Foreign comments on the German attitude towards war


I found a typical comment on that topic here (hat tip to Weblog Sicherheitspolitik).

Germans are in the process of redefining themselves as “victims of war.” Claiming that all war is always horrible for everyone involved, they remove all questions of who and why. Pacifist Germans have conveniently drawn the wrong conclusion from WW2 - that freedom and democracy must not be defended militarily.
You hear this all the time in Germany: that Germans know the price of war and have learned their lesson - unlike those naive, stupid Americans. In this self-serving myth, having started a war that killed 50 million ended up cleansing and purifying them, enabling them to reach a higher moral plane. Thus the perpetrators gain the moral high ground over the victors. Or so they think. (The irony is that most Germans have no memory of any war, while millions of Americans were affected by the effort to win the cold war and subsequent conflicts)
It's interesting because it mixes facts with misunderstandings, myths and a kind of strawman argument. Honestly, that's exactly the mix I was expecting from a right wing American on such a topic.

Let's look at it, piece for piece.

"victims of war"
The two older generations were indeed victims of war, and one more generation of Eastern Germans as well. The war had extremely adverse effects on health, wealth and freedom. The hardship of rebuilding a country that was bombed to rubble was obvious. It took almost two decades to recover materially, so the war meant a loss of three decades to these people.

The opposite of victims are perpetrators, and it could be argued that Germans are not only victims but also perpetrators of WW2 and holocaust.
The largest base for this allegation is that Hitler came to power through democratic elections.
However, the result was only 33.1% for the NSDAP in that election. Only 71.1% of the eligible voters voted in that election in November 1932. That reduced the share to 23.5%.

The requirement for voting rights was 20 years of age. So only those born in 1912 or earlier - and only a third of them - can be blamed on base of this argument.
The German statistics agency's data (dated 2006) shows that in 2006 there were about 153,000 Germans living who were born in 1913 or earlier. Time went by, and an extrapolation for today yields about 107,000 likely survivors born in 1913 or earlier.

So today we've got probably only about 25,000 survivors who have voted for the Nazis in November of 1932. They're all 95 years or older.

The generations who experienced the horrors of war and had to rebuild Germany, pay reparations and suffer from dictatorships is much, much stronger today - it's the grandparents generation and the Eastern German parents generation.

So what is coining a nation more; millions of victims or ten thousands of perpetrators?

The truth is: Few living people are still to blame for what happened several generations ago.

"Claiming that all war is always horrible for everyone involved..."
I support that claim by about 95%. Sociopaths tend to like war, and most of them reveal their true nature only in war. Some wars are necessary and serve to improve a nation's fate, but even then the war itself is horrible to most. It's the least favourable tool to reach a goal.

"...that freedom and democracy must not be defended militarily."
This is where a kind of strawman argument/myth mix kicks in.
There's a wide-spread and absolutely ridiculous assertion in American right-wing circles that Germans/Europeans wouldn't want to fight, not even for their own freedom. I think that nonsense is in the background of this quote.
Another assumption in the background of this quote is apparently that Americans defend freedom and democracy militarily.

The reality is a bit more complex.

1) Germans are ready to defend sovereignty with military means and we spend billions on the military even though there's no-one really threatening us today.

On the other hand there's simply no consensus that the sovereignty of non-allied states needs to be defended by us.

Well, that's the point of an alliance: It establishes a difference between the normal relations among UN members and the relations inside of the club (alliance).
Why should we promise to defend everyone if not everyone promises to defend us?
Unlike some other nations, we at least stick to our commitments in the Charter of the United Nations in regard to non-allied countries.

There are some pacifists in Germany, numbering probably some hundred thousands of citizens. Yet even most of these would agree that the Bundeswehr should attempt to repel an invasion of Germany to defend "freedom and democracy".

2) Americans don't defend freedom and democracy. That's the propaganda, but in fact it's neither about defence, nor about freedom or democracy. At least not all at once.

It's not about defence because they have never entered a war on their own to defend any democracy. They were either declared war on by their enemies or they defended non-democratic states. The entry into WW1 was not about freedom either, but a plain meddling in another continent's war among similar powers. It could be argued whether the Republic of Korea was a real democracy in 1950, but that's an exception.

It's not about freedom or democracy because U.S. wars are about "national interest" or "national defence". The "freedom" and "democracy" part is just the propaganda to build up and maintain support for the wars at home.

"You hear this all the time in Germany: that Germans know the price of war and have learned their lesson - unlike those naive, stupid Americans."
That's kind of accurate, and I would like to add that the lessons learning process was indeed very intense and thorough over decades. The effects seem to begin to fade, though.

In this self-serving myth, having started a war that killed 50 million ended up cleansing and purifying them, enabling them to reach a higher moral plane.
That's a gross misunderstanding. The war did not cleanse and purify "us".

Let me explain. The wars before 1945 were fought by "them", not by "us". Only a tiny minority of "them" survived and they are so old that their role in our society and politics is now very small. The most well-known example is probably former chancellor (social democrats) and 1st lieutenant in WW2, Helmut Schmidt. He's a kind of a wisdom reservoir on two legs, but very, very old and an exception to the rule.

