When assessing the character of the centenary in Germany, it might be instructive to approach the phenomenon by looking at three particular spheres of commemoration: the official, the academic, and the general public, i.e. the representation in the media and in the cultural sector.

Policies of Commemoration

When future historians study the German centenary, they will be puzzled by two questions: Firstly, why it took so long for the government to define and outline an official policy, and, secondly, why the financial and organizational investment remained so modest compared to other countries. For months, historians and journalists marveled at the lavish budgets of French and British centenary missions – not to mention the fact that the German government had refrained from setting up such a body at all.[1] Therefore, it was seen by many with a mix of expectation and satisfaction when the socialist opposition party issued a parliamentary interpellation in February 2014 forcing the government to articulate its plans with regards to the upcoming event.[2]

The official website was well hidden within the war graves commission’s site. The Volksbund Deutsche Kriegsgräberfürsorge is an invaluable institution with a long tradition. Its own centenary activities were thoroughly planned and included a travelling exhibition, numerous ceremonies and school projects. However, it might be doubted whether this institution was well chosen as the national platform for the centenary. The relevance of the event would have been served more appropriately by a centenary agency staffed with representatives from political and cultural life and an international academic advisory board, licenced (and funded) to promote the cause.

Both the president’s and the chancellor’s official dates were mostly diplomatic duty calls, where they had accepted invitations by European partners. In the course of a two-day tour de force in August 2014, President Joachim Gauck visited four historic sites in Belgium and France: Hartmannswillerkopf, Liège, Leuven and Mons. At that point in time and with regard to the war, none of these places meant anything to most Germans. In May 2016, Gauck took part in the Jutland ceremony in Kirkwall (Orkney Islands), where he – a pastor by training – read the scriptures. His successor from February 2017 onwards, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, met French President Emmanuel Macron in November 2017, again on the Hartmannswillerkopf. Around armistice day 2018, Steinmeier took part in a peace concert in Mulhouse, the Cenotaph ceremony in London and the annual ceremony in Berlin for war deaths and victims of violent oppression (Volkstrauertag).

Chancellor Angela Merkel attended the Belgian ceremonies at Nieuwpoort and Ypres in August 2014. In a speech for the opening of a special exhibition at the Deutsches Historisches Museum in Berlin, she admitted that as a teenager she had known “little” about the war. That was a frank confession. However, so far, her Federal Foreign Office had contributed little to avoid a similar deficit for the young people of 2014. On 29 May 2016, Merkel and President François Hollande commemorated the fallen of the Battle of Verdun at the German war cemetery at Consenvoye and the French national memorial near Verdun, the Ossuaire. The colourful choreography by the German film director Volker Schlöndorff rightly determined the news feed of the day. However, from a historical point of view, the most poignant detail of the Verdun commemoration – and arguably the most symbolic gesture of the German centenary – was the inscription of the names of German soldiers missed in action on the French Ossuaire’s wall. As with the president’s, the focus of the chancellor’s commemorative tasks was at the beginning and the end of the centenary. On 11 November 2018, Angela Merkel attended the international ceremony in Paris and visited the Forum de Paris de la Paix.

The centenary contributions by the president of the Bundestag, officially number two in the constitutional protocol, have often been overlooked. This is unfortunate as each of the two speakers in period of 2014-2018, Norbert Lammert and Wolfgang Schäuble, tried to avoid the inflationary invocation of peace and European integration. Instead, they aimed at reconnecting the commemorative frame to more concrete historical questions like civil-military relations, authoritarian culture, and parliamentarisation in imperial Germany, or historical amnesia and commemorative culture.[3]

In order to understand the initial commemorative inertia on the level of the federal government, it is necessary to remember that culture is a constitutional prerogative of the German states, the Bundesländer. However, the inter- and transnational nature of the centenary meant that the Federal Foreign Office was not only involved but was, in fact, in a lead managing position. Unfortunately, head-in-the-sand was the department’s motto until late 2013. The reasons for this are still to be unravelled by later historians, but they appear to be rooted in the historiographic conditioning of the diplomatic elite itself. For them, the classroom standards of the “war-guilt question” and “German atrocities” clouded their vision and thus blocked their understanding of the much broader and diverse history of the war and, consequently, the nature of the centenary.

