angela findlay talks

Germany, remembrance and alternatives to punishment and shame

War… what is it good for? (Absolutely nothing?)

Over the past 4 weeks, I have been listening to this year’s Reith Lectures “The Mark of Cain” by historian Professor Margaret MacMillan. They are all about war and they are brilliant. Personally, as someone who is equally comfortable / uncomfortable with creativity and destructivity, I find the questions she is exploring absolutely fundamental to what it is to be human.

To briefly summarise:

In her first lecture, Margaret MacMillan asks if war is an essential part of being human. Are we destined to fight? In her second lecture, she explores the role of the warrior in history and culture and asks why both men and women go to war. In the third lecture, she discusses the relationship between war and the civilian and the impact of conflict on noncombatants. And in her fourth lecture she assesses how law and international agreements have attempted to “manage” war. There is a fifth still to come, on war and art.

All of what she says is fascinating, but for me there are a few key points she makes that are vital if we want to understand war. And, as she herself emphasises, we have to understand war if we want to stand a chance of containing it or even preventing it.

The first point in her own words: “We like to think of war as an aberration, as the breakdown of the normal state of peace. This is comforting but wrong. War is deeply woven into the history of human society. Wherever we look in the past, no matter where or how far back we go, groups of people have organised themselves to protect their own territory or ways of life and, often, to attack those of others. Over the centuries we have deplored the results and struggled to tame war, even abolish it, while we have also venerated the warrior and talked of the nobility and grandeur of war. We all, as human beings, have something to say about war.”

It is true. Just as night and day, life and death are integral components of the whole human experience, so are war and peace. Destruction is a necessary part of the process of creation and creativity, aesthetics, design are part of the theatre of destruction. War and peace are intrinsically related and bound to each other.

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The second point she makes is: “We are both fascinated and repulsed by war and those who fight.” This is exactly what I have found while researching and writing my book about my German soldier grandfather. I have felt almost guilty for feeling both those things, and more. War is utterly repulsive, devastating, appalling but it is also exciting, glamorous, awe-inspiring. There is exhilaration in destruction as well as opportunities to reach new heights of bravery, comradeship, adventure, honour, compassion. It is the intensity of living in life/death situations that many people yearn for in times of peace.

A third point is that war also can bring about advances in and benefits to a society. Social change, like women getting the vote having proved their capabilities at filling the male roles left vacant when the men went away to fight; or divides between the very rich and poorest of society being reduced; or the establishment of organisations such as United Nations. Wars often make old structures crumble and corrupt leaders topple. Would total pacifism allow these necessary ruptures in society and their ensuing benefits to happen?

War is usually justified by those who start it. It is “the application of organised violence to gain ends and get others to do what you want” (MacMillan). Machiavelli said “War is just when it is necessary”. Aristotle wrote that the aim of war should be peace. There used to be rules that set bounds on how wars were to be fought: organised truces, the ring fencing of those who were not to be attacked or killed, rules about surrender or the treatment of POWs. But… war, by nature, gets out of control. And now, more than ever, it targets civilians.

It was Sir Arthur (“Bomber”) Harris who declared in the 1940s, “The aim of our bombing is not to knock out specific factories. The aim is the destruction of the German citizen, the killing of German workers and the disruption of civilized community life throughout Germany.” Just as the rape of the enemy’s women has been seen as a legitimate reward for soldiers, in total war it becomes legitimate to attack civilians.

Modern developments on so many levels are resulting in wars across the world becoming increasingly out of control and deadly. To me, full-blown pacifism now feels inadequate and out of reach as an immediate solution. And yet striving for peace has to be the way forward. But how? I think my basic approach is largely in line with Professor MacMillan’s when she says that we have to understand ‘the others’ as well as ourselves. We need to recognise that people on ‘the other side’ also suffer. We need to see each other as humans.

 

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Germany losing – at wars or football – brings out the worst in us!

Germany’s shock World Cup exit yesterday – the first time the German team has been knocked out in the group stage since 1938 – naturally started a tsunami of Twitter wisecracks and news headlines.

“Germany’s World Cup 2018 downfall made everyone else pretty happy…” said one.

