Daring to look your family’s past in the face
Last week a Chinese schoolboy approached me after my talk The other side: The Second World War through the eyes of an ordinary German family. Slightly trembling and in broken English he asked me if I had been frightened looking into my family’s past. In my talk I describe the journey I started 10 years ago, of peering deep into the darkest episode of modern history to discover what role my family, above all my German grandfather, a decorated Wehrmacht General, had played, or may have played. I knew the boy was asking this question for a personal reason, the shadows of his own family demons were almost visible, passing like clouds over his terrified face.
My grasp of Chinese history is woefully thin. I wracked my brains for atrocities or events that this boy’s family member(s) could have been involved in. Tiananmen Square in 1989 sprang to mind along with the general sense of horrors perpetrated by Chairman Mao’s regime. But actually it didn’t matter whether I knew the precise what, when, where and who of his story. What mattered was the impact it was having on his life.
It has happened before that my story has resonated with people of different nationalities. I have had a number of young German pupils as well as elderly men or women come up to me after my talks to shake my hand, and thank me. Sometimes the older people are in tears. It seems that in my story they recognize a story that is also theirs but which they themselves have not been able to tell. Recently I had a young Russian sixth former offer me an apology on behalf of her grandfather in return for the apology I had offered for mine. Hers had fought in the notoriously fierce battle for Berlin right at the end of WW2 in which the brutal rape of German girls and women from 8-80 years old had not only been commonplace but also positively encouraged. The girl who approached me knew her great grandfather had been part of this and, though she was born 50+ years later, she wanted to say sorry to me.
I was born 20 years after the end of the war and, similarly, my grandfather had been part of Hitler’s massive invasion that swept through her grandparent’s land killing tens of millions of Russians. I too had needed to say sorry for that. So here we all are, the third and fourth post-war generations all with something in common: a shared sense of guilt and shame and a need or desire to apologise… for something we didn’t do.
It’s so strange, that people who have genuinely committed horrendous deeds can often feel no guilt or shame, but rather justification, as so many Nazis did. And people who have done nothing wrong – rape victims, survivors, children – can feel guilt and shame for their mere association with bad deeds, even if they happened long before they were born. For the latter, once identified, the sense of guilt can generally be more easily dispelled with facts. As Brené Brown brilliantly defines in her inspiring Ted Talk Listening to Shame https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=psN1DORYYV0 the difference between guilt and shame is that guilt is for something you have done. Shame, however, is for who you are. And that’s what makes it a lot harder to shift. Shame is a widespread and international epidemic. It can be a debilitating state of low self-esteem, isolation, disconnection, violence or self-harm, depression, fear of being vulnerable and showing yourself, of excelling or even of feeling worthy of love, joy and the good things in life. But there are ways through it.
And so I found myself reassuring the frightened Chinese boy at my side, that whatever his family member had done, he himself was not guilty. He had not done it. What he might feel, however, is shame. And of course fear. I certainly had felt fear of what I might discover but I now know that the very first step towards shedding the shame is to overcome that fear and to look the deeds of the relatives and forefathers in the face.