Someone asked me a while ago how Germans could like the Indiana Jones movies (you know, Nazis being the baddies). Well, it's simple: We like to see Nazis being thrashed. They're not "us", just like they're not "us" for British, French, Russians or Americans (with up to a per cent exceptions everywhere in the Western world).

So since the Germans of WW2 are not "us", "we" weren't "purified" and "cleansed".
Instead, we had a decades-long exposure to lessons learned debriefings. THAT is what created an above-normal awareness to certain dangers.
I argued in 2008 that this was actually an exaggerated effort, as we should learn more from others' history and others should learn more from our history.

"The irony is that most Germans have no memory of any war, while millions of Americans were affected by the effort to win the cold war and subsequent conflicts"
Well, it's true that we didn't fight hot wars in 1946-1998, but there was a quite depressing thing going on during the Cold War that was very influential nevertheless:

Americans, Brits and Frenchmen had to expect to die to Soviet nukes if WW3 happened.
Germans had to expect to die to Soviet, American, French and British nukes if WW3 happened.

It's quite depressing to know that your "allies" would not defend, but kill you in the event of war.
It's certainly something that clarifies the insanity of war.

Oh, by the way - it's also a strong counter to American claims that we should be grateful for the defence that the USA provided to us during the Cold War. The "Nuclear umbrella" was in reality just a "Sword of Damocles".

- - - - -

It's obvious that opinions shared by local or national majorities have a common base. Common experiences, common lessons, common problems, maybe culture - there's always a reason for it. That alone should be enough not to ridicule majority opinions of foreign groups, but to take them seriously and to analyze the reasons (more than just superficially).

A feeling of superiority with the own position isn't fully justified until the analysis of the roots of both the own and the other opinion is complete and supporting for the own position.

Mr. Greenwald did not analyze the roots of the German majority opinion properly, nor did he understand that opinion fully. And - as it's obvious by my comments - I suppose that he didn't even understand his country's behaviour fully, as he seemed to believe in covering myths instead.

On the other hand - maybe I'm just not done with my analysis of his opinion and its roots. It's difficult to know when you're done with it (and you probably never are as both are changing over time) on your own.

I hope that this - even if not complete and maybe not 100% correct - provided additional insights and pushed readers towards the complete picture on the issue.

It's as always - only in religious mythology you have prophets who give a complete and perfect statement. In reality you should join mosaic parts gained from many sources to complete the image. I am always just trying to provide additional mosaic parts and to correct wrong colour pieces on some positions.


P.S.: Isn't it funny? Just two decades ago the same WW2 stories would have been used to make sure Germans DON'T think about waging war again.


  1. That's the most diplomatic thing I've ever read.

  2. That would have been VERY stupid and disadvantageous.
    Germany would have got an additional war preparation boost by officially switching to wartime economy while the British and French didn't.

    The Americans were in no position to harm Germany on their own anyway and their army would have been of no relevance till 1941 even if France and UK joined at a later date.

    The only powers who could have intervened with effect in 1938 were France and Soviet Union.

    And it wouldn't have been about defence of democracy and freedom either - keep in mind that the Sudetenland was indeed mostly inhabited by Germans and they weren't exactly well-represented by the parliament in Prague.

    Such a stupid division of Germany would have spelled new troubles for the next centuries until reversed - see previous post.

  3. I could contradict many of your statements in this article but I'll leave it at just one: your claim the WW2 generation is not "us". One cannot dispute that todays Germany and German society was built up and formed by this generation not by a complete new one. Therefore all cultural changes and development in the aftermath are a direct result of their actions: without "them" there would've never been an "us". Even so we had a strange way to deal with "their" deeds. They themselves told the World Hitler was responsible. Later it was the SS also. Today we additionally like to accuse the Wehrmacht so as these organization was a seperate and insular part of the societey which acted on its own. The Wehrmacht-exhibition is a good example. That's no "coming to terms" but rather another repression. WW2 is part of our own identity. "They" are our own people and their actions completely our own responsibiliy. And I am certainly not happy when Hollywood kills another "Nazi"...

  4. The society had its roots in pre-45, of course - but it was changed thoroughly during the 60's.

    The generation of Germans who had power in the Third Reich (approx. 40+ y.o.) left the working age during the 60's, began to fade during the 70's and is now almost entirely gone.

    "Therefore all cultural changes and development in the aftermath are a direct result of their actions:"

    You know that this is not true. The keyword is "68er Generation". It wasn't the old generation who changed the face of Germany.

    Back to your assertion of continuity:
    The USA is no slave-owner society although it has undeniably those roots, right?
    Would you accuse an average Russian of the invasion of Finland in 1939? No? Why not?

    Many people like to personate nations, but that's an oversimplification of reality.

    I can drive a car and there's some connection to what this car did years ago, but it wasn't me who drove over a child with the car years ago. It was the previous owner.

    By the way; I know many who have a fun time seeing Nazis getting kicked in the ass in movies. The success of such movies in Germany tells me that you're likely an exception.