Oh dear, I thought, here we go. Germany’s homegrown term ‘Schadenfreude’ was coming back to bite them with a vengeance as people free flowed expressions of their ‘pleasure in another’s misfortune’.

“Just re-watched Germany getting knocked out of the world cup. There are very few greater pleasures! ‪#GermanyOut”

Twitter’s full 280-character allowance was filled with two letters: ‘AHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA…’

Others asked:

“World champion now?!” followed by a punching fist and hysterically laughing emojis.

Of course the age-old war references were also wheeled out:

“Germany went to Russia 3 times unprepared

1) World War 1

2) World War 2

3) World Cup 2018

It seems they never learn from their past”

(Actually they probably have learnt more from their past than anybody else in the world, but anyway)

Even the Telegraph headlined with the old fav:

“Don’t mention ze Var”.

 

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Germany, meanwhile instantly, and in many cases tearfully, agreed it deserved to lose:

“That was just shit – and totally deserved too,” admitted one fan. “A lethargic and sad appearance,” said another.

And they were right. South Korea deserved to win. The reigning champions had lacked the obvious passion of other teams. Their tactics were old and mechanical, completely outdated in the face of the raw hunger to win displayed by so many other nations. And their long downfall from the position of winners naturally creates welcome hope and space for others. Maybe they had become too complacent and their emotional defeat will finally soften, even humanise, their robotic reputation.

While all this was going on, I was at Chalke Valley History Festival near Salisbury listening to two historians, whose books on the Second World War and Germany I had recently read. Keith Lowe’s The Fear and the Freedom gives a brilliant insight into the aftermath of the world conflict that touched every sphere of life in some way and created so much of the world that we know today. James Hawes’s The shortest history of Germany rattles through the centuries of upheaval at breakneck speed exposing Germany’s volatile past, fluid borders and a great deal more.

The contrasting attitudes to the Germans presented by these two occasions couldn’t have been starker. I realise now that my disinterest in competitive sport and my interest in history stem from the same fundamental dislike… of the winner / loser mentality. Both war and more recently sport are wholly about winning, the latter often at the cost of sportsmanship. Gloating is something we British love to do. We hold tightly to the glories of our past so we can readily produce them at any opportune moment, often as grudges or gripes. As one disappointed German said to an English gloater last night:

“We used to admire your sporting fair play in Germany. You are shamefully disregarding this. Maybe it sounds old-fashioned and conservative, but maybe you should think about it when you get back to your keyboard. Sometimes it’s good to play fair play in life. Best wishes and I keep fingers crossed for the English team.”

After the lecture about German history, a question arose about Germany today. It carried a whiff of the old British triumphalism, the kind that dozes just below the surface. (I appreciate you might have to have German blood to fully notice how often it is stirred.) James Hawes responded by saying he had no time whatsoever for the “spitfire” mentality. To my, and actually his, surprise, half the audience broke into spontaneous applause. I felt proud of my fellow, very English audience.

In sport, the black and white division into winners and losers changes over the course of each tournament, but always leaves the world divided. Into those that are happy and those who are devastated. The ‘other side’ is always the foe, to be ruthlessly beaten. As in war.

In the study of history, the past changes face. As you deepen your relationship with nations, events and wars, you gain understanding. The popular myths shift until a more rounded picture emerges. The winner / loser mentality is replaced by nuance, empathy even. As Keith Lowe suggested as a way forward for us all, the separate victim, hero and villain archetypes into which individuals and whole nations fall, merge to become just human beings being human in all its forms.

Germany’s fall from 2014 winners and oft-times finalists or semi-finalists, may be making many people happy. Personally, I derive more happiness from the levelling approach of history than the peaks and troughs of win-lose competitive sport. So I am with the tweeter who said:

“Sending hugs to German fans in Berlin who are definitely not having a good day”.

Germany losing – at wars or football – brings out the worst in us!

Germany’s shock World Cup exit yesterday – the first time the German team has been knocked out in the group stage since 1938 – naturally started a tsunami of Twitter wisecracks and news headlines.

“Germany’s World Cup 2018 downfall made everyone else pretty happy…” said one.

