When I was seven years old, in 1960, my grandmother Angelica opened my eyes to the meaning of 8 May 1945, the day when Nazi Germany surrendered and World War II ended in Europe. We were spending our summer holidays in Normandy where the liberation of Europe from Nazism had started on D-Day, 6 June 1944. One evening, I listened to my parents and my grandmother talking about the past. I have forgotten the details of their conversation, but I can still hear my grandmother’s sigh of relief when she said “Thank God we lost that war!”
From a child’s perspective, it wasn’t self-evident that losing was a good thing. But of course, my grandmother was right to equate defeat with liberation. The more I have thought about the lesson she taught me 45 years ago, the clearer I have seen another, less obvious dimension in what she said: It is “we” who lost the war. Collectively, the Germans had not been the innocent victims of a small gang of criminal outsiders called “Nazis” – Nazism had been an inside ideology supported by millions of Germans, and every German was liable for its atrocities whether or not he or she had adhered to it individually.
In today’s Germany, an overwhelming majority subscribes to the proposition that 8 May 1945 was a day of liberation – not only for Europe, but also for Germany itself. Compared to public opinion in 1960, that’s certainly an enormous progress. But paradoxically, it may also contain an element of forgetfulness, because it tends to conceal the fact that liberation required a military defeat. To use my grandmother’s parlance, it is not “us” who were the liberators, but “them”.
The way people see the past tells us more about their present attitudes than about the past itself. This is what the term “politics of memory” is meant to indicate. And this is why it doesn’t matter whether the relevant events happened 60 years ago (as World War II), 90 years (as in the case of the Armenian genocide) or even 600 years (such as the battle of Kosovo in 1389). A violent conflict in the past may survive as a war of memories in the present, as can be observed in the current dispute between China and South Korea on one side, and Japan on the other. A war of memories, in turn, may sometimes lead to a violent conflict in the future.