angela findlay talks

Germany, remembrance and alternatives to punishment and shame

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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What if, just ‘what if’, death isn’t quite the full stop many think it is…?

The end of October / beginning of November is traditionally the time of year when people from all different cultures think of, and remember, the dead. For Pagans it is Samhain; for Christians, All Souls; for Mexicans, the Day of the Dead. It was / is believed that the veils between the living and the dead become thinnest now, allowing people to gain access to their dead loved ones. In modern, western, secular societies, it generally morphs into a black and orange bonanza of carved pumpkins and ghouls, a commercial excuse for a bright explosion of fireworks and increasingly terrifying costumes.

Death, in our culture, is widely seen as a negative; the Grim Reaper to be feared or fought. Or it is an ending to be deferred, as long as possible, at whatever cost. It is the opposite of birth, and not to be celebrated as a portal between what we call ‘life’ and a different form of life beyond. For so many people, it is just one final curtain fall, an over and out… THE END.

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Of course none of us know though! The most inevitable aspect of life is also the least knowable… such a wonderful design. However, I believe we are missing out on a hugely important level to life by relegating death to the role of a big full stop.

Over the last 14 years I have been developing an extraordinary relationship with my dead German grandfather with whom I shared just 8 days on this earth. He died on 1st November 1964, a week after I was born, and yet, even as a dead man, he had a profound impact on my life. Some people might find that strange, a form of looking backwards, as if moving through life can only be a linear, forward motion. As a society we are obsessed with moving onwards, growing up, progressing, getting bigger, better, more than we already are. But a long time ago, I was forced to stop in my tracks and look back at whatever it was that was pulling the strings of my actions and emotions like a puppet. I’m now so glad I did.

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For as long as my grandfather remained just ‘dead’, an unknown presence lurking in the dark recesses of my unconscious, he was a heavy, detrimental force. Today psychologists have names for this kind of phenomenon: post memory, transgenerational transmission – even geneticists have ‘epigenetics’, a kind of baton-passing on the level of our genes. The moment, however, I started to pay my grandfather some attention, he transformed into a dynamic energy with limbs that liberated rather than bound me.

IMG_2823.jpg    Bologna memorial monument to the WWII anti-fascist resistance partisans martyrs on the wall of Sala Borsa in Piazza del Nettuno

Being who he was, a Wehrmacht General in WWII, did not made this relationship-forming always an easy or comfortable process. But attention is like love. It heals. By giving attention to the dead, maybe particularly those who were locked in shame, tragedy or suffering, by continuing to interact with and include them in life, something beautiful happens. Maybe, just maybe, the dead still need us in some way. Maybe we can finish off or redress or apologise for what they couldn’t. Maybe when we are dead, we would like someone to do something for us too. We can’t, after all, know for sure that death really is the end…

What can we do? What can I do? What can you do?

“What is the most important thing we can do?” That is the question I am so often asked at the end of my ‘arts in prison’ talk. Yet I have never been able to give an answer that feels satisfactory.

Through pictures, stories, statistics and facts, my audiences get a glimpse into our prison system, into the minds and lives of offenders, and into what role the arts can play in the process of rehabilitation. “I had no idea!” is the most common response, and then,  with their new insight, people across the country, from sixth formers to retirees, want to know what they personally can do to help solve the increasingly dire situation that is our criminal justice system (CJS).

  • You can donate money or time to one of the many charities supporting prisoners and their families.
  • You could send a donation to The Forgiveness Project for their excellent RESTORE programme
  • You could sponsor an award for the Koestler Trust’s annual exhibition (on now at the Southbank until 15th November)
  • You could volunteer to help prisoners learn basic numeracy and literacy skills (65% of adult prisoners have a reading age of an 8 year old and 50% can’t write)
  • You could write to your MP to voice your concerns.

All the answers are valid but, apart from donating money, quite hard to implement. So what else could you do to make a difference? David Cameron’s 2006 “Hug a hoodie” campaign was, at best, unrealistic, at worst wholly unadvisable, but, in its sentiment, it was getting close to something.

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Yesterday, I was talking at Forest School on the edge of Epping Forest. It has a particularly effective formula for getting its students to really think about the issues raised by their visiting speakers. After the hour-long presentation, all 300 of them disappear into smaller groups and discuss some pre-suggested questions around the topic. After twenty minutes they return to the hall and, those who want to, can ask the speaker their own personal questions. As a result, the questions were thoughtful and considered:

  • In times of cuts, can the government justify spending money on prisoners when the NHS is in such need?
  • Can one art project prevent re-offending?
  • Is there enough help for prisoners when they are released?
  • Do women respond to art projects as well as men?

