angela findlay talks

Germany, remembrance and alternatives to punishment and shame

Category: Children of the Third Reich

Germany’s welcoming response to the refugee crisis doesn’t surprise me. The more Germans are allowed to acknowledge their own WW2 traumas, the more their personal and collective memories of the horrors of the 1944-50 flights and expulsions come to light.

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Germany’s ‘open house’ policy and newly attributed “moral leadership” within the mounting refugee crisis was indeed initially surprising. It certainly wasn’t always so. I’m remembering the 17-year-old boy I met in the nineties when I was working as an artist in Cologne Prison. His name was Christian and he had been placed in the special segregated unit there because his crime was so contentious on a national scale. He was one of four young Neo-Nazis responsible for burning down the house of a large Turkish family in Solingen in May 1993, killing three girls and two women and injuring fourteen other family members. It was the most severe instance of anti-foreigner violence in modern Germany and in 1995, Christian was found guilty of murder, attempted murder and arson and sentenced to 10 years.

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He joined my art class in September’93 and in my notes I wrote: “Strange, he has the “courage” to throw fire bombs into a house to destroy 5 Turkish people and yet when it comes to painting in a communal picture, he is so hesitant, unsure of himself, scared. He paints delicate flower heads with blue petals with incredible care and concentration… and gets very hurt when other members of the group destroy them.” This apparent contradictory combination of tenderness and vulnerability mixed with extreme hatred and violence often surfaced in such prisoners’ artworks and would no doubt also be visible in the works of today’s perpetrators of violence.

Fortunately the relatively few Neo-Nazis today are the last of the extreme right Germans determined to maintain the legacy of Hitler’s pathological racism and nationalism. In the nineties they still had support from some ordinary people who applauded them when they burned down refugee camps. However, Germany and Germans have changed, even the tabloid press coverage of the current crisis is more sympathetic with one paper, Bild, printing out information sheets in Arabic for refugees.

There are many layers and reasons behind this change but one important one has to be the on-going emergence of the war-torn memories and personal traumas long suppressed within German families and long ignored by the World War 2 narrative of the history books. After the war, the experiences of the German population were considered irrelevant in the face of the trauma Germany had inflicted on others. Its status as a country of immigration has always been denied yet most Germans today will have family members who have memories of being caught up in the massive migrations of 1944-5 when 14 million people of German ethnicity were on the move. Largely made up of old people, women and children under 16, the stream of refugees were either fleeing westwards from the rapidly advancing and avenging Soviet army, or were forcibly expelled from their more eastern countries of origin – East Prussia, Pomerania, the Baltic states etc. It was a quarter of the German population and, as Neil Macgregor, out going Director of the British Museum said, “is the largest episode of forced mass migration in history”.

VertreibungLike the refugees today the Germans only had what they could carry with them. Unlike the refugees arriving today however, they arrived in a largely destroyed land where they were not welcome and were seen simply as a burden and threat to the already scarce housing and resources. On arrival in the Allied Occupation Zones some expellees / refugees were interned in former concentration camps, like Auschwitz less than 2 weeks after its liberation by the Soviets. Or they were placed in labour camps where they were often subjected to sadistic beatings, torture, sexual violence and malnutrition. Other expellees lived in refugee camps; many were just stranded and some, like my mother and her family, were able to live with relatives.

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The story of my mother’s escape by train from a burning Berlin and the brutal Russian army in 1945 impressed on me, already as a child, what it must be like to lose everything – home, belongings and every other symbol of safety and familiarity. I have vivid imaginings of her as an 11 year old, being rudely woken at 4am, grabbing a hideous new doll instead of her love-worn, old one, and being taken with her little sister to the heaving Berlin main station where they were shoved through the window of a train leaving their mother and older sister behind to a fate unknown. Weeks later they too left to catch the last train out of Berlin, locking the door of their home behind them never to see it or any of their belongings again. I imagine this story resonates with millions of Germans then and so many millions more people now.

Christian was an extreme example of post-war German xenophobia. His heinous act back in 1993 along with the atrocities of the Third Reich in the 1930s-40s may, however, have contributed to Germany’s slightly unexpected current role as “moral leaders”. Could it be that it really is lighting the way forward for all other European nations and beyond to what is widely perceived as the “right thing to do”? Either way, I am proud of Germany’s government for its spontaneous open arm policy and proud of the Germans for going out of their ways to make it happen instantly. I just find it frustrating that the Volkswagen corruption scandal (how can people be so stupid?) is now distracting from this otherwise clear demonstration of a country that has collectively learnt the lessons of its past.

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VE Day 70 years on – a time to celebrate victory or a time to also to look more closely at the price of war to women and girls?  

Within the context of my interest in WW2 Remembrance, May offers a welcome break from the misery and darkness. It is indeed a time to celebrate, for on May 8th 1945 Churchill was finally able to announce that the war was over in Europe. The jubilation was naturally boundless and Britain threw the biggest street party the country had ever seen. The Allies had triumphed over the Nazi enemy, Germany had unconditionally surrendered, and it would be the end of death and destruction.