    It's natural and unsurprising that a German disagrees with me on this matter, just as it's not difficult to find an American disagreeing with the quoted guy on it.

    Yet, it's obvious that almost nobody is a true representative of his nation. I cannot claim to have done statistically significant polls on the matter. I wasn't elected as Bundespräsident a few days ago, that was Mr. Köhler.
    I am not entitled to representation, but to an opinion and its expression.

  5. Well I do not think that my taste in movies is relevant for the topic. Neither are those films. If I am an exeption there I can live with it quite well.
    But I am pleased you mentioned the overrated 68ies. I do not think their influence went that deep. First their "ideology" was a direct reaction to their parent's generation. More important seem s to me their way of "changing things". They had a strange afiliation to totalitarian regimes (Lenin, Mao, Che, Ho-Chi-Minh, Fidel) which they thought to be the solution for all problems of capitalism, fascism and (which is very odd) democracy. Where exactely is the severe change of mind in comparison to '33? And don't tell me about women wearing short skirts...
    Of course I do not account individuals representatives of entire nations. Therfore I do not accuse Russians or Americans of their past (especially with my German background). You cannot force people to redress things which cannot be undone. But the point was that Germans today are influenced by past experience. To deny that would simply mean to neglect 60 years of development. Just one example: The words futile and war in german parlance are so closely tied together that you could write it as one word. That's a result of history. But ask a British or a Russian. Do you really think they consider their participation in WW2 was this useless? As a result they do not transfer this experience to their present-day behavior.

  6. I would take exception to many of your points, however I think this encapsulates them all, you wrote:

    "The opposite of victims are perpetrators, and it could be argued that Germans are not only victims but also perpetrators of WW2 and holocaust."

    I think you'll find that most if not all other Americans could only begin this discussion by ending that sentence:

    "...and it could be argued that Germans are not only perpetrators but victims of WW2 and [the] holocaust."

    I do not believe that the sins of the parents are the sins of the children, but they are their debts.

    Let me say otherwise that I very much enjoy your blog.


  7. I do not contest that modern Germany was influenced by its history - that's obvious.
    I contest that it's appropriate to speak of 33-45 Germany and 90-09 Germany as if it was one.

    The people, state, laws, norms, society, borders and to a significant degree even the language are different. The experiences of the Weimar Republic and the 3rd Reich were not done by the Federal Republic and the overwhelming majority of its people - they are instead lessons from a time long gone, never experienced by 4/5 of today's Germans.

    By the way; I think your view of the 68ers is too close to right-center stereotypes about them (and superficial).
    The vast majority of the 68's movement was very anti-authoritarian. They lacked proper idols for that, so some chose revolutionaries they knew little about as second-best idols.

    edit: I got a hint that I mixed up contend and contest, so this is a edited comment.

  8. And there it is again the bulldozer of all kock-out arguments: center-right. I need not answer to that...
    And that's exactely what I ment. Even if the generation of 68 thougt themselves as anti-authoritarian they chose their political idols from the far left with total ignorance of their knowledge of their ideology. They had no idea of it? So much the worse! Again history repeated itselves: In 33 nobody read "Mein Kampf" and look what was said afterwards: We never knew! That's a striking continuity way beyond forms of goverment, laws etc.

  9. Yet it doesn't strike me as typical German, but rather as typical human.

    I bet that today's Russian Nazis didn't fully understand the Nazi position on the worthiness of Slavs.

    The right wing Americans didn't bother to use a reality check on their foreign policy ideology before they invaded countries.

    Failure to think completely about something before choosing a position is human, it's part of our fallibility and imperfect information.
    That's IMO the continuity that you're seeing.

  10. Well I think we can agree on that completely...!

  11. Americans didn't start WW1 or WW2; they finished both. If it weren't for the enormous sacrifices of the American people, the Nazis would have swept the world.Back in the 1971 I was in France, my French friend surprised me when he said that the French hate Americans.Surprised, I said how come you hate them while they saved your nation twice in two world wars.
    , he went to say that the Americans are of a nation without a history. Frankly,I felt sour because they were so ungrateful for a nation that sacrificed the lives of their dear ones to save some other nations.
    However, the paranoia and prejudice that have infested the American political system blinded their sight and has turned them into war mongers.
    The invasion of Iraq was an aggression by all means. Never mind Saddam, for he was a butcher and dictator, and Iraq is better off without him, but it is mostly the innocent civilians who are still paying the price of that war.
    On the American side,about 5,000 soldiers have given their lives for an illusion called democracy. Maleki, the new and more brutal dictator of Iraq is taking the country to a no-so-far civil war. Being a extremist lunatic shi'ite, he and his loose gangs have massacred and displaced hundreds of Sunni civilians. Is that the democracy Americans have died for....
    It is a pity when a nation loses the compass.

  12. @Anon;
    look at the timeline. The reversal of war happened before the first ground battle between Germans and Americans, in late 1942. The Americans were influencing the Cold War frontier (could have been the Rhine otherwise), not the question who 'won' in Europe.