And then there it was again:

  • What is the most important thing we / I can do?

Yesterday I found myself replying to the last question in a different way. It suddenly seemed obvious: The most important thing we can do is to start to move away from the black and white thinking that divides people into ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’. To stop lumping all our prisoners into the ‘evil’ category of murderer, rapist, child abuser or terrorist – all crimes that inspire merciless cries of ‘bang’em up and throw away the key’, and place the perpetrators at the bottom of our deserving-of-sympathy lists. We need to start differentiating between those who really do need to be locked up and those who urgently need something different.

As a civilised society and as educated and/or privileged individuals, we must start taking into consideration the journeys and decisions people have made that land them in jail. Did you know that:

  • many offenders started their lives as victims: of sexual abuse, violence, neglect, drug addiction, abandonment…
  • that 52% of them are dyslexic and probably didn’t get the help they needed
  • that 42% were excluded from school and
  • 47% have not one single qualification
  • that 67% of women in prison were in care
  • that 75% of young offenders had an absent father and 33% an absent mother
  • that 41% of prisoners observed domestic violence as children
  • that 70% have some sort of personality disorder or mental health issue…

The list goes on. And once you know that, doesn’t it become glaringly obvious that a different solution is needed? Do we really need a serious crisis to force the nation to collectively wake up to the shame of our prisons? We know we can’t rely on the ever-changing politicians to sort things out. And when it comes to dealing with crime, they are generally responding to the public’s baying for harsher punishments. So it is up to all of us to start seeing nuances in the widespread, over-simplistic, binary judgment of who is good and who is bad in our society. We need to listen to prisoners’ stories, understand that they didn’t set out to be bad. Many of the people locked in our jails, often in terrifying, squalid, drug-ridden and violent conditions, were once sensitive  children whose anger, violence, or despair were quite possibly normal reactions to the dysfunction of their lives.

We don’t need to hug the hoodies we meet, but we, both collectively and individually, must stop seeing them as “other”, as all-bad, or as somebody else’s problem to fix. Condemn and punish their crimes but don’t condemn them.

So, what do you think is the most important thing you can do?!

In memory of a remarkable man who knew instinctively the power of forgiveness

My blogger’s brain seems to be in recess along with parliament and my own little ‘bong’ has been temporarily silenced along with Big Ben’s. August has not been the time to focus on any of my usual themes – prisons, rehabilitation, Art, WW2 Germany, Remembrance, memorials and forgiveness – so I will not waffle simply for the sake of fulfilling my goal to publish a monthly blog.

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Instead I would like to use this platform to share the following heartfelt TRIBUTE by Marina Cantacuzino, founder of The Forgiveness Project, to Shad Ali who died unexpectedly and suddenly earlier this month. As you will read, he was a truly remarkable, beautiful and inspirational human being who I had the honour of meeting and working with last May at HMP Parc while he was co-facilitating one of the Forgiveness Project’s prison RESTORE programmes. I wrote about the experience back in my May 2016 blog.

Shad was a huge contributor to the different programmes run by The Forgiveness Project. Based on story telling, all their work seems to come effortlessly from the heart. It listens to and talks from the heart. Shad was no different. Badly injured in an unprovoked attack he forgave his attacker almost immediately. His subsequent story is extraordinary and bears witness to the power of forgiveness and love… even for those actions or people that seem unforgivable or unlovable. The loss of Shad is great for all those whose lives he touched deeply, just by being who he was.

The Forgiveness Project’s 7th Annual Lecture The Politics of Forgiveness is at 7pm on 11th October at the Royal Geographical Society in London.

Remember…

Having spent the past two weeks in France enjoying everything that France has to offer and so much of what I love in life, it is hard to write my monthly blog on my slightly sombre themes of memorials, World War II, the Nazis, remembrance and all that stuff. And particularly on an iPhone from a campervan! But today, as we were driving past anyway, I went to a memorial that has to be one of the most memorable in terms of its immediate and tangible connection to Nazi atrocities.

