The 70th anniversary of World War II
No matter what inscrutable socio-biological function they may serve, all anniversaries are constructs. This is a point worth recalling as we celebrate for the 70th time the end of World War II. The death and destruction raging in the major theaters of war came to an end that year in Europe and the Pacific, and, for that reason alone, 1945 clearly marked an important caesura in myriad ways for millions of people. But if there is one thing that the innovative historiography of the past half century has taught us, it is that war and high politics are not the sole benchmark for large segments of humanity when it comes to their perceptions and experiences.
Historians of Germany interested in issues of gender would remind us, for instance, that for many German women, the real turning point was the year 1948, when the introduction of a new currency in the West finally marked the end of a half decade of severe shortages and frantic searches for scarce goods. It was, of course, not only German women who may not have experienced the so-called zero hour of 1945 as a decisive watershed in their lives: for the 10,000 German soldiers still in Soviet captivity a decade later, the war only ended with their repatriation following a visit by West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer to Moscow in September 1955.
The journal I edit, Central European History (CEH), will soon publish a major review essay looking at some of the recent literature that appeared just in time to mark the 100th anniversary last year of the outbreak of World War I. It is unclear that any of these studies say anything that will drastically alter our ideas about the origins of what George Kennan called the “great seminal catastrophe” of the twentieth century. Still, the publications and commemorations that accompany major historical anniversaries sometimes set in motion popular and scholarly debates that rage long after the anniversary itself.
One thinks, for example, of two events that marked the 40th anniversary of the end of World War II: Ronald Reagan’s controversial visit in May 1985 to the Bitburg military cemetery in Germany, where several dozen members of the Waffen SS were interred, and West German President Richard von Weizsäcker’s speech in the Bundestag several days later – a speech that was unprecedented for the way in which a German head of state candidly and bluntly dealt with the causes and consequences of the war and the Holocaust, and especially Germany’s responsibility in all this. There was a clear link between these two events and the Historikerstreit (historians’ controversy) that began a year later: an acerbic debate over the origins and specificity of German war crimes that was carried out in full public view in Germany’s leading newspapers. The long-term effects of that debate on popular and scholarly discourse – as well as of the controversy spurred by Daniel Goldhagen’s best-selling Hitler’s Willing Executioners exactly a decade later – will be the focus of a forum that will appear in CEH next year.
The present anniversary has not produced – yet – any comparable commemorations or controversies. As the war inexorably fades from living memory, as Germany continues to prove itself a “normal” nation that poses little danger to its neighbors and the world, as other bogeymen emerge and other genocides erupt decade after decade, the moral debates about Germany’s “unmasterable past” seem somehow less urgent: they appear to have run their course – and been, more or less, mastered.