angela findlay talks

Germany, remembrance and alternatives to punishment and shame

Category: Anglo-German relations

‘Shot’ for what you represent

I had a funny experience the other day… not sure if I mean funny-ha-ha or funny as in quite strange. Or maybe it simply made something visible that usually remains disguised or hidden.

I had just arrived at the theatre where I was due to give my talk on German WW2 counter memorials. The woman, who had booked me on the recommendation of several other art societies, greeted me warmly, bought us each a coffee and sat down opposite me in the café.

“I am so looking forward to this talk,” she said enthusiastically.

I always feel slightly guilty when people say that before this particular lecture, knowing I am going to be taking my audience through some dark, heavy and potentially very challenging material.

“I’m so glad,” I responded. Then, feeling a need to steer her expectations added, “It’s not an easy talk, but it feels important that people know what Germany has been doing to apologise and atone for what happened…”

“And so they jolly well should apologise and atone for what they did,” she spouted energetically before I had even finished my sentence. “AND feel very guilty about it.” Then, with her voice building up to a full body-shudder, she added, “Urrrgh, I hate them.”

I have to say, the depth of feeling behind her words surprised me a little. Not least because I had assumed she would have seen my website or Anglo-German biographical blurb during the booking process. But I also wanted to laugh out loud at the huge, clanging foot she had just placed in our conversation confirming what I have always maintained – that unless you have German roots, you would not necessarily notice the often scantily clad, on-going blame and dislike directed at our former friends and foe. We all know that ‘Bashing the Boche’ and dissing the Germans continues to be a bit of a national hobby, particularly by the media. It’s disguised as humour, but is actually one of the last bastions of racism to avoid the censorship of even the most politically correct among us. I hadn’t come up against quite such an overt loathing of my roots for a while though.

I smiled an ‘Oops!’ kind of smile over my cappuccino. I actually felt for her, anticipating the deep embarrassment she would feel both during and after the talk. Wanting to spare her as much as possible I asked, “I wonder which particular Germans you are referring to? You’ll hear in the talk that I actually have German roots…”

She flushed and shifted in her chair.

“Oh!” she said. And then, clearly not knowing what else to say, picked her hand off the table, turned it into a pistol, pointed it at my face and, with full sound effects, pulled the trigger.

It’s strange to be ‘shot’ for who you are or what you represent to someone else, even in jest. And yet it happens everywhere.

I thank this woman though, because her reaction contrasts so strongly with the reactions of most people after the talk. The stillness and silence as I speak, the long applause followed by searching questions and heartfelt  comments – they all confirm how important it is, also for ourselves, that we try to understand the very people we think we dislike most.


You can read more about my talk Counter memorials: Germany’s post war culture of apology and atonement here.



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”.

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).


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.


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.


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.


‘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.


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!


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.


There’s an unhelpful form of Tourette Syndrome lurking within certain British men…

What is it about some British men? It’s as if they have a form of Tourette’s that makes it impossible for them not to heed Basil’s advice and not mention the war. Smug winner syndrome, even 70 years on. I mean is it really a good idea, Boris Johnson, is it remotely mature or diplomatic to respond to a perfectly reasonable suggestion that Britain could not expect to get a better deal outside the EU than it enjoyed inside, by equating such an approach to “punishment beatings… in the manner of some world war two movie”? (The Guardian, 18.01.17)


It honestly makes me wince, not because it’s insensitive, antagonistic or unnecessary, but because it is so unbelievably, pathetically childish. I once laughed at Will Self’s brilliant verbal portrait of Boris as “an enigma wrapped up in a whoopee cushion” but I don’t find him remotely enigmatic or amusing anymore. Just dangerously out of date and out of touch.

Then shortly after Boris had demonstrated his true nature once again, another national embarrassment came to his rescue in the form of Michael Gove tweeting: People “offended” by The Foreign Secretary’s comments today are humourless, deliberately obtuse, snowflakes – it’s a witty metaphor ‪#getalife

Witty? It’s such an old hat trick to try and stand on the head of ones opponent to make oneself taller when they are winning the argument, that any residual humour was sucked out of it decades ago. Are such British men – and I say men because (correct me if I am wrong) I’ve never heard a woman say such things – remotely aware of how stupid they look harping on about WW2 so long after the event? Especially at a time when our country is a total mess, while the losers of the war have long since brushed themselves down, built their country up, learnt the lessons of the past, apologised for it with deep earnestness and humility, and are now trying to move forward in ways informed by the kind of maturity that arises out of darkly, sobering experiences.

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An Antiques Roadshow episode on BBC 1 was recently dedicated as a Holocaust Memorial with survivors telling the stories behind the extraordinary, treasured and priceless ‘bits and pieces’ they had salvaged from those dreadful times. It was deeply moving and stood in such stark contrast to the flippant and thoughtless comments by our own homegrown, floppy-haired idiot.

So, apologies for not “#getting a life” in the way Michael Gove would like me to. I’ve tolerated such jokes and references since I was little and trust me they get very boring indeed. And we as a nation are made to look ridiculous, and have been for years, when allowing our integrity to be debased by cheap jibes at old wounds. I once felt ashamed of my German roots for obvious reasons. But right now, with some of the people we have front-lining our national face to the rest of the world, I feel fortunate to be able to look to Germany and Angela Merkel for some of my sense of national pride.



The Queen’s visit to Germany – “politically motivated” or her gesture of “complete reconciliation”?


As I started writing this month’s blog this morning, the Queen was visiting Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp for the first time, apparently at her request.

Much has been criticised or mocked about her State visit in the press: the timing – the eve of a summit where David Cameron is expected to begin new negotiations in relation to Britain’s EU membership; her apparently politically-biased speech in which she referred to a division in Europe being “dangerous” and that guarding against it “remains a common endeavour”; the Queen’s unenthusiastic reception of the German president’s gift of a portrait of her as a child on a blue horse with her father; even the reason for her going was apparently to put Angela Merkel, who is often referred to as Queen of Europe, back in her place…!

The cynics and critics are in their element and yet, regardless of all that, it seems to me that for an 89 year old lady who has been, and is, so closely linked by blood and history to Germany, the gesture of total reconciliation on an official level is of more importance and relevance than any of the other more petty stuff.


I think it is hard for the generations that didn’t experience WW2 in the direct way these octogenarians did, to fully grasp the lasting impact of war. Many wrap their memories in silence and take them to the grave. But often you hear about people who begin to talk about their experiences in old age, or as they approach their death. It’s as if they want to resolve or put to rest what they haven’t up until that point been able to do. Only last night I was speaking with a woman who told me that her father’s last wish before he died had been to return to the place he was held as a POW in Germany in WW2. What a strange choice of place to go… or is it?

Today, on request of the Queen, Bernard Levy, an 89-year-old soldier who was 19 at the time Bergen-Belsen was liberated by the British in 1945, attended the wreath-laying ceremony at the camp. He said: “For 68 years I’d shut the whole subject out of my mind. But we’ve got to make sure that this particular horror stays in people’s minds… It is fitting the Queen should go. Holocaust education is so paramount, and many kids of today don’t really know about it. The Queen going there lends credence.”

The Chief Rabbi agreed: “The memory of the Holocaust remains such a fundamental aspect of modern Jewish identity that the Queen’s journey to memorialise the victims will be viewed as tremendously significant by Jewish communities across the world.”

And for many Germans, simply the fact that one of the last state visits the Queen will ever make was to Germany will be experienced with a great sense of honour.

So regardless of any implied political undertones of the rest of the visit, today’s visit to Bergen-Belsen will have made a huge difference to many people. “It’s difficult to imagine” is what the Queen said on leaving the camp and I suspect she will have gone on trying to imagine as she left the country. The experience of visiting a concentration camp site doesn’t leave you easily. So my only criticism of the Queen’s State visit would be that it ended on such a sombre note. Her last experience of Germany will reference that darkest of episodes in history from which we are all trying to move forward. But maybe I am wrong there. Maybe it was perfectly planned for the “complete reconciliation” the Queen was said to be wanting to achieve.

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