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Oradour-sur-Glane was a village that was destroyed by the Nazis on 10th June 1944. Not only was the entire village destroyed, but all 642 of its inhabitants in the most brutal way. Just a matter of days after the D-day landings, the Nazis were clearly panicking and feeling the need to demonstrate that their strength was still intact. A group of SS men, who had fought and been brutalised on the Eastern Front, sought revenge for the disappearance of one of their own by rounding up the entire population of the village, separating the men in barns, shooting them and then burning them. The women and children were locked in the church where they were all burned.

The destroyed village has since been preserved as a testimony, monument and memorial to the wholly unnecessary atrocity committed by the Nazis. Walking around it you see not only the eerie shells of the buildings – homes, shops, cafes, places of trade and the church – but also the remains of the everyday possessions of the villagers: their sewing machines, their bicycles, their cars, their beds, their chairs and tables, their spectacles and their watches stopped at the hour that their owners’ lives stopped.

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I had read about this place and, as I always tend to do, I cried. But when I walked around, repeatedly being asked in French to remember, to remember the men, women and children who died that day, I couldn’t really feel anything. Maybe it was the presence of so many other tourists; maybe it was the conscious monumentalisation of the place; maybe so much time has passed that even imagining has become too difficult for people like me who weren’t even alive in those times. Or maybe the joy and sunshine, the rosé and stunning summer scenery, the little French villages, blue shuttered houses and fields full of smiling sunflowers of the last two weeks made me not want to feel the sadness, tragedy and destruction of those times? Maybe I now no longer need to ‘remember’ quite as often as I have in past years. Because through writing my book, much of which touches on this subject and the first draft of which is being read as I write this blog, I am beginning to feel that I personally have remembered enough of the horrors that the Nazis did to others. Maybe I am reaching a time when I will be able to drive past such a place without feeling the pull to stop and ‘remember’.

Or can one never remember enough?

 

 

“Britain’s Shame” – the price for trying to be “Great”?

Last month I wrote about how the words “Britain” and “shame” rarely appear in the same sentence. This month the two words have been inseparable. “Britain’s Shame” even became the title for BBC’s Panorama programme on the horrifying and heartbreaking fire at Grenfell Tower on 14th June. The programme opens with the accusation that shoved these two words together to sit unwillingly and uncomfortably side by side for all the world to see: “They were warned several times, countless times; they were warned probably until the day before the fire…”

IMG_1336.jpg‘Falling on deaf ears’, Koestler Trust entry from HMP Standford Hill

I don’t feel in any position to write about the tragedy that has ended or blighted so many innocent peoples’ lives. It is too sad and it is too soon. But I do feel in a position to talk about the shame that surrounds it, the shame that needs to be looked at and above all felt so that vital changes can be swiftly made before another tinderbox of neglect ignites.

For well over a year, with Brexit and the recent elections, we the British public have been being fed narratives about what will make us “great”. Boil them down and they are usually about economics and what apparently will make life better, above all, for “hard working families”. I don’t agree. No country can be great while a large proportion of its population have to foot the bill for the high standards of a minority. So many people in this country are living in sub-standard, unsafe conditions and struggling to make ends meet in spite of working their bollocks off. Our prisoners are too. And like our fire-hazard clad tower blocks, prisons are also just waiting to combust.

Some of the world’s greatest thinkers knew this. They knew that for a country to be truly great, you have to look at the standards of life of the poorest, the most vulnerable, the weakest and the troubled. And when we do that, Britain falls very short of the greatness to which it so aspires.

Fyodor Dostoevski: “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.”

Winston Churchill: “The mood and temper of the public in regard to the treatment of crime and criminals is one of the most unfailing tests of the civilization of any country…”

Nelson Mandela: “No one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails.”

For years prison inspectors, charities, prison reform campaigners, enlightened politicians, prisoners and officers alike have been warning the government that the prison system is not fit for purpose. Suicide rates have doubled in four years; assaults and self-harm incidents have reached record levels; overcrowding, understaffing, underfunding make our prisons not only unsafe but also “shameful places” of wasted opportunity and wasted human potential; warehouses of broken and dysfunctional humanity being held often in little more than cages, then ejected back into society only for half or two thirds to return within the year.