The dilatory approach may also have been guided by realpolitik: Unlike in France or Britain, there was nothing to gain in domestic politics by promoting (and instrumentalizing) the centenary. The German government was not faced with the British challenges of a referendum over Scottish independence or Brexit, nor did it have to cope with a rising social movement like the Gilets jaunes in France. It was the escalation of the crises in the Ukraine and the Middle East during the summer of 2014 that saved the political elite from exposing its lack of historical awareness and inability to proactively develop a commemorative agenda as expected by both national academia and Germany’s European partners.

Following this logic, activities were restricted to the obligatory – the beginning and the end of the commemorations. The biggest, federal-sponsored event took place in October 2018: The Berlin conference Winning Peace. The End of the First World War.[4] Like the Paris forum mentioned earlier, the focus was on the long shadow of the conflict and contemporary cases of conflict resolution. However, the federal balance of the centenary would be incomplete without mentioning the numerous activities of the Deutsche Historische Institute, particularly those in Paris and London. These institutes organized conferences and seminars and engaged intensively in the debates in their host countries.


In order to understand historians’ contributions to the centenary in Germany, book production on the history of the Great War is a primary indicator.[5] While insecurity and passivity reigned in the political sphere, this cannot be said about the book market. Both trade and academic publishers had planned meticulously for the event. In the German case, the market was dominated early on by one title, the translation of Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers, a lively account of the 1914 July Crisis which stood out for its multipolar perspectives. None of the following titles could compete in sales numbers and media coverage.

Among these major publications was Herfried Münkler’s Der Große Krieg. Die Welt 1914-1918. This author is regarded as one of the most eloquent experts on the theory of war. If Germany had a strategic community, Münkler would surely be one of its members. By 2014, Münkler had not made a name for himself as a historian of the First World War, which indicates the attractiveness of the centenary and the logic of the book market. The same was true for the new release of an enfant terrible among Germany’s military history authors, Jörg Friedrichs with his 14/18. Der Weg nach Versailles. Friedrichs too fell victim to the success of Clark’s The Sleepwalkers. Fourth in line of the notable books was Jörn Leonhard’s Die Büchse der Pandora. With its theme-oriented and comprehensive composition, it presented all the pros and cons of a truly professorial piece. The author was well versed in the scholarship and offered a standard academic text which will stand the test of time. It will, however, not be quoted for bold theses. The contrary was true for the latecomer in this list, Holger Afflerbach’s Auf Messers Schneide. Unlike the other monographs, this book was released in 2018. Here, the focus was on the war’s contingencies and Germany’s problems of getting out of the war again once the conflict had unfolded its particular totalizing dynamic.

Apart from the big books, many publishers reprinted out of stock titles or served the centenary with more palatable publications for a broader audience. Among the authors of these new Great War monographs were renowned experts like Oliver Janz, Gerhard Hirschfeld, Gerd Krumeich, Annika Mombauer, and Ernst Piper. However, none of these publications stood out for radical innovation in terms of narrative or methodology. The diplomatic history and cultural history of war schools remained dominant. A shortcoming in most of the centenary books was their conventional, illustrative usage of images. It appears as if authors in this field of historiography have remained untouched by more than twenty years of academic discourse on the iconic/pictorial turn.

The number of centenary lectures at German universities were legion in 2013-2014. Here, regional and local perspectives were an unexpected yet important focus. This was particularly true for academic institutions in border regions with their transnational contacts. At least three major conferences were devoted to the interrelation of globalization and war. These included a conference organized by the Volkswagen Stiftung in Hanover in 2013, another organized by the Potsdam Zentrum für Militärgeschichte und Sozialwissenschaften der Bundeswehr (ZMSBw) in 2014 and the Winning Peace conference in Berlin mentioned earlier.[6] Furthermore, the journal Zeithistorische Forschungen issued a prominent roundtable discussion, Global Perspectives on World War 1.[7] The traditional, national perspective on the Great War therefore has been complemented and challenged in Germany by both the local and the global one.

