angela findlay talks

Germany, remembrance and alternatives to punishment and shame

Category: Apology

‘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.

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

 

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What purpose does Holocaust Memorial Day serve for those generations who can’t “remember”?

On Monday I was invited to give my talk about Germany’s memorial culture of apology and atonement (read more) at Brighton College as part of their Holocaust Studies Week. One student asked a question being debated by current historians: “When can we let WW2 recede into the past like other episodes of history do?”

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Today, 27th January, is International Holocaust Memorial Day, the date that marks the day Auschwitz-Birkenau was liberated by Soviet troops in 1945. It is the day on which we are asked to remember the 11 million victims killed in the Holocaust – 6 million Jews and 5 million Soviet POWs, homosexuals, Sinti and Roma, mentally or physically disabled, Roman Catholics, political dissidents, ethnic Poles, Slavs and Ukrainians. All had become victims of the Nazi hatred that deemed them to be “Untermenschen”, literally ‘beneath’ or ‘below’ human; sub-humans. They were killed because they were seen to be a threat to the ideal world image that Hitler and his followers were striving to manifest.

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From where we are standing now Nazism looks more like the fantastical and elaborate plan of a Bond villain. And the fact that the Holocaust played out in as cultured and civilized a country as Germany is still baffling. Of course we now all sign online petitions and march in the streets in protest of the tiniest things, and here in Britain we are at very low risk of becoming victims of genocide anyway. So why do we have Remembrance Days like today?

I always find the word “Remembrance” problematic in these situations. We can’t possibly “remember” people we didn’t know in the first place. We can only remember the fact that millions did die in worse than horrendous ways. But is that enough? Maybe it’s being half-German and therefore having a more complex relationship to what happened, but I’ve come to see Holocaust Memorial Day as being more about trying to imagine and empathise with the millions of families that have to live with the huge, gaping voids left behind by those who were killed. For, like open wounds, they will be felt by generations to come.

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 I also think today is about learning – all of us really learning – the lessons of the past. And part of that learning is the recognition that prior to the extremes of genocide, there are many stages; it does not happen on its own, played out by others, somewhere else. It is a subtle, steady process, which can start with the disgruntled murmurs of discrimination or calls for exclusion that we can already hear in the face of the current, impossibly difficult refugee crisis. How easy it is to see people who are different to “us” as “other”, even as less deserving of a place within our image of how our world should be. And how easy it is to think that because we are not actively doing anything we are not perpetrators of any such discrimination and exclusion.

Germany’s counter memorials are daily reminders that “It must never happen again”. They ask everyday Germans to remain vigilant. Here in Britain we are more distanced from the Holocaust, and yet ultimately, under pressure and in certain situations where we feel threatened, none of us are immune to becoming complicit, even if it is simply by looking away. Maybe that is why WW2 can’t be allowed to recede into the past quite yet and maybe that is one of the purposes of Holocaust Remembrance Day.

 

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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.Allemagne, Berlin. 2 mai 1945. Le drapeau rouge flotte sur les to”ts du Reichstag

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.

main_1200It’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.

“German court sentences 94-year-old ‘Bookkeeper of Auschwitz’ to four years in prison.” Is this Justice? Or is this the German Judicial System’s attempt to atone for its appalling failure since WW2 to bring more of the real culprits to justice?

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This is an obvious choice of topic for my July blog for it touches on all my main themes: WW2 Germany, prison, punishment, forgiveness, redemption.

What we have here is a 94-year-old former SS officer whose job at the age of 21 was to sort the luggage of the new arrivals to Auschwitz and register the prisoners’ goods and valuables. Oskar Gröning was not a guard but a bookkeeper who counted the money the Nazis stole from the Jews. During the trial that started in May in the German city of Lüneburg he admitted: “It is without question that I am morally complicit in the murder of millions of Jews through my activities at Auschwitz. Before the victims, I also admit to this moral guilt here, with regret and humility. But as to the question whether I am criminally culpable, that’s for you to decide.” Today he was sentenced to 4 years in prison after the German Courts found him guilty of being accessory to murder of 300,000 people.