Last year’s Queen’s speech announced the long promised Prison and Courts Reform bill as the “biggest prison shake-up since Victorian times”. It had made real progress through parliament, received broad parliamentary support and was welcomed by campaigners – like me – who had been consulted and listened to in ways we hadn’t been before. There was a genuine excitement and will to reform our prisons and this law would have required the government to respond to the consistently bad findings of the Prison Inspectors. But, in another U-turn by the Tory Government, it has been omitted from this year’s Queen’s speech. And so once again the momentum behind vital prison reform gets reduced to a stutter as ministers get re-shuffled and implementations of good ideas get delayed.

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The government and those responsible for the mistakes surrounding Grenfell Tower need to feel the shame of the wholly avoidable tragedy. And we as a nation, need to feel ashamed about our treatment of prisoners. It is all too easy to look at them as second- or third-rate citizens, who have lost their right to fair treatment; who are at the bottom of the pile of people to care about just as some of those in power look on the inhabitants of social housing. Some prisoners, yes, it is harder to care about them. But the vast majority are just people, people who deserve help to make their lives work for themselves and ultimately us. They are just people, 70% of whom have some kind of mental health issues, 52% of whom are dyslexic, 50% of whom can’t write, 25% of whom have spent time in care, others who themselves were victims… Disadvantaged people who didn’t have the advantages that so many of us were fortunate enough to take for granted.

Let us feel ashamed for a moment, because shame can lead to genuine humility and lasting change, above all in attitude. Germany’s emergence out of the biggest and darkest pool of shame in recent history is a good example of how facing ones shame can lead to better policies. If any good at all can come out of the devastating tragedy of Grenfell Tower, may it be that those responsible listen to the warnings and pleas for help or change coming from all those affected by, or connected to, the various areas of British society that are not “great”. For to ignore them further would now not just be negligent but criminal.

‘Shame’ and ‘Britain’ aren’t usually words we put together, but is that changing?

I have been uncharacteristically struck by a form of blog-writer’s block this month. My usual (dark) themes seemed weirdly irrelevant in this sun and blossom-filled May and most other areas of life have been hijacked by the impending elections and Brexit. And added to that I feel like I’m flat-lining, like my political passions are all but extinguished by my successive losses in all the things I voted for… or against.

Inspiration came just in time though, in the form of a passing conversation with one of my studio neighbours. Totally unprompted he quietly confessed to me that he had begun to feel ashamed of being English, to feel increasing shame in relation to Britain, his own country. “Shame”, well that’s something I can do, it is one of my prime subjects in fact. And asking him further, I discovered his shame was very related to my involuntary growing despondency in the face of our politics.

170508152731-banksy-on-brexit-super-169.jpgBanksy Artwork in Dover, May, 2017

With so many hideous Tory attitudes and policies in almost unhindered free flow, with Brexit uncertainties hanging like fog waiting to descend on top of us, Britain has all of a sudden become like a docked ship whose destination we don’t want to reach; a country whose values we can no longer identify with, let alone fully respect. The rhetoric is too self-centered and self-serving, almost embarrassing in the face of the team- and solidarity-building discussions going on between our European neighbours. Theresa May’s aggressive and alienating approach to getting the best Brexit deal – “FOR US” – is sickening in these times when random terrorist attacks and unpredictable world leaders could instead be bringing us all closer together than ever. Neither of us like her indiscriminate, hand-holding alignment with the twitter/trigger-happy Trump. And I am baffled by the unashamed hypocrisy of our morally impoverished, profit-focused arms sales to Saudi, compared to our distracted, feeble lament of the plight of the Yemenis.

I understand my neighbour’s unwanted but encroaching sense of shame. I feel it in my strange longing for the Mutti (Mum) they have in Germany; for Angela Merkel, a genuinely ‘strong and stable’ leader who, in my opinion, makes brave decisions that are individual but not all about “us”. Just like the German Remembrance culture is not only about their fallen soldiers but about victims and the fallen everywhere. I wish we had some of her ideas for what makes a country great. I wish we had opted for her policy of shutting down all nuclear power stations rather than teaming up with the Chinese to build Hinkley Point…

So as we all approach June 9th, where should we place our crosses, my neighbour and I asked each other? Follow your heart knowing your vote will not win, vote tactically to stop the Conservatives…? Most of the main parties have sides that are either plain nasty, slightly lost, idealistic, unreliable or weak. They play tug of war with old policies, pulling and stretching them to fit manifestos that promise little more than to sticky-tape together some sort of status quo. All promise to chuck (often non-existent) money at the ailing areas of our society – the NHS, social care, prisons, schools, infrastructure, railways – while expensive debates on Trident, Heathrow, HS2 drag on unresolved. But where’s the long-term vision, the Grand Plan? I wish the humane ideas that some of the smaller parties have for spending time getting to the root of the problems in order to build up a fairer and more equal society, would become more prominent. The Tory emphasis on profit and wealth for a small minority continues to sicken but in so many areas this country needs to stop and reflect, to think more out of the box on what will really make us great. Because right now I don’t think we are and we need to change radically, above all in attitudes, so we can travel in a direction that really will benefit us all – as human beings.

