News and opinion from the international medical movement to abolish nuclear weapons and to prevent war
By Dr. Lars Pohlmeier
View of destroyed buildings on a city street in Germany at the end of World War II; United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
This year we commemorate 75 years since the end of World War II. I was born 24 years after the end of it, in the city of Bremen in Germany. When I was young I thought: “The war? What a long time ago.” Now, at the age of 51, I realize how little time had passed. Of course I have no personal memories or experiences of wartime, but my life was influenced by those who had suffered. It is important to keep the memories and the debate alive, so that history will not repeat itself. This is why I wrote this text.
“Don’t make new socks for me.” This sentence comes from a letter my grandfather wrote to my grandmother in the winter of 1944 to 1945. My grandfather was a Wehrmacht soldier at the eastern front “defending” Nazi Germany somewhere near what today is part of Poland.
My grandfather never returned from the war. He was killed in April when the war had long been lost by Germany. Since Hitler believed that if Germany didn’t win the war no German deserved to survive, the Nazi regime forced his people to fight until the Soviet troops came into Berlin. No one’s life was spared by this craziness, including the life of my 28-year-old grandfather.
What my grandfather really thought about the Nazi time and the war is lost. From his letters, often written in beautiful language, it seems in-between the lines that more and more the young man came to understand that there was little “defending of Germany” in this monstrous war started by the Nazi regime. A war started after years of preparation and “Gleichschaltung” (synchronisation) of the society with little resistance of the people until it was too late to resist.
My grandmother never talked about the second world war and we only found a couple of letters of her husband after her death in the early 1990s. Personal suffering had determined her life, too. Being a widow at a young age, never finding a man again, she had to cope with difficult conditions with her two-year-old daughter Jutta, my mother. My grandmother lost a second child days after birth, after the end of the war. She was left with a very ill father who did not have appropriate health insurance and was not able to support the rest of the family.
Whenever the talk came to this topic she avoided the conversation. Only a few weeks before her death she told me how she would often stand crying in front of my bed when I was a baby, missing the time she could not spend with her child when she was a young mother because she often had to go on double shifts in her factory.
St. Petersburg, known as Leningrad during World War II, was under siege for 872 days, and as many as 1.5 million people died.
Since my other grandfather also died early in life my brother and I never had a grandfather. When we were children we would ask old men on the streets if they wanted to become our grandfather. My family today has long become a Russian-German family, since my wife Elena is from St. Petersburg, one of the most beautiful cities on the planet. At the same time, St. Petersburg is a place with one of the saddest histories one can think of. Nazi Germany kept St. Petersburg under siege for 900 days from 1941 to 1944. Two million out of the city’s three million people died. They were either killed or starved to death.
Twenty-six million people from the USSR—mostly Russians but other people as well—were victims of Nazi atrocities no words can describe. St. Petersburg was liberated on January 27, 1944, exactly one year before Red Army troops liberated Auschwitz.
Nazi Germany finally surrendered on May 8, 1945. Today we call it “Tag der Befreiung,” Day of Liberation. This goes back to a famous speech of former German president Richard von Weizsäcker in 1985. I was blessed to meet Weizsäcker in 1985 at the concentration camp BergenBelsen near Hanover and a couple of years later at an IPPNW event in Berlin.
In Russia the news of the capitulation of Nazi Germany was made public on May 9, 1945. For that reason, the Russians celebrate their День _Победы (“Victory Day”) on May 9. In 1995, when I lived in St. Petersburg, I remember well the Victory Day parade that was held on Nevsky Prospect, the main boulevard of the city. Many veterans of World War II were still alive wearing their uniforms. I was filled with happiness. “Victory” was not so much the victory against Germans but victory over war.
I have never felt uncomfortable in the USSR or later Russia being a German. Every Soviet family suffered from the invasion of Nazi Germany. The loss of especially male family members in Russian family was high, too. My father-in-law Yuri is a small man. He is a so-called “blockadnik,” a person who survived the siege of Leningrad as the city was called that time. He had hardly anything to eat during his childhood and probably only survived because elders gave him a bit of their small bread or soup portions. We have been best buddies from the very first minute we met. I never felt any suspicion or distance, only friendship, hospitality and love.
I remember an incident with an old man as a medical student when I did an internship at the university hospital of St. Petersburg. While I took a blood sample of a patient, we talked a little bit and when I told him that I was in Russia as a West German studying the Russian language, he got up, embraced me cordially and, to my surprise, gave me a kiss on my cheeks.
I appreciate that West Germany found a way to not downplay the significance of the Nazi crimes and to take responsibility for its history. How difficult this is and what a constant challenge this poses for society becomes apparent every day with new populist and fascist groups emerging. When it comes to our relationship with the Russians, we are in danger of not adequately keeping the memory of the crimes committed in Eastern Europe and, foremost, in the former USSR.
I was born in 1969, only 24 years after the end of World War II. When I was an adolescent, I was learning with great eagerness about German history and I am still grateful to my teachers, first of all Andreas Lennert in undergraduate school and, later, Gerd Wiesner, my English and Russian teacher. Both were highly educated men and devoted teachers. I’ve devoted much of my lifetime to work for nuclear disarmament.
