The beginning of November witnessed two annual commemorations in the UK. As ever, “remember, remember the 5th of November” gave rise to bonfires and fireworks on 5 November to celebrate the failure of Guy Fawkes and his fellow conspirators to blow up Parliament on this day in 1605.
A few days later, the annual commemoration of the Armistice of 11 November 1918 and the fallen of Britain’s wars, was all the more poignant on its 100th anniversary. Whilst British and Commonwealth leaders commemorated with wreath-laying in London, most world leaders of the combatant nations gathered in Paris to commemorate the event as guests of Emmanuel Macron.
Whilst Angela Merkel attended in Paris, and Federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier was the first German head of state to lay a wreath in London on Remembrance Sunday, 11 November holds less significance for Germans. The First World War was as traumatic for Germany as for all nations, but it is overshadowed in the public consciousness by the trauma, horror and guilt associated with the Second World War – in which approaching 6 million Germans were killed, and Germany unleashed terror and suffering on much of Europe.
The end of the Second World War is generally remembered more in the context of commemorating Germany’s wars and war dead.
However, Frau Merkel and Herr Steinmeier had reason to commemorate another date together in early November, one as a member of the audience, one as speaker. The 9 November is a momentous date in German history, as this is the date when the German Republic, to become known as the Weimar Republic, was declared in 1918, the date of the Reichskristallnacht in 1938 and the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.
As this is the 29th anniversary of the Fall of the Wall, one may imagine that next year will mark a major commemoration of this event. Instead, the Federal President’s address to the Bundestag on 9 November 2018 was largely focused on the 100th anniversary of the declaration of the Republic, and the 80th anniversary of the terrible night of violence against the German Jewish community.
Germany is blessed in its choice of political leader and head of state. While Frau Merkel prepares for her “final lap” in charge as Chancellor, the former Social Democrat President Steinmeier is highly regarded on all sides in Germany and, as a successful former foreign minister, equally well regarded in capitals abroad. He has a habit of speaking in measured, well-considered and appropriate tones, unlike some other heads of state. Readers who can follow German are encouraged to read or listen to his entire speech of 9 November.
Herr Steinmeier reminded his parliamentary audience, and viewers beyond, that it is all too easy to take democracy for granted; that while the Weimar Republic is often considered as a failure, in fact it achieved many things in a few years after Germany’s defeat, but was fatally undermined by nationalist and extremist forces. A conscious effort to embed democracy after the apocalypse of the Nazis has led to one of the most stable, and politically aware democracies in the world in the Federal Republic.
“It is not democracy that has failed historically. It is the enemies of democracy that have failed” – a reason to be proud, said Herr Steinmeier, but also an obligation. He warned his audience that, just as the Republic of November 1918 was not automatically condemned to fail, but was undermined, so we should not take the success and stability of democracy for granted in the present day.
More poignant still was Steinmeier’s reflection on what is officially known in Germany as Reichsprogromnacht, popularly as Reichskristallnacht, in 1938. The desecration of Jewish synagogues, property and personal attacks on Jews (up to 2,000 are thought to have died, 30,000 were deported to camps) was the first step towards the physical, not merely legal and economic persecution of the Jews in Germany.
It led many German Jews to emigrate, or to make sure that at least their children could leave, in the months up to the outbreak of the war. How, Herr Steinmeier wondered, did a people known in the post First World War period for its groundbreaking composers, artists, cinematographers and scientists descend to this racist, barbaric state? He admitted that there were no easy answers – except an obligation to guard against the forces that unleashed this evil: “We understand our responsibility, a responsibility under which no line can ever be drawn.”
In his outstanding speech, Steinmeier called for an “enlightened patriotism… neither seeking laurel wreaths nor crowns of thorns. Not loud or triumphalist, a patriotism of quiet tones and mixed feelings. Some see this as a weakness – especially those who promote a new aggressive nationalism. But nationalism casts the past in a golden light and delights in triumph over others. Nationalism invokes an old, beautiful world which never actually existed” (a sentence one could easily invoke when considering the current political debate in the UK).
Herr Steinmeier is emphatically correct. A people are led. By its leaders, its media, its commentators. The views and language they project, repeated and echoed, becomes currency, especially among those who may lack the necessary socio-political awareness and education.
Herr Steinmeier was right: take nothing for granted in our democracy, not even the continuation of democracy itself. We must continue to be aware, to be “active bystanders” at all times. We must, in the radical centre, defend the liberal democracy that has brought peace, emancipation and well being to so many people in Europe. Against extremists, ultranationalists and racists who choose division and hate as their vehicle to power. They, not we, are the enemy of the people.