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Military history and military present, with Colonel Matthias Rogg

The times they are a-changin’

Matthias Rogg 1No doubt about it, he says: “The best war film of all time is All Quiet on the Western Front. He’s referring to the classic anti-war movie that won Lewis Milestone a best director Oscar in 1930. “Almost as good,” he quickly adds, “is Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory. And then there’s the famous opening sequence of Saving Private Ryan.” It’s still unusual to be talking about war in this way – with a German. But then the man offering me his expert opinion is Colonel Matthias Rogg – soldier, academic and director of the Bundeswehr Military History Museum in Dresden. He’s also my latest guest on Talking Germany.

Matthias Rogg 2When I first travelled to Germany more than 30 years ago, war was not on the agenda. It was simply bad. It should never happen again. End of conversation. This was a revelation. After all, I grew up in a military family and, like most Brits, I’d been fed a full diet of war comics, poems, books, documentaries, TV series, parades, memorials and so on. Today’s Germany is still a society with a strong pacifist streak – but, says Colonel Rogg: “People are increasingly fascinated not just by the power and violence at the heart of the twentieth century, but also by the combat experience: what it actually meant to go to war.”

Matthias Rogg 3Certainly, the fact that the focus is no longer exclusively on the singular horrors committed by Germans under the Nazis was underlined by last year’s “Our Mothers, Our Fathers” – a three-part TV series that drew a huge audience here and has since been viewed outside Germany. It’s all about the shocking and dehumanising experience of life at the front during WWII. Matthias Rogg was one of the historical consultants on the series. “What is very interesting,” he tells me, is that it’s not just WWII combat that’s exercising a fascination. People are also realising that to understand the Second World War, you first have to understand the First World War.” Which explains why over 80 exhibitions are being staged across Germany to mark the hundredth anniversary of the outbreak of that terrible war in 1914.

Matthias Rogg 4All of this comes at a time when Germany has been coming under growing pressure from its allies to “pull its weight” in international peace-keeping and peace-making missions around the world. A time, too, when leading politicians are explaining to ordinary Germans that their armed forces must “make more of a contribution.” It all reminds me of another military man we had on Talking Germany: General Klaus Naumann, Chief of Staff of the German military in the early 1990s. I remember him telling us about how he had never fired a shot in anger. Or been fired at in anger. The times they are a-changin’.


June 23, 2014