angela findlay talks

Germany, remembrance and alternatives to punishment and shame

Category: Commemoration

100 years on – remembering to learn the lessons of history

It’s the eleventh of the eleventh, one hundred years on from the day when three signatures scribbled urgently on a piece of paper in a train carriage in France, finally brought the horrors of the First World War to an end.

Screen Shot 2018-11-11 at 17.20.16.pngGerman president, Frank-Walter Steinmeier laying a wreath at the Cenotaph

Our Armistice Day Remembrance culture has, at times, been guilty of displaying the triumphant undertones of the victor’s perspective, of sanitising or glorifying war, or of failing to acknowledge our victims. Today, however, a subtle change of tone could be detected as the German President, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, became the first German leader to take part in our national service, placing a wreath at the foot of the Cenotaph after Prince Charles. It was a powerful gesture of reconciliation, a handshake inconceivable even a few years ago. May we continue in that direction.

IMG_6270.jpg

Wanting to find a way to ‘remember’ in a personal, rather than a poppy-orientated, ceremonial way, we headed to Weston-super-Mare… I know, fish & chips and hellish amusement arcades are an unlikely setting for commemoration. But Danny Boyle’s Pages of the Sea project was transforming beaches all over the country into altars of personal and collective remembrance. Director of the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympic Games, Boyle’s concept was simple, but beautifully symbolic: Artists at each location would etch a portrait of an individual from WW1 into the sand, to be washed away by the incoming tide.

IMG_6217.jpgIMG_6218.jpg                                                    Pages of the Sea, Weston-super-Mare

As streaming sunshine replaced the forecasted rain, people created stencilled silhouettes of soldiers into the wet sand.

IMG_6210.jpgIMG_6229.jpg

Standing under the rusty underbelly of the pier, a lone trumpeter played familiar tunes from the times and a dance performance presented the sacrifices made by women who lost their men.

IMG_6242.jpg

There were readings, songs and a washing line of fluttering personal tributes. I hung my own, to my Great, possibly Great Great Uncle, Captain the Hon Gerald Legge. I had found an account of his death in a book by the author J. G. Millais:

“Poor Gerald was killed in Gallipoli in August 1915 whilst bravely leading his men into action… He was last seen mortally wounded on the ground and cheering on the men of whom he was so proud.”

IMG_6268.jpg

When the festivities were over and people dissipated – the incoming tide still far away – a lone grenadier guard, complete with bearskin, made his way to the now finished sand portrait. Ducking under the cordon, he placed himself at the top of the head and silently saluted. Moving to one corner, he saluted again. A serious, intensive salute to an invisible audience. Nobody was really watching except us. He was lost in his own private world as he moved on to another corner to stand in heartfelt salute a final time before making his way back up the beach.

IMG_6281.jpg

It felt like a profound goodbye; closure on 100 years of remembering. From now on, may we not forget those who made the ultimate sacrifice, but focus our attention on learning from their words that “war is hell,” that “everything should be done to avoid war” and that “war isn’t worth one life.”

 

The Wound in Time

by Carol Ann Duffy, 2018

It is the wound in Time. The century’s tides,

chanting their bitter psalms, cannot heal it.

Not the war to end all wars; death’s birthing place;

the earth nursing its ticking metal eggs, hatching

new carnage. But how could you know, brave

as belief as you boarded the boats, singing?

The end of God in the poisonous, shrapneled air.

Poetry gargling it own blood. We sense it was love

you gave your world for; the town squares silent,

awaiting their cenotaphs. What happened next?

War. And after that? War. And now? War. War.

History might as well be water, chastising this shore;

For we learn nothing from your endless sacrifice.

Your faces drowning in the pages of the sea.

 

 

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.”

 

 

What if, just ‘what if’, death isn’t quite the full stop many think it is…?

The end of October / beginning of November is traditionally the time of year when people from all different cultures think of, and remember, the dead. For Pagans it is Samhain; for Christians, All Souls; for Mexicans, the Day of the Dead. It was / is believed that the veils between the living and the dead become thinnest now, allowing people to gain access to their dead loved ones. In modern, western, secular societies, it generally morphs into a black and orange bonanza of carved pumpkins and ghouls, a commercial excuse for a bright explosion of fireworks and increasingly terrifying costumes.

Death, in our culture, is widely seen as a negative; the Grim Reaper to be feared or fought. Or it is an ending to be deferred, as long as possible, at whatever cost. It is the opposite of birth, and not to be celebrated as a portal between what we call ‘life’ and a different form of life beyond. For so many people, it is just one final curtain fall, an over and out… THE END.

