HISTORY

Victory’s awkward legacy

PETER LEWIS March 4 1985
HISTORY

Victory’s awkward legacy

PETER LEWIS March 4 1985

Victory’s awkward legacy

HISTORY

May 8, 1945, remains rivetted in history as the day that Nazi Germany surrendered to Allied forces, ending a war that claimed more than 50 million lives. But for many of the current governments of those allies, commemorating the 40th anniversary of VE-Day threatens to produce major dip-

lomatic headaches. The problem: how to celebrate the victory over Nazi tyranny and commemorate the sacrifices of Allied soldiers without offending West Germany, a favored ally. Now, most Western nations appear to have settled on a compromise, authorizing positive celebrations which will keep jingoistic

flag-waving to a minimum. But in West Germany itself, the anniversary has only intensified an old and bitter debate over whether May 8 is a day to honored, regretted—because it brought the division of Germany—or best ignored.

In planning the celebrations the United States, Britain and France were clearly anxious to avoid a repetition of last year’s snub to West Germany, when they pointedly excluded it from ceremonies marking the 40th anniversary of the Normandy landings. Reaching for the appropriate tone, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher announced on a trip to Bonn last month that instead of celebrating May 8 as a military victory, Britain would mark the day as symbolizing “40 years of peace in freedom.” Thatcher’s theme appeared to appeal to Ronald Reagan, who is expected to stress the theme of reconciliation in his May 8 address to the European parliament in Strasbourg, France.

For his part, Chancellor Helmut Kohl said that he wanted the date to be honored as a “liberation from barbarism” which signalled the birth of democracy in West Germany. But Kohl’s talk of liberation—clearly designed to win favor from the two-thirds of Germany’s population born after May 8, 1945—attracted criticism from across the political spectrum. The left-leaning weekly Der Spiegel declared, “We did not liberate ourselves, and a big part of Europe was not freed at all.” Even a leading figure in Kohl’s own conservative CDU party, Alfred Dregger, opposed his leader’s stance.

Meanwhile, a refugee group known as the Silesian League attracted wide attention in a move that seemed deliberately calculated to inflame the debate. The league, which claims to speak for two million Germans driven out of Silesia when most of it became part of Poland in 1945, first announced that it was holding a rally in June under the motto “Forty years of banishment—Silesia remains ours.” Then, after a sharp rebuke from Kohl, who is scheduled to speak at the rally, group leader Herbert Hupka defiantly trumpeted that Silesia was “the property of all Germans.”

The expansionist rhetoric, coupled with the announcement of Kohl’s participation at the planned rally, played squarely into the hands of the Soviet Union, currently waging a sharp propaganda drive against what it says is a resurgence of expansionist sentiment in West Germany. The wave of shock, anger and embarrassment that greeted the outburst made it plain that few Germans agree with the league. But it was clear that the incidents were extreme symptoms of a common German malaise: how to live with the verdict of May 8,1945.PETER LEWIS in Brussels, with Sue Masterman in Vienna.

Sue Masterman