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World War II

Opinion: Lessons from the Second World War

On September 1, 1939, Germany started WWII - a war that would eventually leave the nation all but destroyed. Three lessons from that time period have transformed Germany, writes DW's Alexander Kudascheff.

Seventy-five years ago, the Second World War began. Germany, the "Third Reich," invaded Poland, effectively drawing entire world into war. It was a war that raged for six years in Europe, Africa, the Middle East and in the Pacific, arming some 110 million people. By the end, over 60 million people had died.

Six million European Jews were murdered in the Holocaust. Europe was laid to waste. Millions had been driven from their homes. Or deported. And for the first and only time in human history, atomic weapons were used.

When it comes to the question of who was responsible, there was and remains today not the slightest doubt - in contrast to the historical debate about the First World War. The Nazis wanted this war and started it. By the end, Germany was not only defeated - it was annihilated. With the Holocaust, it committed a crime that will never be forgotten.

In addition, more than 9 million Germans lost their lives - among them, 3 million civilians. Cities were lost in the Allied carpet bombings. Germany lost land in the east. Twelve million were driven from their homes. The country lay, after this devastating war, in ruins.

No more solo efforts

After the war, the West put the country back on its feet. First economically, then politically. During the Cold War, West Germany was - in confrontrations between the blocs - a part of the West. Even militarily, since it would become a partner in NATO. Then it became a founding member of the European Economic Community, the nucleus of what is today the EU.

It drew from the Second World War its first fundamental lesson: Germany wanted first and foremost to be a European Germany, it wanted to be in partnership with democracies, it sought allies in Europe, beyond the Atlantic, in the US. Politically speaking, it was taboo to go it alone.

Alexander Kudascheff

DW Editor-in-Chief Alexander Kudascheff

The second powerful lesson read as follows: No to war, no to hell on earth. Membership in NATO, immediate rearmament, arms upgrades within the framework of the NATO Double-Track Decision - each was regarded by ordinary Germans with the utmost skepticism - or simply rejected.

And even today - 25 years after reunification - the majority of Germans reject war, even as a last means. Every time a German government has to engage on behalf of its partners and allies - be it in Kosovo, Afghanistan and now northern Iraq - there is a stirring debate that has never convinced the people to want war.

Tired of military conflict

It is therefore astonishing that just a few years ago, albeit perhaps due more to financial motivation than any strategic considerations, Germany abolished conscription and has now begun developing a professional army. The declared objective was to contribute reliably as a partner in military interventions.

However, up until now, these military operations have been more than disputed and implementable only without the assent of the people. With regard to the second big lesson - "Never again war!" - Germans have been forced into living a lie: Whenever military intervention is requested abroad, our politicians change course, underscoring the humanitarian aspects of the operation in question, sometimes calling it "genocide" in a bid to persuade the people. Most of the time, by the way, without success.

Seventy-five years ago, the Second World War began, triggered alone by the Germans. Today, Germany is an economic giant and on the way to becoming a world-political actor as well - a role that downright frightens us. Germany would prefer to be a kind of "green Switzerland." Yet such times have passed. What its allies expect from Germany is political leadership and military contributions when applicable. But also a modest appearance. And that relates to a third great lesson: Loudmouthed, even autocratic behavior is a German trait no longer.

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