Oh dear, I thought, here we go. Germany’s homegrown term ‘Schadenfreude’ was coming back to bite them with a vengeance as people free flowed expressions of their ‘pleasure in another’s misfortune’.

“Just re-watched Germany getting knocked out of the world cup. There are very few greater pleasures! ‪#GermanyOut”

Twitter’s full 280-character allowance was filled with two letters: ‘AHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA…’

Others asked:

“World champion now?!” followed by a punching fist and hysterically laughing emojis.

Of course the age-old war references were also wheeled out:

“Germany went to Russia 3 times unprepared

1) World War 1

2) World War 2

3) World Cup 2018

It seems they never learn from their past”

(Actually they probably have learnt more from their past than anybody else in the world, but anyway)

Even the Telegraph headlined with the old fav:

“Don’t mention ze Var”.

Screen Shot 2018-06-28 at 11.26.11.jpg

Germany, meanwhile instantly, and in many cases tearfully, agreed it deserved to lose:

“That was just shit – and totally deserved too,” admitted one fan. “A lethargic and sad appearance,” said another.

And they were right. South Korea deserved to win. The reigning champions had lacked the obvious passion of other teams. Their tactics were old and mechanical, completely outdated in the face of the raw hunger to win displayed by so many other nations. And their long downfall from the position of winners naturally creates welcome hope and space for others. Maybe they had become too complacent and their emotional defeat will finally soften, even humanise, their robotic reputation.

While all this was going on, I was at Chalke Valley History Festival near Salisbury listening to two historians, whose books on the Second World War and Germany I had recently read. Keith Lowe’s The Fear and the Freedom gives a brilliant insight into the aftermath of the world conflict that touched every sphere of life in some way and created so much of the world that we know today. James Hawes’s The shortest history of Germany rattles through the centuries of upheaval at breakneck speed exposing Germany’s volatile past, fluid borders and a great deal more.

The contrasting attitudes to the Germans presented by these two occasions couldn’t have been starker. I realise now that my disinterest in competitive sport and my interest in history stem from the same fundamental dislike… of the winner / loser mentality. Both war and more recently sport are wholly about winning, the latter often at the cost of sportsmanship. Gloating is something we British love to do. We hold tightly to the glories of our past so we can readily produce them at any opportune moment, often as grudges or gripes. As one disappointed German said to an English gloater last night:

“We used to admire your sporting fair play in Germany. You are shamefully disregarding this. Maybe it sounds old-fashioned and conservative, but maybe you should think about it when you get back to your keyboard. Sometimes it’s good to play fair play in life. Best wishes and I keep fingers crossed for the English team.”

After the lecture about German history, a question arose about Germany today. It carried a whiff of the old British triumphalism, the kind that dozes just below the surface. (I appreciate you might have to have German blood to fully notice how often it is stirred.) James Hawes responded by saying he had no time whatsoever for the “spitfire” mentality. To my, and actually his, surprise, half the audience broke into spontaneous applause. I felt proud of my fellow, very English audience.

In sport, the black and white division into winners and losers changes over the course of each tournament, but always leaves the world divided. Into those that are happy and those who are devastated. The ‘other side’ is always the foe, to be ruthlessly beaten. As in war.

In the study of history, the past changes face. As you deepen your relationship with nations, events and wars, you gain understanding. The popular myths shift until a more rounded picture emerges. The winner / loser mentality is replaced by nuance, empathy even. As Keith Lowe suggested as a way forward for us all, the separate victim, hero and villain archetypes into which individuals and whole nations fall, merge to become just human beings being human in all its forms.

Germany’s fall from 2014 winners and oft-times finalists or semi-finalists, may be making many people happy. Personally, I derive more happiness from the levelling approach of history than the peaks and troughs of win-lose competitive sport. So I am with the tweeter who said:

“Sending hugs to German fans in Berlin who are definitely not having a good day”.

Good news and great ideas… or just bleedin’ obvious and long overdue?

 

So there’s good news and bad news on the prison front this month.

The good news is that the Justice Secretary, David Gauke, has declared that “there is a role for the arts” in criminal justice. He believes it’s a good idea. In an interview with The Times on May 25th, Mr Gauke said “the creative sector is a big employer, you hear stories of someone involved in a prison production who ends up in the West End as a lighting technician…” He wants “a culture of rehabilitation” that encourages “drama, writing and painting in prisons.”