Image0351.jpg

Of course none of us know though! The most inevitable aspect of life is also the least knowable… such a wonderful design. However, I believe we are missing out on a hugely important level to life by relegating death to the role of a big full stop.

Over the last 14 years I have been developing an extraordinary relationship with my dead German grandfather with whom I shared just 8 days on this earth. He died on 1st November 1964, a week after I was born, and yet, even as a dead man, he had a profound impact on my life. Some people might find that strange, a form of looking backwards, as if moving through life can only be a linear, forward motion. As a society we are obsessed with moving onwards, growing up, progressing, getting bigger, better, more than we already are. But a long time ago, I was forced to stop in my tracks and look back at whatever it was that was pulling the strings of my actions and emotions like a puppet. I’m now so glad I did.

IMG_1516.jpg

For as long as my grandfather remained just ‘dead’, an unknown presence lurking in the dark recesses of my unconscious, he was a heavy, detrimental force. Today psychologists have names for this kind of phenomenon: post memory, transgenerational transmission – even geneticists have ‘epigenetics’, a kind of baton-passing on the level of our genes. The moment, however, I started to pay my grandfather some attention, he transformed into a dynamic energy with limbs that liberated rather than bound me.

IMG_2823.jpg    Bologna memorial monument to the WWII anti-fascist resistance partisans martyrs on the wall of Sala Borsa in Piazza del Nettuno

Being who he was, a Wehrmacht General in WWII, did not made this relationship-forming always an easy or comfortable process. But attention is like love. It heals. By giving attention to the dead, maybe particularly those who were locked in shame, tragedy or suffering, by continuing to interact with and include them in life, something beautiful happens. Maybe, just maybe, the dead still need us in some way. Maybe we can finish off or redress or apologise for what they couldn’t. Maybe when we are dead, we would like someone to do something for us too. We can’t, after all, know for sure that death really is the end…

I don’t wear a red poppy, not deliberately to make a point, nor out of disrespect – it just isn’t the symbol that captures enough of what, how and to what end I want remember.

3000

It is Remembrance season and once again I find myself feeling slightly uncomfortable, a bit pedantic, no doubt irritating and at worst offensively unpatriotic. And yet Remembrance is one of my favourite themes and both my grandfathers fought in the World Wars. So why can’t I jump whole-heartedly into the seas of poppies and poppy wearers, dignitaries and wreaths, that stream through our streets to lap up against memorials and into churches each November? Of course I want to ‘remember’ and acknowledge all the soldiers who died or were wounded serving their country, but discordant questions waft like dried leaves or ghosts through the architecture of British Remembrance rituals. So once again I ask myself and all of us collectively: what exactly are we remembering, and to what end? Remembrance is by nature vital, solemn, beautiful, meaningful… in many ways we do it so well. But beneath the tradition, ceremony and ritual conveyed through a distinctly military visual language, the message has also, in today’s world, become slightly flawed, inadequate and at times hypocritical.

bccdf793-ea06-4981-bb7f-7fb1f0742389-2060x1236

First we have the red poppy, the symbol of commemoration of military personnel who have died in war. They are sold by the Royal British Legion, a charity providing financial, social, political and emotional support to those who have served or are currently serving and their dependants – there is no question, it is a truly worthy movement of support. But it inspires the question: why is it even necessary? Why are these people, sent by their governments to fight wars not of their making, not wholly supported and cared for on their return by those same governments? Should that not be a self-evident part of the contract they enter into?

Then there’s the ‘To wear or not to wear a poppy?’ question, that rages on each year. Except at times it doesn’t feel like a question but an order; “Poppy Fascism” as some have named it, with people being publically chastised and shamed for not wearing a red poppy. This year it was Jeremy Corbyn, a long-sworn pacifist first. Then more recently Sienna Miller, the actress branded as ‘disrespectful’ in a Twitter storm for not wearing a poppy in televised interviews about her forthcoming film. (The fact that the pin was tearing at her silk dress and removed seconds before she went on air was deemed irrelevant.) Sir Gerald Howarth, a former Conservative defence minister, declared “There should be no excuse for not wearing one so we can honour the war dead.” Is he saying that a poppy is an essential prerequisite to honouring the war dead when for some it is a more personal, complex and inner process? Do we really need a badge that declares we are doing it in the ‘right’ way?

poppy-cameron-corb_3495011b

And now today’s papers are filled with criticism of a distinctly compliant poppy-wearing Corbyn for not having bowed deep enough when he laid his red wreath. And equally for his hand-written message in which he said: “In memory of the fallen in all wars. Let us resolve to create a world of peace.” Sir Gerald clearly had more to say and declared that Mr Corbyn needed to “observe the formalities which all of us subscribe to. It is nothing to do with whether you agree with a particular campaign or not… The Leader of the Opposition needs to understand that you cannot compromise on respect for our fallen, because it is those of our country who have put their lives on the line in two World Wars, who safeguarded for us the freedom to speak our minds today.”

