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Wednesday, November 11, 1998 Published at 00:37 GMT

World: Europe

Germany lays nightmares to rest

Ceremony at Langemark, German war cemetery in Belgium

By Bonn Correspondent Caroline Wyatt

Watch Caroline Wyatt's report
Chatting over their dinner table in the northern German city of Lübeck, Dr Hans Lange's family are deeply protective of their elderly father.

[ image: Hans Lange, 19]
Hans Lange, 19
As they serve generous helpings of coffee and cakes, his wife Ursula and daughter Marie-Luise lean over to hold him gently by the hand to let him know they're there beside him.

On the mantelpiece above is a black and white photo of him, taken in 1918. It shows him as a bright-eyed, smiling 19-year-old, the year he was sent to fight for Germany on the western front.

World War 1:Special Section
Just months before the Armistice, a grenade blew up in Hans Lange's face - blinding him for life.

Nightmares for decades

For decades afterwards, Mr Lange had nightmares, in his dreams seeing a French soldier who would leap out of the dark at him.

[ image: Hans Lange, 99]
Hans Lange, 99
But now, at the age of 99, the German veteran says he has never borne a grudge against his country's former enemies.

"I didn't want to be their enemy. But I had to do my duty. I fought for my Kaiser, and my country," Hans Lange explains.

"And I'd do the same again if I had to. However, I want to see out my century so I can tell people how important it is to live in peace, and that we in Germany, and all our neighbours, have so much to learn from one another. I can't tell you how happy I am to see Germany at peace with its neighbours, with Britain and France."

Pacifism of younger generation

Hans Lange's daughter, Marie-Luise Thatford, is a vivacious woman who speaks perfect English and French, and is married to an American, much to her father's delight.

She too is a convinced pacifist. Her own views were deeply influenced by growing up with a father handicapped by his war-injuries.

"I grew up with the best father in the world - he was kind, he was witty and he was always caring," she says.

"But he was also different to other kids' fathers, and he had to learn to live with that as well, and I wouldn't want to wish that on anyone."

'We weep with you'

Those sentiments are echoed at Langemark, the German war cemetery that lies in the fields of Flanders in Belgium, where hundreds of thousands of German soldiers were killed in World War I.

[ image: Remembering the thousands that died]
Remembering the thousands that died
Forty-four thousand soldiers are buried here, many of them in a mass grave.

A symbolic statue of four soldiers stands at one end of the graves.

Underneath, someone has left a wreath of bright red poppies, with an inscription in English: "we weep with you".

Last Friday, as the wind blew gently across the flat land, rustling the poplars that surround the cemetery, a small group of Germans and Belgians said prayers together and laid wreaths to those who died.

A lone bugler played a final salute.

Lack of interest

Wolfgang Held of the German War Graves Commission was also there to take part in the ceremony. His commission tends the graves, and organises visits for the relatives of the fallen soldiers.

[ image: Young people are more interested in World War II]
Young people are more interested in World War II
But he says that most of those who visit Langemark are not German - they are British families and school-children.

"It makes me sad, I have to say, " he admits.

"These graves have a message for everyone - no more war. But I know from my own three sons that they are much more interested in the second world war. The first seems so long ago, and all the books or movies, like Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan are about the second world war - and that's what they want to learn about, not so much the first."

The new German government caused its own furore when it was reported that French officials felt rebuffed by the new Chancellor, Gerhard Schröder, whose timetable would not allow him to attend a joint commemoration ceremony proposed by the French President Jacques Chirac.

A ceremony will now be held on Sunday 15 November, on the German day of remembrance or Volkstrauertag.

Precursion to World War II

[ image: Historians gathered in a conference in Aachen]
Historians gathered in a conference in Aachen
At an international conference in the German city of Aachen, historians gathered to debate their varying viewpoints, among them Professor Hew Strachan of Glasgow University.

"In Germany, in the 1960s for example, the First World War was not seen as interesting in its own right - more as a precursor the Second," he believes.

"And it was looked at in terms of its causes and how it led to the second, but for example, the social side - the experiences of Germany's soldiers on the Front - were not closely examined until far more recently. The guilt associated by Germans with the second world war was, by implication, stretched back to the first."

Colonel Friedhelm Klein, of the Potsdam Institute of Military History, agrees.

"Here in Germany, there is the feeling that there is a direct line between the first great catastrophe of our century and the second. I remember as a child, I used to visit my grandfather's grave in Flanders, as did many other German families."

Politics of non-aggression

Germany lost almost two million men in the fighting on the eastern and western fronts, despite the promises of its generals that this would be a short and glorious war, over - they said - "before the autumn leaves fell".

[ image: There are few public memorials for World War I in Germany]
There are few public memorials for World War I in Germany
But unlike Britain, where almost every local chapel holds plaques to those who fought and died, there are few public memorials to World War I dead in Germany itself - no poppies to be worn, and no two-minute silence.

Germany's defeat, and its humiliation in the Treaty of Versailles, are so bound up with the subsequent rise of Hitler and the atrocities of the World War II that it seems impossible for Germany to separate the two, in the way that countries such as Britain can and do on this anniversary of the Armistice.

However, most Germans say that the lessons of the First World War, and of the Second, have inded been taken to heart, in a country where the pacifism of the 1960s remains strong, especially in the Green party that's now part of the ruling coalition.

For the past 16 years, under the government of Helmut Kohl, Germany made clear its determination to anchor itself at the heart of a peaceful Europe, binding Germany and France tightly together in the clasp of the European Union.

The new Social Democrat-led government of Gerhard Schröder may be headed by a younger generation, but they too have made clear that a peaceful and non-aggressive Germany is their aim, even as the government moves from Bonn in the Rhineland to the old Prussian capital of Berlin.

Enemies turned to friends

And on an individual level, former enemies are today friends.

[ image: Germany has been determined to anchor itself to the heart of peaceful Europe]
Germany has been determined to anchor itself to the heart of peaceful Europe
As I leave Hans Lange's house in Lübeck, his daughter tells me that his photograph - then and now - and his story are being featured in an exhibition in Paris, at the Hotel des Invalides, put on by two Frenchmen, Olivier Morrel and Didier Pazery.

Though her father is now too frail to travel far, she is hoping that perhaps he may meet one of the French veterans featured in the exhibition.

By bringing together former foes, she hopes, Hans Lange's nightmares may perhaps be laid to rest, 80 years after the fighting stopped.

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