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For a prison service that is close to breaking point, this is good news indeed. And Mr Gauke is making sense in other areas too. Twenty five years ago the prison population was 44,000, now it’s 84,000. He wants it to drop. He recognizes that in terms of rehabilitation, short sentences do not work. Tagging could be one alternative to incarceration. There should also be alternatives for many women and mentally ill prisoners. He believes in the power of work to change people’s lives. Apparently he also wants to start a wider debate about “what punishment means”.

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It’s all good stuff. So what’s the bad news?

It’s not exactly bad, it’s just not as good as it sounds. Mr Gauke is the fourth person to occupy the position of Justice Secretary in the three years since Michael Gove (love him or hate him) self-imploded taking with him all his well-received proposals for prison reform. Mr Gauke’s ideas are not new. They are ideas that most people in the sector have been voicing for decades. Fighting for even. For many of us, they are so obvious that it is baffling that politicians are able to voice them with the earnestness that they do.

Reforms like these have been promised again and again but nothing ever actually gets done. So while I welcome Mr Gauke’s words and intentions, I will only applaud them and regain hope for our dire prison system when I see action. That will be the genuinely good news so many of us are waiting for.

 

To read more:

https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/from-the-wings-to-the-workplace-the-route-to-reducing-reoffending

https://www.theguardian.com/society/2018/may/24/david-gauke-prisoner-employment-strategy

https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/education-and-employment-strategy-2018

https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/david-gauke-interview-it-s-the-carrot-and-stick-prisoners-need-to-have-a-sense-of-purpose-2mp5qt0kx

 

Light at the end of the tunnel…

Yesterday I wrote two words that I have frequently thought I would never get to write: THE END. Of course it is not The End by any stretch, but nonetheless this week, for the very first time, I caught sight of a teeny-weeny light at the end of the tunnel; just enough to be able to acknowledge its reality, in writing. I am talking about my book; the book that I have been writing for the past three years and researching for well over ten.

To be honest, I have never known a task so challenging. The idea arose out of my talks to schools and Arts Societies all over the country in which I present the Second World War and its aftermath “through the eyes of an ordinary German family”; my family to be precise. “I had no idea,” is the usual, unanimous response. And here in Britain, we actually don’t. So when audience members started asking me with such regularity “Have you written a book?” or told me in no uncertain terms “You must write a book”, I decided to seize the gauntlet. I’ll just stretch the contents of the talks, I thought naively.

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Three years on, here I am, feeling blind, battered and bloated from too much sedentary screen time. The task started off resembling a huge mountain sitting diametrically across the path to my future. There was no way round and no way over, only through. First I had to shovel. Shit mostly, my own and Germany’s. Gradually the mountain lowered until it was a hill and I could see glimpses of blue sky and easy, flat terrain beyond. And then I had to tunnel through, descending down a mineshaft-like ladder into the darkness, incrementally moving forward but unable to see if I am going in the right direction while all the time trying to trust I will pop out at some point.

Taking breaks – to travel and deliver my talks, to look after my mum, to be sociable – they all meant scrambling back out, adjusting my eyes to the sunlight and rummaging around in my brain to find conversational threads leading back from the 1940’s to the present day. But I’d always have to climb back down again. I’d dread it. It hurt. I’d procrastinate, faff, tidy or clean something; even ironing a pile of shirts would have been preferable. Eventually the ticking of my mental clock would boom so loudly that I’d practically parachute down the shaft and scrabble back to where I had left off, my eyes readjusting to the darkness, my body resuming its static position and my mind returning to the impossible questions. In some ways it would have been much easier to just stay down there.

Back in December, my first editor told me, “Writing a book is like giving birth.” She knew, she had both written a book and given birth to twins. “And writing a book was more painful,” she admitted. It’s funny because I do feel like a heavily pregnant woman, shuffling through my days with an extra load that will one day be birthed into the world beyond my little office to develop a life if it’s own. I sometimes feel I am months overdue, but this baby has to stay a bit longer in the oven. I know I have more digging and scrabbling around in the dark to do. But that glimpse of light, even though  it was tiny and has vanished again, was there. And I am heading for it.