When I get asked during public talks why I do this work in the peace movement, I think of my grandfather. I wonder to myself what kind of person I would have become in Nazi Germany. That used to scare me. What if someone had misled me, the tall blond guy, committed, hard-working, ambitious. Who would I have been? Misled by fascist propaganda, I might have joined the chorus of evil during that time.
With all the knowledge through my liberal education, I am convinced that we have to do everything we can to help ensure that wars will be overcome worldwide. When I was younger, I thought “guilt” was a legacy of being German. I remember some uncomfortable incidents in the United States related to Jewish communities. I always accepted any blame with a feeling of shame. I think the emotions that came along with meeting me as a German were understandable. I never thought it was up to me to judge any negative reaction. I had no bad feelings when a friend said I could not come to his house as a German or when a colleague said her family would not talk to me.
Today, I rather think in terms of responsibility that history should not repeat itself. And, yes, I think as Germans we have a responsibility to work for solidarity and peace in the world. One “eye opener” was reading a book called “A History of the World in 100 Objects,” by Neil McGregor, who at that time was the director of the outstanding British Museum.
Important moral values about how to live in peace had long existed in different cultures in history. I was impressed with the history of historic Persia and how different religions lived together peacefully. Any concept of history as a constant development to a higher stage of morality is a myth, because we are not morally superior or intellectually more advanced today than our forefathers. Democratic values and values of liberty and freedom have to be re-learned by every generation and have to be defended every day to preserve our liberal democratic societies.
I remember a Serbian political scientist who talked about his feelings on the brink of the Balkan wars in the 1990s with the NATO intervention against Serbia. He said: “We were sitting together with friends thinking that war was absolutely impossible in the middle of Europe in the 20th century—and on the next day the war started.” Our democratic societies are vulnerable and can change very quickly to the very bad and therefore we have to be very vigilant. And we have to be actively involved in defending our democracies.
The author at a 2013 protest against the global arms trade.
The good news is everything can also change for the better. With all my experience of peace work representing IPPNW—the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War—on numerous occasions at Russian, US, British, and French ministries, at NATO, or even in North Korea, I remain convinced that with the right political will we can make this world a better place.
One of the key messages for me is that peace and security are not topics that can be left to politicians, diplomats, and the military. To preserve the “good” in our society, the members of society must actively engage and defend its values.
Personally, I’ve been blessed. I am grateful that I was born and raised in West Germany. I’m grateful of the gift of Great Britain, France and the United States of America that integrated the Federal Republic of Germany into the family of democratic states. I spent time in all of these countries. The most touching compliment I’ve ever received was from my now more than 90-year-old French friend Jaques Mognet. He called me “half French.” I had the privilege to spend study time as a high school student and later as a medical student in the US with my colleague and friend John Pastore. When I later once stood at the immigration booth in New York City, the officer greeted me with “welcome home,” which touched my heart very much. The US is my home, too, and that is certainly the reason why I am at times very hard with my criticism of US politics—because I care.
And there is Russia. There is reason to strongly criticise the current political situation in Russia. Nationalist hawks have long become very influential and dominant. That is a very dangerous development in today’s Russia. At the same time, there are so many things I love about Russia. The literature, the culture, the family values, the breathtaking beauty of St. Petersburg, the many good-hearted people (although the “secret Russian soul” has always remained a mystery to me). Germans brought incredible suffering to the people of the Soviet Union. But still the Russians have forgiven. There are no words to describe what a wonder that means.
In 2018, when my daughter Katahrina graduated from high school, I took her to Poland to visit Auschwitz. We spent five days together and visited what may be the saddest place on this planet. I could not bear to visit all the buildings of the historic site. I did see the places where medical experiments were conducted on innocent people, even to children. It was heartbreaking. I am very happy that Katahrina was interested in going with me on that trip and that we could share this experience together.
My children have the blood both of the offender and the victims of World War II. In 1996, we organized a European student meeting in Hamburg and we also visited the concentration camp of Neuengamme with about 120 medical students from all across over Europe. We made a big circle in front of the main entrance holding our hands in silence.
I usually carry a little picture of my friends Andy Kanter (US) and Sergey Kolesnikov (Russia) when we visited Potsdam in 2003 during a board meeting of IPPNW. We went to the Wannsee Villa, the place where the Nazi German leadership decided to wipe out all Jews from the planet. The villa is situated in one of the most peaceful places one can possibly imagine. While we visited the museum I saw the tears in Sergey’s face, which he tried to wipe off without being noticed. And it made me feel close to him.
Seventy-five years after the capitulation of Nazi Germany it is time for a new outcry against war and injustice. The progressive and democratic forces in all our countries and societies must join and speak out. I am convinced that God does not want war. And I am convinced that Allah does not want war, either. No decent human being can remain silent about all the atrocities still committed day by day in so many places on this planet. If you love this planet and if you love your children you cannot accept the world as it is today. With the privilege of not having had to endure the suffering of war time directly comes the responsibility to join those who work for the global change we need.
Dr. med. Lars Pohlmeier lives in Bremen and has been an IPPNW leader internationally and as a member of the German affiliate since his days as a medical student. He is also an activist with ICAN—the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons—which was launched by IPPNW in 2007 and received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2