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The Greatest Achievement Of German Soldiers During World War Two? Not Winning It

22/09/2017 08:36 BST | Updated 22/09/2017 08:39 BST
DEA / C. BALOSSINI via Getty Images

Alexander Gauland, lead candidate for the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD), recently said that Germans have the right to be proud of the achievements of German soldiers in both World Wars. As a German who has lived in England for the past eight years and will return home right after the 24 September election, I am deeply unsettled by this assertion. Why on earth should I be proud of any "achievement" of German soldiers during those horrific wars? What kind of country am I returning to, where a party with such wayward views may be the third biggest in parliament?

German soldiers' best and most important achievement in both world wars was not winning them. That's particularly true for the second one. Losing it the best thing ever to happen in German history.

My paternal grandfather, Georg Werner Storbeck, was one of the five million or so German soldiers who vanished in the Second World War. In May 2014, shortly after my 40th birthday, I stood at his grave for the first time. Seeing my surname on a soldier's tombstone was moving.

Georg Werner Storbeck fell on 3 May, 1945, aged 32, rank "Oberfeldmeister". He shares his grave with two others, Valentin Nickel and Edmund Löffelholz. All three died on the same day. They died not just fighting for the wrong cause, but for a lost one. Hitler had already committed suicide, Berlin was in Soviet hands. Five days later, the war was over. Six weeks on, my dad was born.

Standing in front of his grave, I did not feel any pride whatsoever. I was sad. Very, very sad. And even more angry. A wild rage against the politicians and generals that got him there.

Had my granddad and his comrades been only slightly more successful in their "achievements", a clique of inhuman criminals would have enslaved Europe, and killed millions more.

Pride? Do you really think I should take pride in the fact that my grandfather's generation was asked by its government to conduct the biggest crime in history, Herr Gauland?

Even Gauland cannot possibly be proud about the many atrocities conducted by our soldiers. What he may mean is that during the war, there were myriad acts of personal bravery shown by German soldiers - yet such good acts on the micro level cannot be looked at without the context they were happening in. The individual soldier's bravery is completely overshadowed by the bad cause they were fighting for. It does make a difference if you are heroic while landing on Omaha beach or while holding out in Stalingrad.

Ordinary Germans of course had had little choice in taking part in the war. They were conscripted into the Wehrmacht. But way too many quickly turned into willing executioners, and too few engaged in at least passive resistance. I am obviously not personally responsible for the deeds of my grandfather's generation. But my one, and those who come after us, needs to be aware of them. Germans in particular but, actually, everyone. Nazi Germany shows how quickly a modern, civilised, culturally advanced country can fall back to barbarism. Fortunately, we live in a different world. But the veneer of civilisation might be thinner than we think.

Gauland's rhetoric is a cynical attempt to exploit the fate of two generations of German men who were betrayed by criminal politicians and generals. What's his motivation? Many votes for the AfD will be coming from disgruntled middle-class voters. They are upset about Angela Merkel's refugee policy and in fear of an increasing Islamisation of the country. Those AfD voters are right of centre, but most of them are not neo-Nazis.

Gauland's rhetorics is probably a strategic move to woo supporters of fringe right wing parties like the neo-Nazi NPD. This could bolster the AfD's vote share by one percentage point or two. It is a shame that for the first time in decades, far right politicians are set to enter the Bundestag.

There are good reasons to be proud of Germany: Our deeply-rooted federalism. Martin Luther. The early parliamentarism of 1848 in Frankfurt. The creation of the welfare state under Bismarck. The Grundgesetz. Our constitutional court. Willy Brandt's Ostpolitik and the Nobel prize he received for it. The bloodless revolution of 1989. The peaceful re-unification. But the achievements of our soldiers in the world wars? Don't even start to bother.

Olaf Storbeck is a journalist and economist

This blog first appeared on HuffPost DE, and has been translated from German - the original post can be read here