Academic events with a military history layout were the realm of the ZMSBw for the full duration of the centenary.[8] Among the events were three international conferences – on globalization (2014), war of attrition (2016) and the Paris peace treaties (2018) – plus a number of public lectures. However, apart from aspects related to the war-guilt question, proper controversies were hard to find in the field of military history.[9] A brief and lively flare up could be observed in 2016 regarding the debate on the escalation of violence during the German invasion of Belgium and France in 1914. Two German publications had claimed there was new evidence for illegal guerrilla warfare (franc-tireurs) which, according to this interpretation, had triggered the disproportional use of force and committing of war crimes by the invading German army.[10] This argument not only challenged the academic consensus, which appears to have been established since the early 2000s,[11] it also revealed present-day political sensitivities in Belgium and France on this matter. Against this controversy, a smaller debate in 2016 on Erich von Falkenhayn’s (1861-1922) strategic rationale for the Verdun operation appeared positively innocuous.[12]

Recent research in the culture of war school was compiled in at least one comprehensive textbook.[13] In the field of economic history, the centenary also stimulated academic research, namely by two Franco-German conferences in 2015-2016,[14] and an editorial project on a series of formerly classified studies by the Prussian Ministry of War.[15]

The German academic centenary did not end on 11 November 2018, but continued with debates on the armistice, the revolution, and the peace treaty. There is no war without a pre-war, and there is also no war without a post-war – this also became a lesson of the German centenary. With regard to this post-war dimension, the interest of the general public was stimulated by two publications, Robert Gerwarth’s Die Besiegten and Mark Jones' Am Anfang war Gewalt.[16] With the centenaries of the Paris peace treaties approaching, the book market experienced a boom similar to 2014. At least five monographs were competing in the relatively short period of 2018-2019, with the result that none of these publications referred to each other’s ideas and arguments in depth.[17]

Digital projects were an important asset in the academic centenary, above all the international, EU-funded project Europeana 1914-1918, which was well received in Germany and opened a hitherto unpractised interaction between historians and the general public with regard to the material culture of the war.[18] 1914-1918-online. International Encyclopedia of the First World War itself needs to be mentioned as the academic beacon project of the centenary. It is funded by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft and hosted at the Freie Universität Berlin.[19] With 1,500 articles (as of November 2020) and contributors from more than fifty countries, this open access project has become one of the most comprehensive and dynamic international reference works on World War I. Finally, the German Federal Archives took the centenary as an opportunity to digitalize related documents and publish images under a Creative Commons license.

Historians also joined the debate on Germany’s policies of remembrance which was kicked off by The Sleepwalkers in 2013. Clark’s argument that a multinational perspective was essential for explaining the causes and the triggering moments of the Great War proved stimulating for this debate. In an article published in the national daily Die Welt, the historians Sönke Neitzel, Dominik Geppert, Cora Stefan, and Thomas Weber confronted what they saw as Teutonic idiocentrism with regard to the political responsibilities of 1914.[20] Initially, their criticism was more or less ignored, but it gained political momentum in late 2014, and was then branded as the programmatic stance of an assumedly revisionist group of scholars. In the course of the debate, an initial polite distance on behalf of the defenders of the German war-guilt position gave way to more imperious and scholastic styles of criticism. The Berlin emeritus Heinrich August Winkler accused Clark and the so called “Insubordinate Four” of having unleashed a “wave of revisionism“ in Germany.[21] This aggravation could only be explained by the lack of substantial arguments by some of the protagonists within the camp of the war-guilt school, who found themselves in the position of defending a historiographic orthodoxy grounded in the debates of the 1970s and 1980s.[22] At the end of 2014, the debate was ebbing away, thus demonstrating the limitations of a historiography which found itself entangled in a single nation perspective and mesmerized by a cult of war-guilt.

Arts and Media

Historical awareness for the centenary turned out to be more developed on the regional and local level than on the national one. The centenary was part of the program of all State Agencies for Civic Education (Landeszentralen für politische Bildung). This was particularly true for the German states with borders with Belgium and France. One of the most extensive programs was launched by the Rhineland Agency for Local Government under the title 1914. Mitten in Europa. Das Rheinland und der Erste Weltkrieg.

The interest from cultural institutions, artists, and the media was refreshingly timely, extensive, and persistent. During the summer of 2014, the weekly program of the newspaper Die Zeit listed about a dozen historical exhibitions. Special exhibitions by the military museums in Berlin, Dresden, Ingolstadt, Rastatt, and Wilhelmshaven were to be expected, but the biggest federally funded institutions, the Deutsches Historisches Museum in Berlin and the Bundeskunsthalle in Bonn, also presented centenary exhibitions. Whereas the former exhibition struggled with space limitations and the need for some focus, the latter took the familiar road of retelling, one more time, the story of German artists entangled in self-mobilisation, reluctance, and sacrifice. The Baden-Württemberg state exhibition in 2014-2015 on war and the senses and a virtual reality project on prisoners of war in the German Emigration Centre in Bremerhaven in 2018 stood out for innovative approaches.[23] The Jewish Museum Munich presented Jewish Germans’ war experiences, including fighting on the Western Front, occupying the Russian-Polish shtetl, and surviving on the home front. Like the beginning of the centenary, its end became a highlight for regional and local remembrance. The focal point here was Germany’s big cities and the northern ports, the latter having been the origin of the 1918 revolution. Here, remembrance became a refreshing mélange of local historiography and revolutionary folklore.

Documentary television remained conventional with the exception of the international and transmedia series 14 – Tagebücher des Ersten Weltkrieges.[24] High profile TV films and series were practically non-existent, even though the story of the crime blockbuster, Babylon Berlin , was permeated by the basso continuo of male frontline trauma. All in all, the TV footprint of the centenary remained small. It appears that the channels continue to focus on Nazi and World War II documentaries – Hitler sells, Hindenburg does not. The same appears to be true for cinema. Ambitious German productions in the league of Stanley Kubrick (1928-1999) or Bertrand Tavernier (1941-1921) still do not exist after 100 years. Public radio presented a thorough debate on Christopher Clark in 2014. On Deutschlandradio Kultur, Herfried Münkler featured as the narrator of a radio documentary (Kriegssplitter – Der Weg in die Katastrophe) in which he discussed historical documents from the 1914 July Crisis. In fiction writing, Florian Illies scored an early success with his historical collage 1913. Der Sommer des Jahrhunderts.

Theatre companies responded to the event early and with empathy, often in the form of scenic readings of ego documents. Here, venues were the renowned Hamburg Thalia Theatre with its 2014 production Krieg! and a local theatre project at Bremen University entitled Aus den Akten auf die Bühne. Among the contributions of visual arts was the Dresden installation of 18,000 ration biscuits by the New Zealand artist Kingsley Baird, which was well-received.[25] The performance Signals, Resonating Revolutions by the art collective Tools for Action featured illuminated, oversized jellybeans resembling barricades on historic sites of the 1918 November revolution in Berlin. Finally, the centenary saw the creation of at least one original work of art in the field of music: the 2014 concept album Lamento by Einstürzende Neubauten.[26]


Looking back, the country has in fact experienced two centenaries between 2013 and 2019: one for the outbreak of the war and one for the war itself.[27] The former came as an academic battle within the field of traditional national historiography, one which brought about waves of moral indignation but hardly any new historical insight. The latter, over the months, revealed a refreshing democratization of commemoration,[28] and it brought about a growing awareness for the ubiquity of the war and its enduring effects on all strata of German society; an awareness that this war constituted more than just the diplomatic circus of July 1914 that generations had been taught about at school. It appears that the centenary started a process in which the place of this war in familiar memory will be redefined. The German public, so far mesmerized by the Second World War, started to dig ”deep in cellars and attics to reveal diaries, letters, and artefacts” from 1914-1918.[29]

Finally, there are deficits to be mentioned: First of all, its overwhelmingly western orientation. Official commemorations with Polish or Russian representatives were rare, however this was not necessarily a shortfall on the German side. The official considerations with regard to Russia had simply fallen victim to the policy of aggression against the Ukraine in 2014. And the Polish commemorative agenda, due to the history of this country, appeared to be incompatible to both its western and eastern neighbours. However, from the historian’s point of view, central and eastern Europe as well as the Balkans are no longer “forgotten fronts” of the Great War.[30] This is also true for the commemoration of the colonial war, even though there were more debates about Africa than ones in which Africans themselves were involved. The overall picture of the German centenary is one where the local and the global perspectives prevailed, which is a promising prospect after all. Compared to the national grandezza in other countries, the German centenary of 2014-2019 appears institutionally weak and post-heroic. However, compared to earlier anniversaries, the academic and public interest was comprehensive and diverse. Looking at the academic outcome, new ideas and approaches could hardly be identified. Synthesis and fine tuning remained the motto of the day. It appears as if John Horne's general diagnosis of a fatigue in the cultural history of the Great War was also true for Germany’s academia.[31] The next paradigm is yet to be discovered, but it would be incorrect to assume that the history of the First World War is no longer worth studying after 100 years.

Markus Pöhlmann, Zentrum für Militärgeschichte und Sozialwissenschaften der Bundeswehr

Section Editor: Bruce Scates