 

If you would like intermittant updates on the progress of my book, please “follow” this monthly blog.

 

Unconditional obedience or conscientious disobedience? Which should it be for a soldier?

Interesting things are happening in Germany in relation to the army. Did you know that in early 2020 the British will close the last British garrisons in Germany and all units will be transferred to the UK? Some training areas will remain in British hands, but this will be the end of an era – more than 70 years, to be precise, of British presence in Germany since the end of the Second World War. I have to admit I had no idea that we were still there.

But that isn’t the only way in which, on a military level, things are changing. Just on Wednesday the German Defense Minister, Ursula von der Leyen, signed a new “Traditionserlass” at an army barracks in Hannover. An almost impossible word to translate, it is a form of proclamation, or edict, defining the traditions that a soldier in Germany’s Bundeswehr (federal armed forces) can refer to, and which they cannot.

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Unlike British soldiers who can draw on the traditions of their army’s past with pride, present-day German soldiers are faced with a dilemma as the Wehrmacht, (the army created from the Reichswehr of the Weimar Republic and operational in the Nazi-era) were complicit in some of the war crimes. The soldiers, like my grandfather who was a professional soldier and cadet from the age of 10, had had to swear allegiance to Hitler and no other authority. It made most of them feel bound by duty.

After the war, the Wehrmacht was declared “clean” by former Wehrmacht officers, on the one hand wanting to protect themselves and, on the other, wanting to preserve its warrior cult image of brave men willing to fight to the end. This ‘cleanness’, however, was aggressively disproved in the 1995 Crimes of the Wehrmacht exhibition in Hamburg. The evident complicity of the armed forces, particularly in Russia, delivered a huge blow to people who had clung onto the image like a life raft, and cast a shadow over the German army that still lingers to this day. I remember the tangible shock rippling through my own family as their family narrative shifted shape.

What is coming out at the moment, triggering the need for this ‘Traditionsnerlass’, is that even today some German soldiers are drawing on that period of their organisation’s history as a source of strength. Last spring, in a search of all the barracks, hundreds of Nazi helmets and insignia were discovered. This far right extremism is what clearly needs addressing through a kind of belated de-nazifiation process. From now on, it is the history of the traditions of the 60+ year old Bundeswehr that will be drawn on for inspiration.

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All that said, I find it fascinating, and admirable, that within the German military, crucial debates have taken place. Like “When should a soldier disobey an order?” The question alone appears to undermine the very concept of the unconditional obedience of a soldier. But as a result of asking it, the German military manual states that a military order is not binding if it is not “of any use for service” or cannot reasonably be executed. German law forbids the use of its military to do anything other than defend Germany itself, even though it does participate in some humanitarian and NATO coalition missions. The military emphasises “innere Führung”, basically an “inner leadership” based on conscience. As a result, German soldiers can refuse combat assignments or disobey orders, obviously only with legitimate grounds, with no consequences.

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It’s also somehow reassuringly symbolic that the place where new soldiers are traditionally sworn to their duties is the Bendlerblock, a Berlin museum to German resistance built on the site where some of the participants of the 1944 ‘Stauffenberg’ assassination attempt against Hitler were executed. My grandfather, as a Wehrmacht General, was approached to be part of this plot but declined. He believed it was murder and “…because I reject all violent politics. We soldiers have to obey and not start a revolution…”

I think this captures the bizarre and tragic moral dilemma of those dreadful times. I’m fascinated by the lessons of history that Germany has learnt, and continues to learn. There’s much more to think about on this subject, and I am doing it every day as I write my book, but for this month, Happy Easter and/or beginning of Spring!

Brötchen and Brexit

Just back from a trip to visit family and friends in Hamburg and Cologne. Whenever I am in Germany, I find myself indulging in the familiar, yet distinctly different, smells and tastes of fresh brötchen and good coffee; my body relaxes into the warmth of the modern apartments while my mind clicks into a different gear, re-structuring sentences and dusting down long-unused words and concepts that don’t exist in English. It’s a funny kind of home-coming feeling, away from home.

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I was, of course, asked about Brexit. It has dwindled in significance since the German elections, for Angela Merkel’s ensuing demise has given Germany a headache of its own. It felt strange being in a Germany that is punishing her for her open-arm policy to refugees. ‘Mutti’ has, after all, been such a solid rock and island of hope to us all in the choppy European waters. Nonetheless, the people I met – from bank managers to former colleagues and elderly relatives – all wondered how Brexit was going to work. “I don’t know, I can’t see it yet,” I’d say, trying not to be disloyal to the choices made by the ‘British people’. “The country is very divided on almost every issue involved,” I’d continue, and then change the subject. The impending split always pushes me into a bit of a national vacuum.

Nobody I talked to criticised or blamed anybody. Yet, viewed from the continent, Britain’s political forward stumblings look embarrassingly like insular self-centeredness. We are causing considerable upheaval and uncertainty on many layers of EU society and people would be in their full rights to be pissed off with us. But no, the overriding sentiment conveyed was sadness. The kind of sadness expressed recently on Radio 4 by the Swedish minister who is losing a valued negotiating ally at the EU table. The kind of sadness felt by team members when one of them leaves; or the sadness of losing a good friend who is relocating to another town or country. It’s personal.

We have so many friends in Europe, so many people who like and value us. I really hope, within the on-going discourse of “what’s best for Britain”, there will also be a big space for thoughts on what might make our departure from the EU easier and less sad for our friends.

Am I the only person who found ‘Darkest Hour’ slightly tedious?

Darkest Hour’s depiction of Churchill in May 1940 is getting standing ovations in cinemas across Britain and America. It will no doubt sweep a mantleshelf of awards into its lap too. Am I the only audience member who was a little bored and slightly sickened by it?

Yes of course, Gary Oldman is truly great as the blatantly alcoholic, often fowl-mouthed, war-mongering Churchill, and the film is beautifully shot and directed etc. etc. And of course winning the war and defeating Hitler was a good and essential thing, something to be celebrated. BUT this black and white, reductionist, at times sentimental, ‘Hero beats Villain’ narrative has now been re-hashed ad nauseam.

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Can the British not come up with a more original, nuanced take on the World War Two story? Can it just for once include some of the more uncomfortable truths about Britain’s role? Like Churchill’s refusal to send aid to the people of Bengal in 1943, leaving them to starve? Like Britain’s own prevailing anti-Semitic attitudes? Like the behaviour of some of the allied soldiers who felt justified in raping, looting and intimidating civilians? If we are going to have another film about Churchill, couldn’t it focus on the 1945 allied policy of the Potsdam Treaty to transfer / expel all German-speaking populations remaining in Poland, Hungary, Romania, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia, many of whom had lived there for hundreds of years, to the now 25% reduced German territory. “A clean sweep will be made,” said our hero Churchill about the idea. Later, with 14 million German women, children and elderly on the move, freezing or starving to death or being murdered or raped, he came to call the mass expulsion a “tragedy on a prodigious scale.”

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Other European countries are turning the events of World War Two over and over in their minds, inspecting them from infinite, non-nationalistic angles. Look at the harrowing 2015 Danish-German movie ‘Land of Mine’ about the teenage German soldiers, forced to clear the minefields along the Danish coast after the end of the war. Neither side comes out well. It’s not about the winners and the losers, the heros and the villains, it’s about the moral, practical dilemmas faced by all individuals of those times; about the tragedy and fall out of war; about the hero and villain within each and every one of us.

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I am sure I am not the only one who is genuinely bored of seeing and hearing privileged, white, often elderly men in positions of power leading their countries into war and destruction or greed-driven bankruptcy? So, instead of harking back to a victory that is over 70 years old; instead of whipping up audiences into nostalgic frenzy and feeding their desperate hunger for strong leadership and Britain to be “great” again; instead of white-washing our own failings and mistakes, why not focus on things that genuinely would make Britain great again… today?