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May 8th 2015 was the 70th Anniversary of VE Day, Victory in Europe Day. It too offered an opportunity both to celebrate as well as to honour and thank those alive, and dead, who helped bring about the victory. The BBC is broadcasting a whole range of programmes and coverage in this vein, but so far there has been one that has stood out for being a break in what at times comes across as a fairly one-sided or incomplete narrative. In The Rape of Berlin broadcast on the BBC World Service, http://bbc.in/1GBlBDs Lucy Ash looks at the subject that even Germans today have difficulty in re-visiting. It looks beyond the simplified duality of the triumph of the victors versus the evil of the losers, to the very dark underbelly of war and its largely unacknowledged victims. I am talking here about the fate of millions of German women and children who fell victim to the biggest mass rape in history.

They both killed... they both died (AF, 2010)

They both killed… they both died (AF, 2010)

For German civilians 8th May was, of course, no relief; no assurance that their misery would end. They would continue to be at the mercy of the ever-advancing and avenging Soviet army that had been sweeping westwards since 1944, and were considered free game for many an allied soldier who wanted to exact revenge for Hitler’s war of annihilation. As a result women and children from 8 – 80 years old were brutally raped, often multiple times and over long periods, many killed in the process or dying from their injuries. The violence against German women was, however, seen by many to be justifiable. The Soviets had propaganda posters positively encouraging it. “Soldier, you are now on German soil, the hour of revenge has struck!” UK and US soldiers, possibly others too, were also guilty of that war crime. For G.I.s rape would normally result in execution but no G.I. was executed for the rape of a German citizen.

Papa, kill the German! 1942

Papa, kill the German! 1942

Wartime sexual violence against women and girls is a widespread and age-old weapon of conflicts all around the world. We just have to look at what is happening – everywhere it seems – today. But rape is rarely mentioned as an inevitable by-product to warring nations, despite history showing us time and again how it goes hand in hand with the more familiar images of warfare – munitions, rubble and death. I find it problematic, as anyone reading my other blogs will already know, that in our Remembrance ceremonies our attention is almost exclusively focused on the heroics and bravery of war, the soldiers who fought or fight for us, the victories. Of course this is a vital element, but it so easily sanitizes what is usually insane, turning it into an honourable, admirable thing even, yet overlooking the unbearable suffering of civilians, none of whom get medals or recognition for their bravery.

Social acknowledgment of rape is possibly one of the ways towards healing for the victims. And in my trilogy of talks The other side I am trying to present a fuller picture of WW2 by including the experiences of German women and children. The overwhelming response of my audiences has been an initial stunned silence followed by a quiet “I had no idea”.

I really feel it is time we did have an idea.

Finally, I am looking forward to watching Savage Peace on BBC2 tonight at 10pm as it is all about this.

Holocaust Memorial Day, 27th January 2015

 

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Today was Holocaust Memorial Day, commemorating the day Auschwitz-Birkenau was liberated by the advancing Soviet army seventy years ago. Today Jews and non-Jews alike were reminded to remember what so many of us have no personal recollection of. Reminded how important it is to remember so that it will never happen again.

Today was also the launch of my talk on German Memorials and Counter Memorials, the second in my trilogy of talks “The other side” about World War II from a German point of view. It was a happy coincidence that King William’s College on the Isle of Man invited me to give this particular talk on this particular day, for it encouraged me and my audience not only to think about the victims of the Nazi policies of annihilation but also about the perpetrators and Germany’s ongoing and thorough process of apology on behalf of them.

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One would hope that remembering the victims and the horrors would be enough to prevent such atrocities being repeated; that humanity as a whole would have learned the lessons. Alas, Bosnia, Rwanda, the Sudan, Cambodia and all that is going on now prove the truth in Primo Levi’s warning: “What happened can happen again.”

The last survivors of Auschwitz are still alive amongst us, offering us glimpses into a time and world that, even to them, must now be almost unimaginable. Their stories travel to our schools and enter our lives through our televisions, radios, and Internet. And yet even seventy years on, we still can’t fully grasp how, or even that it could have happened. For those of us who are non-Jewish and do not experience the visceral pain of having lost whole generations of our families, the stories and images still have the ability to shock, filling us with incomprehension at the extremes to which humanity, or rather inhumanity, can go. In Britain we have been spared the fate of becoming victims, fleeing persecution and war, losing everything we had to live in freezing, filthy, disease-ridden conditions. It is easy to feel complacent and confident that that won’t happen to us here. And maybe it won’t. But what I often wonder is how quickly any of us could become perpetrators. The jihadists have brought massacres of innocent people into our societies and the recent Charlie Hebdo incident in Paris has galvanized people into action and protest. It would be easy to point our fingers and blame the people we feel threatened by, just like ordinary Germans did in the 1930s (albeit largely due to the anti-Semitic propaganda). And I imagine that just like ordinary Germans  became capable of actions, or non-actions, that no one would have ever imagined, so could any of us. Give us a shortage of water, a shortage of food or fuel or wood or even just cut off the Internet or phone lines for a wee while! It wouldn’t take long…

I know it is important to remember but sometimes I ask myself why it is so important to “remember” something that was before our time. What are we remembering? On what level? And to what end? These are questions I am going to be asking throughout this year in monthly blogs and a programme of talks, art exhibitions, collaborations, writings and discussions. 2015 is the 70th anniversary of the end of WW2 and 10 years since I started my research into my German roots. And to mark the occasion I want to see what can help us truly learn the lessons of history, what can we ourselves do, to ensure that “Never again” really is never again.

