angela findlay talks

Germany, remembrance and alternatives to punishment and shame

Month: February, 2014

Children of the Third Reich: A critical moral debate

 

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It’s Valentine’s Day and I am writing about the Nazis… again. “Will she ever let up?” I can almost hear people asking. But I’m afraid I can’t… won’t. Not yet. It is still too relevant a topic, as was proved by last night’s debate at the Southbank Centre where not one person in the packed hall moved, let alone left, even after 2.5 hours of listening to two elderly men, children of high-ranking Nazis, as they revealed their opposing relationships with their long-dead fathers.

To voluntarily exchange views and answer questions publically on this delicate and sensitive subject makes Niklas Frank and Horst von Wächter very brave and admirable men in my eyes.

Niklas, whose controversial book of 1987 “Der Vater” (The Father) broke taboos in Germany by admitting categorically that his father was a bad man, has always been determined to “acknowledge the crimes”. This led to a total rejection of his father. “But don’t you want to make peace?” Horst asks, driven by a strong sense of “duty” and “moral obligation” to find the good in his father. “I have. By acknowledging his crimes”, responded Niklas.

I couldn’t help feeling that neither men had found peace, however. In his refusal to soil his father’s “character” with the horrors of his deeds, Horst at times came across as being in full denial. “I love him. I cannot say my father was a criminal”. But in his decision to have “no love for his father”, Niklas came across as slightly hardened, maybe bitter. At any rate, both mens’ dilemmas were unresolved.

For me it was like seeing my inner dialogue of the past 10 years of research into my own German grandfather’s war time activities, externalized. These two men were enacting the see-saw argument between the natural desire to believe your family member is good, and the potentially terrifying acknowledgement that he was bad. After all, where does that leave you, as the descendent?

During questions, a slightly aggressive female journalist in the audience expressed her intolerance of Horst’s “extraneous” excuses not to admit his father was complicit in Nazi crimes. Some other members even clapped. It made me feel uncomfortable. For while I am definitely more with Niklas in his determination to acknowledge any guilt, I felt sympathy for Horst who had spent his life in what he clearly felt was a worthy pursuit of love and peace but in reality was possibly more like a paralysing inability to face the horrors of his father’s deeds. Both men were right, both wrong, I would refrain from judging like the journalist did. Because I know from my own lesser but similar journey, that it is terrifying looking at the facts of that horrendous period of history in the face. But you have to before you can begin to find a genuine source of peace.

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Simon Jenkins I would kiss you, if I could…

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…for your refreshing article on 30.01.14 in the Guardian:

Germany, I apologise for this sickening avalanche of first world war worship. The festival of self-congratulation will be the British at their worst, and there are still years to endure. A tragedy for both our nations.

http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/jan/30/first-world-war-worship-sickening-avalanche?commentpage=1

I too would like to apologise to the Germans for the largely immature, thoughtless, self-centred approach we seem to be taking towards this 4-year centenary. What on earth do we think we are doing? To what end are we striving with all this emphasis on ourselves as a nation of heroes, victims, winners? Our obsession with our victory a century ago is being seen with bemusement on the continent. Read some of Germany’s responses to Michael Gove’s renewed attempts to push the whole blame for the start of WWI on the Germans. Every parent knows that finger-pointing is childish. And yet the Minister of Education (of children no less) is still doing it 100 years after the event??! It’s not as if we are an otherwise innocent and peaceful nation that is regularly and reluctantly dragged into wars. Our leaders are gung-ho and ready to go. Look at Blair and Cameron chafing at the bit to get back into battle at the first opportunity.

Don’t get me wrong though. I believe in remembering; I believe in acknowledging the suffering of and sacrifices made by so many; I believe in commemorating the end of a war; and I believe in feeling pride for the outstanding acts of bravery within the parameters of a battle. But, and it’s a big but, all sides involved in a war are made of people: brothers, wives, sons, mothers, friends… And by celebrating our victory we are in effect celebrating the deaths and suffering of our then-enemy, who in fact had been our close friends and are now our allies. Do we really have to push the Germans down (again) in order to elevate ourselves to our favourite position of victors and heroes? Germany, naturally doesn’t have the same obsession with their role in the war(s). And as a result they have an inclusive, humble and sensitive approach both to war and remembrance. Couldn’t we embrace the idea that there are no real winners, just lots of losers, and that remembrance of the horrors that all sides went through can serve as an incentive to never let it happen again? Because the longer and louder we keep blowing our trumpets, the longer and more blatantly we will look ridiculous.

Book Angela Findlay’s new talk.  The other side: WWII through the eyes of an ordinary German family. www.angelafindlaytalks.com

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