Can we not, for example, become world leaders in a speedy banishment of damaging plastic products and thereby become great for our forward-looking contribution to saving the planet? Can we not address the devastating inequality of our education system and become great by creating a system that is truly beneficial for all the various needs of young people? Can we not address the inhumane conditions in which we hold prisoners, guilty or not, and become great for our mature, preventative and rehabilitative approach to those disadvantaged by violent upbringings or lack of positive guidance? Can we not be great for our fair, affordable, punctual, green and efficient housing policies or transport systems? The list is endless…

Darkest Hour looks back wistfully to a national hero who, yes, was great at the time in leading the country to victory. But he was not just hero and Britain was not just heroic. Whole nations never are just one thing. There are always nuances, endless shades of grey and it is time that we, as a nation of brilliant minds and hearts, stop wheeling out the old favourite national narratives like we wheel out the old war veterans every November, ignoring their wobbly voices pleading “None of it was worth even a single life”.

For as long as we give our war heroes standing ovations, we will be able to justify war. For as long as we project our own national villain onto others we will be stuck in a binary discussion of Me = goody, hero; Them = baddy, lesser, monster, threat, enemy… we know where that leads. To me, Britain will be really great when our leaders, policies and ceremonies acknowledge the full and wider impact of war and suffering and demonstrate that they genuinely want to avoid it.

From Battenberg to Mountbatten in one slice of cake

I’m finally watching the Netflix series ‘The Crown’ and what an education it is! Not only in the structures behind our most British of establishments, the Monarchy, but also in the innate internationalism that lies within it. With shameful ignorance, I keep pressing ‘pause’ to ask: so whose surname is Windsor – it seems to have been pulled out of a hat? And who were the Mountbattens? Within the claustrophobically rigid regulations of the Royal Family, normality gets turned on its head, almost made up as you go along: traditional gender divisions, nationality, even the very concept of British-ness. Ironically the Queen inadvertently championed the then radical feminist issue of not only being allowed, but obliged, to keep her maiden name (Windsor) rather than adopting her husband’s family name (Mountbatten).

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The hidden German lurking within the very concepts that some would consider archetypal English, (if there is even such a thing anymore) fascinates me. I love how German traditions and ideas have increasingly been adopted and integrated into English ones, above all around Christmas: Stollen, candles on trees, Advent Crowns. Before World War One, the overt marriage of the two countries was not considered remotely problematic. It was desired and encouraged. All that changed, however, when the Germans became our enemy.

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Watching ‘The Crown’ I’m reminded of the origins of the Mountbatten surname, Prince Philip’s surname, which we don’t hear all that often. I discovered it several years ago and made artworks around it, so forgive me if you know the story already. Mountbatten sounds so English and yet is pure German and its origins can loosely be summed up in two words: Battenberg Cake.

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As a cake, it is about as quintessentially English as you can get, if only for the fact that no other country would make such a basically revolting looking (and tasting?) piece of patisserie, least of all Germany, whose bakeries are mouth-watering affairs of visual and gustatory delights.

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‘Mountbatten’ was introduced into the Royal Family when Prince Louis von Battenberg married Queen Victoria’s granddaughter. Louis was both a German Prince and a British Naval Officer who was appointed First Sea Lord, the professional head of the British naval service, in 1912. The pink and yellow with marzipan derives from their wedding cake.

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However… when the First World War broke out in 1914, Louis was forced into retirement. And after the sinking of the ocean liner Lusitania by the German U-boats, anti-German sentiments escalated until it was considered more than un-cool having a German in the Royal Family. And so, Louis von Battenberg’s name was changed, from Batten Mountain (Berg is German for mountain) to Mountbatten. Neat eh!

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Anyway, Happy New Year and may 2018 be a healthy, gentle and fulfilling year. And thank you to all of you who have been reading my blog. Whether I know you or not, I really appreciate it.

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It’s time to remember… and this year even German footballers wore poppies

It’s Remembrance time. Red paper and enamel poppies are blooming on lapels all over the nation as people remember those who fought in conflict, and the huge sacrifices they made. Last night, the Festival of Remembrance at the Royal Albert Hall opened with a stunning rendition of “I vow to thee my country”. First, just three slow and quiet brass instruments; then violins joined in; then drums, voices, and finally the whole orchestra played, while flag- and oversized headwear-bearing members of the forces, marched into the hall in step with the music. We were only four minutes into the hundred-minute programme and the lump in my throat was already swollen and wobbling out of control. Gosh we do this so well.

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I felt very differently two nights ago, however. I had just finished giving my unavoidably somber talk Counter memorials: Germany’s post WWII culture of apology and atonement, when an elderly audience member told the hall about FIFA’s recent decision to allow players to wear poppies (last year it had forbidden them). And, he continued, the German team had also agreed to wear them. All the players would wear black armbands sporting a red poppy for the England / Germany friendly match at Wembley, on the eve of Armistice Day. I honestly wanted to cry, right there and then. But I couldn’t tell if I was deeply moved, deeply angry or some uncomfortable combination of the two.

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On the one hand, I felt awe at the magnanimity of the Germans, showing willingness to adopt the wholly British symbol, whose origin was about remembering – crudely put – all those killed by their forefathers in World War One. I know, I know, Remembrance today extends well beyond that, but nonetheless, the poppy is a singularly British image of our war dead, a huge amount of which died at the hands of the Germans. I wholly support the German decision, but I wonder, would we wear a German symbol that commemorates fallen German soldiers? ‘Bloody good on you, Germany’, I felt but didn’t say, that irritating lump having lodged itself too profusely in my throat.

On the other hand though, I felt furious. Just how much further do Germans have to go in acknowledging the wars? Now they even have to mourn our dead, while their dead soldiers barely get a nod! They, as the losing nation, didn’t, and still hardly, honour their soldiers, even though they lost 4-5 million in WWII alone, compared to the 1.7 million that the British (and Commonwealth) lost in both world wars combined. Of course it’s not about numbers, but that’s a lot of bereaved German families who have none of the comfort that their men will be remembered. For decades there were no memorials to German soldiers at all. They were all looked on with shame and silence. And yet many of them would have been no different to ours: men fighting for their nation. Very few people in this country have thought about what it is like for the losing side, for which stirring patriotism and national pride are anathema. I know that because I talk to audiences, of all ages, all over the country about this, and the overwhelming reaction is: “Gosh, I had no idea. That’s so sad / moving / wrong…”

Untitled.png‘In memory of the dead…’ A WWII memorial in Itzehoe, Germany

You can see I get disproportionally emotional at this time of year! My Anglo-German roots wrestle and strangle each other in my chest as I try to work out what Remembrance should, or could, be about, and to what end. It is wholly right to remember all those we do, but has our little red poppy symbol become so distractingly potent, that it can knock, or raise, public figures off and onto their perches, simply through its absence or presence? Surely that kind of “poppy fascism” (to use Jon Snow’s controversial words) isn’t the right way forward? To me, the difference of sentiments expressed in the words of the English and German football representatives respectively, sum up both what is good, and what is missing, in our culture of Remembrance.

Martin Glenn, the FA (Football Association) chief executive, said: “Remembering and commemorating the men and women who have served this country is ingrained in our nation. Many have made the ultimate sacrifice and we will be honouring them, both on and off the pitch, for our match against Germany. I would like to thank the German Football Association for also agreeing to wear the poppy for the match, in a show of solidarity and unity at this important time.”

Reinhard Grindel, the DFB (Deutscher Fussball Bund) president, said: “I positively welcome the decision to allow both the English and the German national teams to wear poppy armbands, because these are not about political propaganda in any way. They’re about remembering the kind of values that were kicked to the ground in two world wars, but are cherished by football: respect, tolerance, and humanity.

2008_0825Berlin080016.jpgKäthe Kolwitz: ‘To the victims of War and Dictatorship’, Berlin

The main distinction between the World War ‘winners’ and the ‘losers’ in their approach to Remembrance, is that the winners look back, to all that was. And the losers look forward, to what we should strive for. I think we need both. German WWII remembrance culture is a 365 days a year affair. Their memorials are visible and active reminders of the futility of war, loss, destruction, and discrimination, and they serve to help people learn from the past. Maybe, within the extraordinarily beautiful choreography and largely heart-expanding music (I’d personally prefer a little less of the Spielberg-esque sentimentality) of our Festivals of Remembrance, we too could include more of the gritty reality of war that Harry Patch, the last WWI veteran, knew all too well: “It was not worth it. It was not worth one, let alone all the millions.”

 

 

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