Episode 25: Defeat or Liberation: The Changing Interpretations of May 8

Eric Langenbacher

Senior Fellow; Director, Society, Culture & Politics Program

Dr. Eric Langenbacher is a Senior Fellow and Director of the Society, Culture & Politics Program at AICGS.

Dr. Langenbacher studied in Canada before completing his PhD in Georgetown University’s Government Department in 2002. His research interests include collective memory, political culture, and electoral politics in Germany and Europe. Recent publications include the edited volumes Twilight of the Merkel Era: Power and Politics in Germany after the 2017 Bundestag Election (2019), The Merkel Republic: The 2013 Bundestag Election and its Consequences (2015), Dynamics of Memory and Identity in Contemporary Europe (co-edited with Ruth Wittlinger and Bill Niven, 2013), Power and the Past: Collective Memory and International Relations (co-edited with Yossi Shain, 2010), and From the Bonn to the Berlin Republic: Germany at the Twentieth Anniversary of Unification (co-edited with Jeffrey J. Anderson, 2010). With David Conradt, he is also the author of The German Polity, 10th and 11th edition (2013, 2017).

Dr. Langenbacher remains affiliated with Georgetown University as Teaching Professor and Director of the Honors Program in the Department of Government. He has also taught at George Washington University, Washington College, The University of Navarre, and the Universidad Nacional de General San Martin in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and has given talks across the world. He was selected Faculty Member of the Year by the School of Foreign Service in 2009 and was awarded a Fulbright grant in 1999-2000 and the Hopper Memorial Fellowship at Georgetown in 2000-2001. Since 2005, he has also been Managing Editor of German Politics and Society, which is housed in Georgetown’s BMW Center for German and European Studies. Dr. Langenbacher has also planned and run dozens of short programs for groups from abroad, as well as for the U.S. Departments of State and Defense on a variety of topics pertaining to American and comparative politics, business, culture, and public policy.



Jeffrey Rathke

Jeff Rathke

President of AGI

Jeffrey Rathke is the President of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies at the Johns Hopkins University in Washington, DC.

Prior to joining AICGS, Jeff was a senior fellow and deputy director of the Europe Program at CSIS, where his work focused on transatlantic relations and U.S. security and defense policy. Jeff joined CSIS in 2015 from the State Department, after a 24-year career as a Foreign Service Officer, dedicated primarily to U.S. relations with Europe. He was director of the State Department Press Office from 2014 to 2015, briefing the State Department press corps and managing the Department's engagement with U.S. print and electronic media. Jeff led the political section of the U.S. Embassy in Kuala Lumpur from 2011 to 2014. Prior to that, he was deputy chief of staff to the NATO Secretary General in Brussels. He also served in Berlin as minister-counselor for political affairs (2006–2009), his second tour of duty in Germany. His Washington assignments have included deputy director of the Office of European Security and Political Affairs and duty officer in the White House Situation Room and State Department Operations Center.

Mr. Rathke was a Weinberg Fellow at Princeton University (2003–2004), winning the Master’s in Public Policy Prize. He also served at U.S. Embassies in Dublin, Moscow, and Riga, which he helped open after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Mr. Rathke has been awarded national honors by Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, as well as several State Department awards. He holds an M.P.P. degree from Princeton University and B.A. and B.S. degrees from Cornell University. He speaks German, Russian, and Latvian.



Mario Daniels

Georgetown University

Dr. Mario Daniels is since 2015 DAAD Visiting Professor at the BMW Center for German and European Studies at Georgetown University. He received his PhD from the University of Tübingen. He taught at the Universities of Tübingen and Hannover and was twice a research fellow at the German Historical Institute in Washington, DC.

The central question of his research is how concepts of national security have shaped the politics of sharing and denying of scientific-technological knowledge in international relations. In two book projects, Dr. Daniels explores this question in depth. The first, Dangerous Knowledge: Economic Espionage and the Securitization of Technology Transfers in the 20th Century, compares how the United States and (West) Germany addressed the challenges of illegal technology and knowledge transfers crossing national borders, covering the time period from World War I to the 1990s. The second, Knowledge Regulation and National Security in Postwar America, is a collaboration with John Krige (Georgia Institute of Technology). This project sets out to rewrite the history of the U.S. export control system since 1945, which has usually been analyzed as an instrument of trade policy. The new study will instead address the question of what impact export controls has had on the exchange of scientific-technological knowledge between academic institutions and companies in the U.S. and abroad.

May 8 marked the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe. While the displays of remembrance differed from the past given presence of the coronavirus, it was a momentous date remembered across the globe. In Germany, President Steinmeier’s speech in front of the Neue Wache in Berlin was remarkable, especially in the way he talked about the meaning of liberation: Germany was liberated in 1945 from Nazi tyranny and what that liberation means today.

There has long been an interplay between how average Germans remember a date versus the official narrative. For decades after 1945, there was agreement between elites and average citizens: 1945 was a total, catastrophic defeat. Over time, however, the official narrative started to change: 1945 was a “Befreiung,” a liberation from the horribly oppressive Nazi regime. By 1985, that narrative became the main interpretation, articulated by then-president Richard von Weizsäcker. This concept has resonated with younger generations of Germans. As of the 70th anniversary of the end of the war, in 2015, 90 percent of Germans considered the date to signify liberation—a huge change in how people perceive the event.

Today, it is no longer progressive to consider 1945 just liberation. Rather, some ask if this is another way that average Germans can evade responsibility for their role in the Nazi regime. Could we be at another moment of change in how we perceive 1945?

On this episode of The Zeitgeist, AGI’s Jeff Rathke and Dr. Eric Langenbacher are joined by Dr. Mario Daniels, DAAD Visiting Professor at the BMW Center for German and European Studies at Georgetown University, to discuss the changing memory of the end of World War II in Europe and how that resonates today.


Jeff Rathke, President, AGI


Dr. Mario Daniels, DAAD Visiting Professor at the BMW Center for German and European Studies, Georgetown University
Dr. Eric Langenbacher, Senior Fellow and Director, Society, Culture & Politics Program

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American-German Institute.