For more than a decade Gröning has been giving interviews with a candidness that is very rare among other surviving SS men and women. He fully admits to what he did and saw, knowing all too well that his honesty would help get him convicted and most likely sentenced to spend his last days in jail. He is clear that he wants his testimony to be used against those who deny the Holocaust – “I would like you to believe that these atrocities took place, because I was there”. He also gives valuable insights into his now-inexplicable mind-set and motivations describing how as a young man his enthusiasm for the Nazi cause had quickly turned into euphoria, not least because of Adolf Hitler’s success in dealing with Germany’s horrendously high levels of inflation and unemployment. On being offered to join what he considered to be the “dashing and zestful” SS, he didn’t hesitate to leave the bank where he worked. He explains how German people believed there was a conspiracy amongst the Jewish people against them. They represented an existential threat, as did the forces of the Soviet Union. “Between those two fights, one openly on the front line and the other against the Jews on the home front, we considered there was absolutely no difference, we exterminated nothing but enemies”.

These kind of insights into the workings of the minds of the people who made up the Nazi killing machine is invaluable even if it doesn’t excuse in any way at all what Gröning did. Reading my grandfather’s letters from the Eastern Front I was similarly struck by the genuine sense of threat the Bolsheviks posed to the Germany of the 1930’s and 40’s. So big it justified the invasion of Russia. As island people it is harder for us in the UK to understand the territorial vulnerability of having nine different – potentially hostile – countries nestling up to ones borders. I am not excusing, just trying to comprehend, as always, the motivations and intentions behind the deeds. The first prisoner I ever worked with, a bank robber in Long Bay Jail, Sydney taught me the most valuable lesson I learnt for working with criminals. “Angela, in the 12 years I have been in prison I have never met a single person who committed their crime out of evil intent…” I’m going to leave you with that thought for now as it took me many years of challenging it before I could agree with it. Back to Gröning.

Everyone involved in Nazi war crimes obviously has to take responsibility for what happened. But is a 4-year sentence in prison the right way for this 94-year-old? Is 4 years justice for the crime of being “an accessory to the murder of 300,00 people”? “It’s a ridiculous proportion” according to Michael Wolffsohn, author of Eternal Guilt?. Surely we need different measures for such cases? Prisons are designed to act as centers of deterrence, rehabilitation (in theory at least) and punishment. Deterrence? This man is not going to re-offend! Rehabilitation? This man is already re-habilitated. Punishment? Yes, his actions seventy years ago more than deserve it. But as Eva Mozes Kor, the 81 year old Holocaust survivor, asks: “What is the purpose for what we are doing?… Putting them in jail does not do anything to help the victims feel better or heal their pain… I would like someone to demonstrate to me how exactly that helps me or other survivors. I didn’t say they should get away with it, but the attention is given to the perpetrators and not the survivors, and that to me is what is wrong.”images-1

Well I’m with her totally. Even by trying to do what they think is expected of them, the German Judiciary is going down the same, strangely illogical path I feel our Criminal Justice System does time and again. We love punishment but Gröning has admitted his guilt, apologized for his wrong doing, he has asked for forgiveness and he has been putting atonement and restitution into practice by speaking out to students in person, or by Skype even, about what happened. All the desired outcomes of punishment have already been achieved! So as with Restorative Justice, why not come up with something that will restore rather than punish? As Eva suggests, “give him 4 years, if he lives that long, to lecture as a community service… Every time he lectures to a group of students, he will testify about it and will relive those experiences. I don’t think it is an easy thing for him to deal with. In jail he doesn’t have to talk about it – he can just rot away. But I am really interested in him telling young Germans, ‘It happened. I was there. There was nothing good about the Nazi regime. It brought tragedy to millions of innocent human beings, to the Germans, and even to the perpetrators.’ That is the lesson – we have to prevent it from happening again. That would benefit Germany and the rest of the world.”

So I wonder, is this really Justice? Or is Gröning paying the price for the German Judiciary’s failure to bring about real justice at the time it was really due?

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

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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.

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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.


‘Sorry’ does indeed seem to be the hardest word to say

February 2015 saw the 70th anniversary of the bombing of Dresden, a contentious and highly debated element of the British and American war campaign. The deaths of 25,000 civilians and the destruction of the medieval city of Dresden known as the “Jewel of the Elbe” was without doubt one of the low points in the British military strategy.

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On 13th February this year Germany held one of their rare commemorations for their own dead. It started with a service in the re-built Frauenkirche / Church of our Lady and continued later in the streets when up to 10,000 people formed a human chain along Dresden’s riverfront, holding hands to commemorate the dead and call for peace.

With my on-going interest in World War commemorations, this was of course a significant one, for two reasons really. On the one hand it remembers German victims of war and on the other it remembers an event that many people see as a British war crime.

On the evenings of 13th and 14th February 1945, 1,200 RAF and USAAF bombers dropped 3,900 tons of explosives and incendiary bombs on the city. The fires consolidated into an inferno both suffocating people as the blaze sucked oxygen from the air and quite literally “melting” them. 13 square miles of the city were destroyed. Some estimates were that 250,000 were killed in the raids but it’s probably closer to 25,000, most of them civilians and refugees fleeing the Soviet army.

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Critics claim there was no military justification for the destruction. Others argue that Dresden was an important supply centre for the Germans as they fought the approaching Soviet Army. Above all, the bombings were intended to break the German population’s morale.

Reading the coverage of the Commemoration service I was once again struck by the huge difference between the British and German attitudes to the war. Even on this occasion Germany’s approach was apologetic, inclusive and instructive. It is clear that Germany’s horrendous past has left them genuinely wanting to learn the lessons of history and avoid all future wars. German President Joachim Gauck assured dignitaries from Britain and other former Allied nations: “You should know that we bear no lasting grudge… We are fully aware of who started that murderous war. Though we are remembering the German victims here today, we will never forget the victims of Germany’s belligerence.” And Dresden Mayor Helma Orosz warned “War, hatred and violence begin in peoples’ minds. We must resist any attempt at once again categorizing people based on their origin and skin color.”

In Britain the majority of coverage of the event did not ask searching questions. In fact one article was dedicated to an adamant denial that the Archbishop of Canterbury had apologised for the bombing. You can read the full article on the link below but this is a part of what he said: “… Much debate surrounds this most controversial raid of the Allied bombing campaign. Whatever the arguments, events here 70 years ago left a deep wound and diminished all our humanity. So as a follower of Jesus I stand here among you with a profound feeling of regret and deep sorrow.”

Later in a BBC 5 Live interview a spokesman had to reassure that he was not apologizing. “Any suggestion that the Archbishop was apologising is manifestly false. The Archbishop’s comments were a reflection in a solemn ceremony on the tragedy of war. They very carefully avoided apologising, and those present, including the president of Germany, recognised the difference.”

I have to say, I find this extraordinary. Could we not on this one occasion just open our hearts and apologise? Could we not offer the one tiny but hugely healing word ‘Sorry’ if only for the huge cost of human life and what was clearly a devastating act, regardless of whether it was justified or not by some military strategy? Germany hasn’t stopped saying sorry and admitting its guilt, for decades now and for absolutely  everything they did. It took us 38 years to admit wrongdoing and apologise for Bloody Sunday and yet that was all that was wanted. Germany isn’t in any way asking for an apology but couldn’t we not have the – what is it? – the balls? the kindness? the honesty? the moral strength? the humanity to just say ‘sorry’ anyway. It won’t detract from our victory, our honour and glory. Nor will it lessen the memory of our brave men and women who fought the enemy. We weren’t clean or blameless in every aspect of warfare so in this of all years, can we not find the strength to admit openly that we too caused incredible suffering and destruction for which we are simply ‘sorry’?

http://www.suttonguardian.co.uk/news/national/11794039.Dresden_speech__not_apology___Welby/

http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/feb/11/guardian-view-second-world-war-commemorations-dont-leave-dresden-out-of-story

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