Germany, a country in which it has invested a huge amount of resources for seventy years. The problems we are both facing—be it in dealing with surveillance policies or in a host of other sectors in a multidimensional relationship—are similar. It is also full of grey zones or simply unchartered policy territory. The debates on both sides of the Atlantic echo each other.
In this very historic year of 2015, we mark not only the anniversary of the end of WWII; we also mark the 25th anniversary of German unification, the 50th anniversary of relations between Israel and Germany, and the 60th anniversary of the Bundeswehr. These and other metrics all point toward the evolution of a country from devastation and humiliation, to division, to a vibrant and successful liberal democratic state in the heart of a European Union that Germany has helped build.
The sum of German-American relations is larger than some of its parts. That is something nations should not take for granted. But sometimes it takes a look back as well as a look forward to see not only how far we’ve come, but also how far we have to go in dealing with things we share in a complicated world.