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World War I Wednesday, 4 November, 1998, 10:42 GMT
Germany declines armistice day invite
The Belgian town of Ypres was devastated during World War I
By European Affairs Analyst William Horsley

President Chirac of France and Britain's Queen Elizabeth will be among the heads of state attending special commemorative events in Paris and around the World War I battlefield of Ypres in Belgium on 11 November, the 80th anniversary of the 1918 armistice. It will probably be the last large-scale event with veterans from the Great War.

World War 1:Special Section
But Gerhard Schroeder, Germany's new chancellor, has declined an invitation to attend. Speaking during his visit to the UK, Mr Schroeder said: "We have to remember the past so the bad things will not be repeated, but it is also a mistake to live in the past."

One unnamed French official was quoted as saying of Mr Schroeder: "He wants a new Germany that presents a new face to the world, and not one of guilt."

Officially, the new German government says the chancellor will not be there because he has other pressing work to do. But no other cabinet minister or veterans representative is due to attend either. So a symbolic occasion which was designed to allow the former antagonists to publicly commemorate the Great War together has become a one-sided affair.

 Gerhard Schroeder
Gerhard Schroeder: looking to the future
German involvement will be limited to a low-key event four days later, on 15 November, Germany's own Day of National Remembrance (known as Volkstrauertag) for World War I.

Then, Germany's Ambassador to Paris, Peter Hartmann, and the French minister for veterans, Jean-Pierre Massaret, are both due to lay wreaths at a German military cemetery near Versailles.

Mr Schroeder's decision has caused some disquiet in France, which wanted the event to commemorate the common history of nations on both sides of the Great War.

The conservative French newspaper Le Figaro sees this as a snub from a new generation of German leaders, born after World War II.

As many as 10 million died during World War I
"The generation of their parents refused to tell them about the horrors which they took part in or witnessed," Le Figaro wrote. The new generation are "Germans without a (war) complex", the paper added, who "do not think they owe anything on account of the German past".

Germany's main organisation for World War I veterans, the "Reichsbund", says it tried to find members to attend the Armistice Day ceremonies, but none were in good enough health to go. Very few German veterans of the Great War are still alive, and all the survivors are now about 100- years-old, or more.

A Reichsbund spokesman, Axel Juers, said the 80th anniversary would be marked this year inside Germany in the usual way, by processions and church services in many towns and villages on Germany's own Remembrance Day.

There is to be no national ceremony as such. But Mr Juers said that most Reichsbund members, like most Germans, had come to accept Germany's responsibility for its actions in both world wars, and had learned from the proper understanding of history.

Queen and Prince Philip
The Queen will visit the former battlefield of Ypres on 11 November
Back in 1984, Germany's then leader, Chancellor Helmut Kohl and President Mitterrand of France made a huge impact on world opinion, by standing hand in hand in a World War I cemetery in Verdun to symbolise their determination to turn their backs forever on the two nations' bitter historical enmity, and to work together for a closely-integrated Europe.

Today the European Union is a fact of life, and the new German government seems to have decided it is time to stop looking back in such a public way.

On another issue, the Schroeder government has tried to show its historical conscience, by moving swiftly to try to settle the long-standing claims made by victims of Nazi Germany who were exploited and abused as slave labourers under Hitler.

Even so, the decision to stay away from the World War I ceremonies, unless Mr Schroeder re-thinks it at this late stage, risks sending out a message that Germany no longer cares, as it did before, about its past, or about what others may think of it today.

Links to more World War I stories are at the foot of the page.

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