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Centenary exhibition at historical museum sparks Germans' renewed curiosity in WW I
German Chancellor Angela Merkel looks at a photograph of a Belgian refugee during the inauguration of the World War I exhibition at the Historical Museum in Berlin on May 28, 2014. The war overall claimed the lives of 10 million soldiers and left 20 million more wounded along with millions of civilian casualties. AFP PHOTO / POOL/ THOMAS PETER.

By: Celine Le Prioux

BERLIN (AFP).- Widely eclipsed by the horror of the Nazi era, World War I seems to have found its way back into the minds of many Germans as Chancellor Angela Merkel Wednesday opened an exhibition for the centenary of the war's outbreak.

Merkel took the occasion to stress that the real lesson of Europe's wartime past was its unity that had brought peace and freedom, even as the bloc grapples with an anti-EU surge after weekend elections.

"Europe is much more than a currency. We live in peace and freedom," she said at the German Historical Museum in Berlin.

"Europe's unification is the true lesson" of our history, she added.

Merkel has recently commented that the 1914-18 war featured more prominently in the collective memories of Britons or the French -- both countries refer to it as the "Great War" -- than in Germany.

And she told a discussion Wednesday with youngsters that in her own family, World War II had been "very much more dominant" than the 1914 conflict.

Unlike other European countries, Germany, which was defeated in the war, has no national commemorative event planned this year to mark 100 years since the August start of the conflict.

"Given the horror of the Second World War where the guilt of course strongly lies with Germany and we take responsibility for the terror of National Socialism, we haven't in Germany had the First World War so much in mind.

"Nevertheless, this year is therefore especially important," Merkel said in her weekly podcast on Saturday.

The chancellor is scheduled to go to Ypres, the Belgian town forever linked with the bloodiest trench warfare of the conflict, on October 28 at the invitation of the Belgian king.

And German President Joachim Gauck and his French counterpart Francois Hollande will commemorate the victims of World War I together on August 3 in eastern France.

But the absence of a big official commemoration in Germany does not seem to have prevented a recent spike in curiosity with the release of a slew of new books about the war.

"Nearly every specialist publishing house in Germany released in the autumn a title on the First World War.

"The media is largely reflecting this and the interest from readers is very big," spokeswoman for the Federation of German Publishers and Booksellers, Claudia Paul, told AFP.

Free of accusations of guilt
One indication of Germans' interest has been the success of the best-seller "The Sleepwalkers" by Australian Christopher Clark.

The British-based historian re-evaluates the eve of WWI, focusing on how clueless the leaders of Europe's great powers were about the carnage of the first industrialised war that would follow.

"We have sold 200,000 copies and we are on the 12th new edition," Meike Boehn, of Germany's DVA publishers said, underlining such figures were very unusual for this kind of book.

Among those to have read it is Merkel.

Experts and critics put the German success of the nearly 900-page title down to the book's premise that Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire didn't play any greater role than other countries in starting the war.

"The success of this book in Germany betrays a deeply rooted need to be free from accusations of guilt," the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung daily commented.

Historian Gerd Krumeich of Duesseldorf University agreed.

"People are delighted," he said, sarcastically. "Among German intellectuals there was the conviction that everything led us to Hitler.

"Clark liberates us from all that by saying to us 'you're not more aggressive than the others'," he said.

In the 1960s, a book by Hamburg University professor Fritz Fischer entitled "Germany's Aims in the First World War" sparked controversy by arguing that, on the contrary, Germany pushed for war from July 1914 in a bid to become a world power.

After the 50th anniversary of WWI in 1964, interest however in what is termed in Germany the "Urkatastrophe", or original disaster, dropped off.

An absence of WWI battlefields on German soil as well as there being very few monuments to soldiers killed during 1914-18 have probably contributed to the lack of interest.

But the historian Krumeich noted that people had started to want to "know where their ancestors lie".

And his Humboldt University colleague Herfried Muenkler, author of "The Great War: The World 1914 to 1918", said he'd also noticed a growing curiosity.

"People discover uniforms or military insignia in their attics. After conferences, they come to ask me where they're from," he said.

© 1994-2014 Agence France-Presse

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