Sixty-three years after the downfall of the Third Reich, the German military is again moving into combat zones around the world. As German soldiers march to battle in areas such as Kosovo and Afghanistan, Germany is finding it necessary to come up with ways to revive the nation’s military traditions—without awakening memories of Nazi atrocities.
Many Germans are circumventing this dilemma by downplaying Germany’s Nazi history and glorifying their pre-Nazi military traditions—and heroes.
Among those who take such a stance are the German filmmakers who recently shattered a two-generation-long taboo by releasing a movie that openly glorifies the iconic hero of the Second Reich—the Red Baron. Baron Manfred von Richthofen—the most successful German fighter pilot of his era—shot down 80 Allied planes and massacred an unspecified number of Allied infantry over the course of Word War i. These military exploits made Richthofen one of the most feared warriors of Kaiser Wilhelm.
The film puts a new twist on the old icon, however. Instead of presenting Richthofen as one of the deadliest servants of a man who lusted for complete domination of all Europe, this film portrays him as a tragic hero who loathed war, but was still willing to give his life for the Fatherland.
As the Telegraph says of this film:
It is set to mark a new departure for German war films, which usually reflect on the extremism, suffering and even lunacy of the Nazi era if they get made at all.
The Red Baron, in contrast, portrays a brilliant and honorable military figure whose life and early death in combat Germans can celebrate without blush.
Even though Richthofen was lionized by both Kaiser Wilhelm ii and Adolf Hitler, he is apparently now seen as a suitable hero for a nation that is searching for military icons. By glorifying the military traditions of the pre-Nazi German Empire, the German people are able to circumvent the Nazi era proper and gain a sense of their military history. Many feel the same way as retired Lt. Gen. Siegfried Storbeck, who claims that “The crimes of National Socialism took place under the swastika and not under the Iron Cross.”
What is being completely overlooked is that the Kaiser wanted world (or at least continental) domination as much as Hitler did and was willing to destroy hundreds of thousands of lives to obtain that desire. Indeed, the rise of National Socialism was rooted in German bitterness over the defeat of Germany in World War i and in the military traditions of the Prussian era.
Despite this, an increasing number of German citizens are looking to pre-Nazi history as an era they should be proud of and learn from. Even as the Red Baron hits cinemas across Germany, there are new calls to restore the Prussian era Iron Cross to the Bundeswehr as a medal of valor.
But this German desire to return to the nation’s military history goes much deeper than just glorifying the Second Reich. There is a growing movement that takes this attitude a step further by rewriting history to downplay the atrocities of the Third Reich itself.
Consider the following comment from the Jerusalem Post regarding revisionist historian Jörg Friedrich:
[There] are efforts in Germany to rewrite the past. Books by historian Jörg Friedrich, who compares the Allied actions to his nation’s atrocities during the war, are best-sellers. They promote “Holocaust equivalence” by using Nazi semantics to describe the Allied bombings of Germany during World War ii. Another aspect of the same attitude is expressed by the many Germans who think that Israel is showing Nazi-like behavior toward the Palestinians. What they mean to say is, “If everybody is guilty, then nobody is.”
Friedrich’s book The Fire: Germany Under Bombardment, 1940-1945 focuses on his viewpoint that the Allied bombings of Dresden, Hamburg, Cologne, Kassel and Wurzburg were unnecessary massacres motivated by rage at the Nazis’ refusal to capitulate. Friedrich accuses the Allies of using unjust means of warfare that had a moral equivalency to many of the atrocities committed by the Nazis—ignoring the truth that the Allies almost did not save Western civilization because they were too cautious in their dealings with Nazi Germany.
Retired Chief Commander of the German Armed Forces Klaus Naumann—an outspoken proponent of increased German involvement in both Afghan and Middle East security missions—has come out in full support of Friedrich’s views on World War ii by saying, “What you have to deplore is that the British systematically put the extermination of the German civilian population at the center of their war strategy.”
Would esteemed German authors and military leaders be so quick to criticize the Allies’ handling of World War ii if they were truly repentant for what the Nazis did to Europe and the world?
This denial of past guilt, coupled with the glorification of the military spirit of Prussia, reveals a dangerous mindset that is gaining momentum among German citizens. As Germany shatters generation-long taboos and returns to its military traditions of the past, the leaders of America and Britain would be wise to remember their promise to the world when American President Franklin Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill said in a February 1945 document, “It is our inflexible purpose to destroy German militarism and Nazism and to ensure Germany will never again be able to disturb the peace of the world.”