September 1, 2009

70 Years Ago...

German soldiers prepare to enter Poland

World War II began seventy years ago today with the German invasion of Poland, and the world was forever changed.

I recall that on the 50th anniversary -- 20 years ago -- (I was living in Berlin and serving as the Director of the Berlin Document Center) I was invited to participate in an international conference on the start of World War II, which was held at the Reichstag building in West berlin. Our host was Rita Süssmuth, the President of the German Bundestag, and I recall having a tour of the building. This was, of course, still divided Berlin, and we were taken to a room on the east side for a photo-op of Frau Süssmuth gazing out at East Berlin.

The conference, which was by invitation only, was attended by a small number of historians from around the world. We were hosted one evening by Chancellor Kohl at Schloß Charlottenburg. I recall that he spoke from handwritten notes for perhaps fifteen or twenty minutes and then joined us for a glass of wine. He was particularly interested in speaking with a French scholar (whose name I can no longer remembe) whose work on the Third Republic had made a deep impression on Kohl. I was taken by Kohl's engagement and the level of his participation in this event.

Six weeks after this conference, on October 6th, I observed the preparations for the celebration of the 40th anniversary of the DDR. Erich Honecker invited Gorbachev, Ceauşescu and other leaders of East Bloc countries. There was a military parade and stirring oratory. Four weeks later, the Berlin Wall fell, and the world changed again...

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