angela findlay talks

Germany, remembrance and alternatives to punishment and shame

Category: Atonement

‘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.

Memorial_to_the_murdered_Jews_of_Europe-750x495.jpg

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

 

Advertisements

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.

Screen Shot 2017-11-12 at 11.04.17.png

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.

fifa-poppy-ban.jpg

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.”

 

 

“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?

_84281791_84281790

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?

%d bloggers like this: