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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 16 December 2018

UAE's German ambassador: why horrors of WW1 must not be forgotten

Ernst Fischer will speak at a French event to mark 100 years since the end of the Great War

German Ambassador to the UAE, Ernst Fischer's grandfather fought in th First World War. Victor Besa / The National 
German Ambassador to the UAE, Ernst Fischer's grandfather fought in th First World War. Victor Besa / The National 

When Karl Nungesser heard Adolf Hitler had become chancellor of Germany in 1933, his reaction was darkly prophetic.

“Hitler is going to start a war,” Nungesser said. “It is going to be terrible and we are going to lose.”

He was a German veteran of the First World War who was shot in the head in 1917 and barely survived. He knew what the path to war looked like.

Decades later, Nungesser’s grandson is the German ambassador to the UAE. Ernst Fischer, who was born in 1960, never had a chance to talk to his grandfather, who died when he just three but was told by his mother of this grim prediction.

On Sunday, the world marks 100 years since the end of the First World War and Mr Fischer will give a speech at an event organised by France to mark the sombre anniversary.

Mr Fischer, a career diplomat who joined the German Foreign Service in 1986, assessed the legacy of the Great War, the rise of Nazism and what lessons today’s leaders can glean from these years of convulsion.

His story is familiar to any family who lived through the upheaval of the 20th century. Both his grandfathers fought in the Great War. His other grandfather lost his leg.

Mr Fischer’s father was conscripted as a teenager towards the end of the Second World War.

“My dad was basically sent to the front around Munich, which was already crumbling,” he tells The National. “Soon officers came and said: ‘Kids, what are you doing here? Go’.

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“As German diplomats, we have to be ready to be asked about the Second World War and the Holocaust – gigantic crimes perpetrated by Germany.

“Does my generation have guilt? No, we were not there. But we have responsibility. We don’t start wars or pursue people based on race or religion.”

The memory of the Great War is fast receding into history. The veterans have died and it has been overshadowed by what came later. But at the time it was the most destructive conflict the world had ever seen.

Chemical weapons were used for the first time, it brought the first mass aerial bombardment of civilians and ultimately reshaped the map of Europe.

Up to 10 million soldiers died, millions of peoples’ lives were torn apart and it created a lost generation permanently scarred by the horrors of war. Is there a danger the world could sleepwalk into such catastrophe again?

“We talked about my grandfather but everyone had a grandfather like mine,” Mr Fischer says. “People tend to forget how terrible it was. So the responsibility that we feel is not to take peace lightly, don’t take it for granted. It is precious and can be lost.”

The war was the result of an arms race, toxic imperialism and rampant nationalism.

“The leaders thought: ‘Let’s go to the brink of war to protect our interests and if it happens, so be it,” Mr Fischer says. “‘We will win, that’ll be good and we will be better off.’ That was a gross miscalculation.”

Many comparisons have been made between the world in 1914 and 2018. Some commentators say the world today stands at a similar precipice with the rise of populism, anger at elites and job losses from technology.

EIGHTY EIGHT OF ONE HUNDRED PHOTOS WORLD WAR ONE CENTENARY TIMELINE-In this undated file photo, United States Army troops stand in the trenches in France during World War One. (AP Photo, File)
The First World War led to the deaths of 10 million military personnel and 7 million civilians. AP Photo

Climate change is also eroding the living conditions for people in many parts of the world, while some are lashing out at migrants.

The Alternative for Germany party entered parliament for the first time last year, winning 12.6 per cent of the vote after an anti-migrant campaign.

“Some react to changes by saying: ‘I want an easy, swift, political solution. Enough with democratic bargaining’,” Mr Fischer says. “And there is the tendency to choose a scapegoat and frequently they are from another nationality or race.

“In Germany we feel a special responsibility because of our past. Extremism has no place there.”

But he agrees that some people feel governments are not listening to their concerns. Globalisation is radically reshaping their world and a protest vote develops.

When pressed on what exactly will help these disenfranchised people, Mr Fischer says education, regional policy, taxation and supporting companies to set up in deprived areas.

Immigration in particular is just one of these divisive issues in parts of the EU but he says people do not hear about the 95 per cent of migrants in Germany who have jobs and live in peace.

General view shows WWI trenches at the Main de Massiges battlefield between the Champagne and Argonne fronts who was taken and lost several times by French and German troops between September 1914 and September 1915, as France prepares to mark the centenial commemoration of the First World War Armistice Day, in Massiges, France, November 6, 2018. REUTERS/Christian Hartmann
The remains of trenches at the Main de Massiges battlefield between near Champagne, which was the scene of bloody fighting for two years. Christian Hartmann / Reuters

“Crime rates in Germany are going down but if a recent immigrant commits a crime, it makes the headlines,” Mr Fischer says.

“People want to come to Europe. We can’t switch it off.

“We have to learn how to manage it and make it humane. The answer is not closing our borders.”

He is optimistic that world leaders can prevent another eruption such as July 1914 but risks remain. He says Germany understands the need to defend itself but military interventions do not try to win the peace.

“Military intervention is only ever a part of any solution,” Mr Fischer says.

The EU kept peace in Europe but is facing pressure from Brexit, immigration and populism.

Mr Fischer says Germany regrets the decision by Britain to leave the bloc but respects it. He rejects, however, the suggestion that Brexit is leading to less cohesion among EU states and is confident Europe is not on the verge of another war.

“But remembering is not enough and it takes daily work,” he says. “People must come together. Schoolbooks must be good and cross-border programmes are needed at all levels.”

Germany has its own remembrance day this month. But today’s event is crucial, especially because it is being held by France.

“The 100th anniversary is being used to remind people there was a First World War, which at the time was the most terrible war anyone had ever seen and which in many ways induced developments that led to the second.

“Here are two countries who used to be considered arch-­enemies. That’s over. The war is over. We are friends.”