Ok, let’s just look at those words more closely. According to Sir Gerald, a representative of the official voice on the subject of Remembrance, “all of us subscribe” to the formalities. Do we? Should we? Do some simply not think about it while others feel coerced to toe the official line? And is being resolved to create a world of peace really “compromising on respect for our fallen”? And hang on, that world “fallen” grates too in its glaring understatement of the reality. Soldiers don’t usually just trip over and “fall”, they are shot or blown to pieces; many will have died in agony, alone, frightened, slowly. You can’t say that of course, but is overtly not wanting that to happen to more people in the future so wrong? And did “they” put their lives on the line or did it have something to do with the politics of the governments that sent them? And then the real whoppa – they were apparently dying in order to safeguard the “freedom to speak our minds today”. I’m sure they were but can Sir Gerald really not spot the flaw in what he is saying, the sheer hypocrisy of it? Here is a man, Corbyn – and I am not a full-blown supporter of him before I’m written off by his critics simply for being that – who is trying to speak his mind and yet is being shamed and publically shouted down and told he absolutely shouldn’t speak his mind at the one event of the year when huge amounts of people are thinking and talking about some of the most vital questions that face us as human beings: War and Peace; Life and Death. Love.

581379debb14c70f5bdfef612e2232fa(1)

As wars continue, with horrific frequency and Britain continues to display an unusual appetite to pursue them, could it be that the words “Lest we forget” urgently need to take on a broader meaning? In his book Empires of the Dead, David Crane describes how post-1917 “a picture of ordered sanity” was created out of “the psychic and physical mangling of a whole generation”. Some of this lingers on today. Could it be that Corbyn represents a more contemporary voice that wants to include more conspicuously in our rituals of Remembrance, the insane but usually un-spoken fall-out of war, namely the victims. War is not just about soldiers bravely fighting and dying for their country. There are always innocent victims. Thousands and millions of them: women, children, elderly, vulnerable and displaced people. There are animals, cultural artifacts, homes, cities and the countryside all destroyed by war. And peoples’ souls, hearts and lives are broken and made frail from fear and trauma. The list goes on, as do the effects…

Harry Patch, the 111-year-old veteran who came to be a symbol of Remembrance Day himself, conveyed the message: “It wasn’t worth it. No war is worth it. No war is worth the loss of a couple of lives let alone thousands…” I would wear a red poppy, ten red poppies, if I felt that was the underlying message in the forefront of our attitudes AND policies towards war. Or should I say, PEACE.

Left right, left right, left right…

IMG_5425

I am on a very long walk – 600km so far – and as my legs go through the motions of left right, left right, left right I find myself thinking about my German grandfather going through the same physical motions as he marched into Russia with his Wehrmacht troops in 1941. I am walking West across the north of Spain on a pilgrimage to the spiritual destination of Santiago de Compostela. He was marching East across Russia to capture the strategically important destination of Moscow.

Heeresfilmstelle, Bildarchiv Gebirgs-J‰ger gehen im Morgengrauen ¸ber die deutsch-russische Interessengrenze. 8./Geb.Jg.Regt.99 Aufnahme am: 22.6.41 Ort: 2km. westl. Zabiala, Abschnitt Lemberg, Land: Russland Bildberichter: Kˆnig

This is the closest I have come to understanding not only the distances he covered but the physicality of walking and the mindset of reaching a pre-set destination. As I walk past fellow pilgrims the similarities to soldiers are not lost on me. The array of limps and leg bandages; the heavy packs carrying all the essential worldly possessions; the determination to keep going. Left right, left right – the action becomes mechanical, rhythmical, beautiful even. The earth is below, the sky is above and we walk between them, the connectors, tiny but upright, our two-legged movement being one of the distinguishing factors that make us human beings. My focus is more on the symbolic sky – exploring or even experiencing the heaven of religious teachings, learning how to love and be on this earth in a better way. My grandfather’s aim was victory, to conquer land, gain ‘Lebensraum’ for the German ‘Volk’. He marched through dust, snow and mud. I walk through space and sunlight. He was met by tanks, gunfire and death. I am met by smiles, encouragement and life. He had to kill and win. I just have to walk and surrender myself.

Left right, left right, left right – we all do it. We travel through our lives.  But what is our intention? And what is our chosen destination?