 

Image 1: Gleis 17 / Platform 17, Grunewald Station, Berlin (1998)

Image 2: Memorial for the deported Jews of Berlin (1991) by Karol Broniatowski

Generation War: Our Mothers, Our Fathers. Does it go far enough?

ImagePeering into the crater of my own family history, Jüterbog 2008

 

I don’t imagine 7.6 million viewers are watching this series as in Germany last year, but judging by the reviews and conflicting opinions expressed in online discussions, it is nonetheless making waves. Many people find it “brilliant”, with its focus on the personal within the wider historical context (as in Downfall and The Lives of Others). Some find it ‘unlikely’, that the 5 main characters’ paths would cross “as if all of Eastern Europe were no bigger than a park in Berlin”[1] or that they would be so openly friendly with a Jew in 1941 Germany. And some criticize how the drama of the story lines are often cliché and distract from the bigger questions – all hazards of portraying historical characters through a contemporary medium.

The criticisms I find more poignant however, are those that question the very questions that are being asked? Or more importantly, being answered… or not. Obviously the series was primarily made for a German audience and Germans cannot look at Nazi Germany with the same objectivity and relieved detachment that we can. After all, as the (original) title suggests, these are their parents and grandparents that are being portrayed and scrutinised. Nonetheless, to me the series, for all its admirable and brave intentions, doesn’t go nearly far enough. It lacks the gritty, uncompromising realism that deeper research into one’s family involves. It felt to me, as someone who has dug around in the silences and gaps of my own German roots, too tentative, hesitant, careful and fearful.

Being half-German has naturally given me the luxury of being able to look more boldly and directly at the attitudes and actions of my German family in the knowledge that I can quickly retreat to being English if the going gets too rough. My German friends’ accounts of their families confirm what Harald Welzer’s research revealed in his widely read book “Grandpa wasn’t a Nazi” (Opa war kein Nazi, 2005) namely that 2/3 of Germans see their parents and grandparents as heroes, resistors or victims of National Socialism rather than perpetrators. Some may well have been but is it not strange that not one has admitted that they were part of the jubilant crowds lining the streets to wave at Hitler? (My mother remembers waving at Hitler as a young child but being far more concerned about her foot that was caught in an iron railing.) And is admitting that Hitler’s initial policies, which enabled them to put bread on the table for their children, have jobs, travel abroad again, tantamount to admitting to being a Nazi, something that Germans simply can’t risk? I just wonder who all those people were who consciously or inadvertently enabled Hitler’s vision to run its course? Where are they now? Ulrich Herbert, a German historian, also criticized the series for showing the Nazi’s as “others”, different from ordinary Germans, while a New York Times article accused it of “perpetuating the notion that ordinary Germans were duped by the Nazis and ignorant of the extent of their crimes”.

So to answer Sam Wollaston’s question in The Guardian as to “…how normal, clever, educated, likable people could somehow have become blinded by and swept up in such barbaric inhumanity?” I think we have to turn to ourselves. Personally I try to draw (impossible) comparisons to real or imagined moments in contemporary life where I may be faced with similar decisions to act or not act in the face of racism, abuse, violence, discrimination or political wrongdoing. To my bravery versus cowardice dilemma I add the fear of being denounced and taken away or shot. And then I try to ascertain what my immunity level would be to the propaganda that was pumped out at full throttle within a society devoid of today’s free press, BBC investigative journalism and internet forums… It’s a heady cocktail of unknowns and unimaginables but as my grandmother said in her memoirs – not everyone felt called to be a martyr. And with four children to feed you can begin to understand how “normal, clever, educated, likable people” could have walked past horrors in order to avoid putting their whole families in danger. The nuances within each person’s individual situation must have been infinite and yet… The character in the series that struck me as touching on the real core of the un-asked questions is the woman who is housed in the apartment of Victor’s parents after they have been taken away. In her 50-second appearance on screen, she complains how “they (the Jews) didn’t even clean the house, the dirty scum. Unbelievable!” She had clearly swallowed the Nazi ideology whole and believed it. Surely those are the people we need to fathom to fully answer our questions?

Christian Buss, a culture editor for the magazine Der Spiegel wrote in a review of the drama that while the question of Germans’ collective guilt had been resolved, the role of individuals remained unclear.”Who has had the conversation with their own parents and grandparents about the moral failings of their elders?” he wrote. “The history of the Third Reich has been examined down to the level of Hitler’s dog while our own family history is a deep dark crater.” I agree, and though one cannot resolve everything, I am glad that I have lowered myself into the crater and cast light on my family history so it is no longer a hole I fall into.

[1]Michael O’Sullivan, Washington Post

 

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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