I’m not angry like I was after Brexit; I’m not really horrified, sad or even disappointed either. I’m just slightly detached and a little deflated, maybe disillusioned, in relation to our politics and politicians. And I think if there was a box called “Wha’eva”, it’s probably the one I would now tick.

Standing in their footprints…

What is it that makes standing in the exact location of something historical, momentous or simply in the footprints of someone famous, so thrilling? Or horrifying? On Tuesday I was standing on a stage in the beautiful east coastal town of Aldeburgh ready to give one of my talks on Germany’s WW2 memorial culture when someone said, “You’re standing exactly where Bill Nighy stood last night”. It was tiny but there it was, a subtle tingle, a flutter of excitement. I like Bill Nighy and I liked knowing that I was so hot on his heels, talking in a venue in which he too had talked. But what’s really happening, what are our bodies or minds reacting to when we are in the presence even of such tenuous claims to fame or significance?

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This visceral reaction to places or objects that are linked to certain people or events has always fascinated me. The idea that the physical world can hold the memory of something or someone is not new. It is what lies behind the religious culture of relics and its modern day equivalence seen in the inflated profits that arise at auctions of Margaret Thatcher’s handbag or Princess Diana’s Versace dress. Holding my deceased father’s hairbrush is for me a way of feeling him close. People just do feel more strongly connected to other people via “things” or places.

IMG_0284.jpgscene of the Beer Hall Putsch, 1923

Three weeks ago I was in Munich, both to visit friends and cousins and to do research for my book about the long shadows of WW2. There is probably no other city in Germany in which visitors can bump so casually and frequently into the hefty pillars that supported the rise of Nazism. On a two-hour walking tour we visited the beer hall, scene of the famous 1923 Beer Hall Putsch; the site of the ‘Brown House’, now destroyed but then headquarters of the NSDAP (National Socialist German Worker’s Party); the Gestapo Headquarters; the Führerbau, now a Music School, where the 1938 Munich Treaty was signed by Western leaders in a hopeful attempt to halt Hitler in his tracks. And just outside the city, is Dachau, the first Nazi concentration camp, site of infinite suffering, cruelty and death and home to the infamous sign Arbeit macht frei (Work sets you free).

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With my now well-trained imagination, I find it easy to superimpose the black and white photographs of the 1930s and 40s onto the vibrant, colourful scenes of contemporary Munich and bring them to life. The cobbled streets and stone walls of the massive buildings seem to whisper me some of their memories. I can ‘hear’ the synchronized march of Nazi boots, the cheers of jubilant crowds that once filled the vast squares. I can ‘see’ the bombed devastation behind the renovated facades. Nothing, however, prepared me for Nuremberg.

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It’s a medieval town, home to Albrecht Dürer, Kaspar Hauser… and the Nuremberg Rallies of 1923-38. I visited the Rally grounds with the now almost obligatory Information Centre, one of hundreds around the country casting an unflinching gaze on every aspect of Germany’s Nazi past. I walked past the unfinished Congress Hall where a young couple was posing in full wedding attire for a camera.

IMG_0574Nuremberg Congress Hall

I walked around the edges of the Zepplin Grandstand with its countless entrances enabling people to stream in with the greatest ease and fill it to maximum capacity. I walked along the now overgrown rows of stone seats that had once looked out onto the spectacle…

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and then onto the small platform from which Hitler had addressed the people.

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The scale of the place, the vastness of the now empty space bar a few parked lorries, it was nothing less than completely horrifying. I felt terror fill my body. I felt sick. I hurt from the ache of pure dread. Never have I stood in such a powerful place, the exact place from which Hitler had fired his deadliest poison arrows into the minds and hearts of ordinary Germans.

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The air echoed with his evil words disguised as virtue and full of empty promise; the space filled with the theatrical displays of military might. I could see the whole force of the Nazi movement in all its ugly, popular power. And for that moment, standing in that place, I understood it all. How it had happened. How it had worked so effectively. But far worse, I understood the hitherto unthinkable thought, that it could, one day, all happen again.

But it won’t, not it we don’t let it. Not if we don’t forget that it did.

 

 

Munich in March

A city in which the ruins of history survive to serve as warnings for the present and pointers to a different future…

German memorials honour the brave resistors of Nazism, unreservedly condemn the perpetrators, apologise to the victims and warn us all to remain vigilant so these things can never happen again.

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A video installation outside the former Nazi headquarters

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In honour of Georg Elser, who tried but failed to single-handedly blow up Hitler and other high-ranking Nazi leaders on 8th November 1939. Elser was held prisoner for five years and then executed in Dachau.

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A large open square with benches created in the heart of Munich in 1946, dedicated to remembering the reasons why the victims of Nazism were targeted: for their politics or religion, for their sexual identity, disabilities, race, for being Jewish or for not doing the Hitler salute…

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An eternal flame has been burning since 1985. A warning as much as a commemoration

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Dachau concentration camp, one of the first, started in 1933. Birdsong filled silence seemed to say what words can’t.

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Infront of the Staatskanzlei / State Chancellery…

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a memorial to Munich’s fallen soldiers in WWI. After WWII few if any memorials were built honouring Germany’s soldiers, but gradually inscriptions were added to remember the fallen and missing.

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Remembering Sophie Scholl, the 21 year old student, and the White Rose Resistance members who were arrested and executed for distributing anti-war leaflets.

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In memory of those citizens who risked their lives taking this alley in order to avoid walking past the Nazi Commemoration of the Beerhall Putsch, where it was obligatory to do the Nazi salute.

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Jewish memorial at Dachau

“We write to understand…”

As I write my February blog, Sir Anthony Beevor, historian and bestselling author of epics such as “Berlin” and “Stalingrad”, is talking on Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs. I am humbled by his ongoing questioning of the facts in spite of his already huge achievements in bringing World War 2 to life in extraordinary detail. And I’m grateful for his admission of how hard it is to research this horrendous episode of history. His voice wobbles as he talks of reading the gruesome accounts of the rapes, murders and infinite human suffering. “We write to understand,” he says, emphasising the necessity for us to “learn the lessons of history”.

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For years now, I too have been staring into the darkness of German history, the soil in which half my family’s roots reside, trying to understand what happened, how something like Nazism and the Holocaust could have happened. I read and read and watch endless footage, like a detective piecing together the evidence from a crime scene. I don’t have any need to blame or justify, I just find my eyes straining in their attempts to make out the outlines of some kind of meaning to it all, for anybody.

Germany as a nation has heaved itself out of the rubble, brushed itself down and with cap in hand has apologized, over and over again. And now the shroud of silence in which post-war Germans wrapped themselves with a stubborn “We knew nothing”, is also finally being shed in painful spasms as more and more grandchildren excavate their family stories in search of the truth. In his brilliant new book The German War: A Nation Under Arms 1939-45, Nicholas Stargardt dispels the myth of total ignorance of what was going on once and for all by gently revealing the inner thoughts of German soldiers and civilians as expressed in their letters and diaries. For many people, however, it is still too painful, too shameful, to go anywhere near their past and I can totally appreciate why.

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Writing my book is without doubt one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. For months now I have been living in the sepia world of the 1940’s, digging down like a miner into the bloodied soil of Germany’s past to retrieve the shards of its shattered reality. Each time I come up for air I have to adjust my eyes to the bright lights of 2017, re-learn how to laugh and talk and enjoy. But like the Sunday evening of a weekend home from boarding school, the impending descent back into the mineshaft looms, until I climb down the ladder and re-enter the blackness once more, waiting for my eyes to adjust before I can continue my work.

It is indeed painful work. It challenges family loyalties threatening to expose the wounds around which new lives were built, like barbed wire absorbed by tree trunks on their way to the sky. It hurts to question the thoughts and actions of your own much-loved grandparents in those impossible times, to grasp what decisions they were faced with and to accept their possible fallibility. I don’t want to be the surgeon that rips off the bandages that held their psyches together, for I too am on the operating table, and yet the promise of understanding, of learning the lessons of the past, and of healing both generations, overrides everything, like the promise of gold urges the miner to keep on digging.

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