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

queen-belsen-wreat_3355422k

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.

QUEEN_GERMANY_Quee_3352168k

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.


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.

ve460_1631804c

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.

‘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.

25A64E0500000578-2952892-Solidarity_10_000_people_joined_hands_to_form_a_giant_human_chai-a-9_1423864324864

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.

bombed

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

Holocaust Memorial Day, 27th January 2015

 

IMG_3702

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.

IMG_3722

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

Remembrance Sunday: “David Cameron was close to tears and bit his lip…” For goodness sake, that sounds like something out of Fifty Shades of Grey.

It’s 11am on 11.11.14 and that makes it time to write down my thoughts and reflections on what has been going on recently in terms of Remembrance.

Watching the Albert Hall Festival of Remembrance on Saturday night, I was struck once again by how well we British do pomp, symbolism and ceremony. It was truly powerful and with its combination of stirring music, potent narrative, and visual spectacle it has become an art form. Developed and refined over decades, it is designed to move you. And these days, I am quite sure, to make you cry.

Which is why I came away once again feeling slightly irritated by it. Irritated by the format that we are used to seeing  in the films of Spielberg and other directors of sentimental, patriotic films, designed to manipulate your heart strings and tear ducts  Nothing necessarily wrong with that, except that we seem to be living in a era where showing emotions, and watching other people showing their emotions in order to make us show our emotions, is not only de rigueur but essential to good viewing. It’s actually quite a feat to succeed at making such grandiosity sentimental. I don’t want to knock it as the sentiments definitely have their place. And there were many, many genuinely moving bits. Personally the inclusion of the young German boy praying in German for reconciliation and peace was the brave, albeit blink-and-you-miss-it, touch that I so long to see more of.

Screen Shot 2014-11-11 at 14.23.25

Screen Shot 2014-11-11 at 14.36.17

Screen Shot 2014-11-11 at 14.27.53

But once again I have to ask, what are we being asked to do? On the one hand we are remembering (though most generations now can’t “remember” they can only imagine) and honouring those who died; those who gave their lives “in the ultimate sacrifice”. And of course that is crucial, “lest we forget”. But, in order for those men and women not to have died in vain, isn’t it of equal importance that we remember, with as visceral an experience, the true horrors of war? I’m not suggesting that there should have been dismembered limbs and shrapnel raining down on the audience instead of poppy petals, but by beautifying the ceremony to the extent it was, are we not being lulled into continuing the belief that war is all about honour, patriotism and other such lofty values?

I am wondering if some of the language we use hasn’t become outmoded to the point of being sloppy, ambiguous and actually not true. Doesn’t “The Great War” for example still smack a little of triumphalism? And if World War I really had been “the war to end all wars” there wouldn’t have been a Second World War, nor would our politicians be quite so gung-ho about entering into current war situations.

And talking of politicians, there was one bit of BBC commentary (and I usually love the BBC) where the commentator revealed that: “David Cameron was close to tears and bit his lip”. For goodness sake, that sounds like something out of Fifty Shades of Grey. I mean really, of what interest or relevance is that to the event? Why does his political position have anything at all to do with our personal or collective processes of remembering? (Unless it had been a demonstration of remorse and humility by Tony Blair of course.)

OK, I know I am biased. I study, write and lecture about the German process of remembrance and how different it is in form and effect from the British process. Their constant and overt references to their own aggression, destructivity and shame have made them into a nation of active pacifists. I accept that one could dismiss this difference as being purely due to them being the ‘losers’ and us the ‘winners’. But I don’t believe that is the point. Can we really talk about winners and losers in relation to WWI when more than 16 million are dead? Does the presence of poppies everywhere (oh no, I have stumbled into the contentious domain of poppies) really do the job well enough? Poppies were and are a great national symbol, but they seem to have gained such momentum and significance that they actually might be preventing us subsequent generations not only from grasping the horrors of all warfare but also from acting in ways that will ensure that it really doesn’t happen again. It is all too easy to substitute deep and effective contemplation with a poppy.

IMG_3127

That said, like most people I too love the ceramic poppy field at the Tower of London, an immersive and beautiful spectacle. But its disappearance is critical to the concept and its success as a memorial. The fact that Boris Johnson and The Evening Standard successfully campaigned to have its presence extended and preserved is missing the point and robbing it – and the people – of its potency. Those 888, 246 service men who died didn’t have that chance to extend their lives for even a second. Missing the poppies, losing the poppies, confirming the poppies to memory, those are the kinds of experiences that will teach us to love and treasure what we have, to act on opportunities while they are there and to preserve the memories in our own hearts “Lest we forget”.

%d bloggers like this: