angela findlay talks

Germany, remembrance and alternatives to punishment and shame

Category: Counter memorials

‘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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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.

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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.

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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 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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What makes us act, or not act, in a violent way?

In the first half of this month I had an experience that showed me first hand what lies behind so many acts of violence, malice, destruction and aggression. What drives a person to put a seductively dark thought into action? And what stops them from actually doing so?

I felt badly wronged by someone close to me; disrespected and unfairly treated. The innate need to right the wrong sent my mind into overdrive plotting delicious forms of revenge with the creativity (or should I say destructivity?) and imagination that goes into producing an artwork. By indulging my dark fantasies I could re-write the narrative allowing my character to emerge in tact instead of in tatters.

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Through the countless conversations I have had with convicted criminals I became aware that it is precisely this sense of having been disrespected – “dissed” – that leads to so many brutal crimes. In his insightful article Pride, Guilt and Shame based on his work with violent prisoners in Broadmoor, (http://internationalpsychoanalysis.net/wp-content/uploads/2009/02/shamegilligan.pdf) James Gilligan, the psychologist, identifies that it is the desire to restore “pride, dignity and self-esteem” that lies behind the often fatal outbursts. Among gangs, respect is key and disrespect can be fatal. The human need to re-establish respect comes often at any cost, no matter how inhuman the means. In 1920’s / 30’s Germany, after the humiliating terms of the Treaty of Versailles, the ground became fertile for a strong desire to restore face and respect with consequences more devastating than ever before.

In today’s digital world it would only have required one little tap of a finger for me to deliver a blow. I am lucky though. My upbringing and education equipped me with a moral compass, emotional literacy, self-discipline and a mind that can ‘understand’ or as they say in German, “verstehen”, a word which implies standing in the other person’s shoes. I am fortunate that I have access to infinite good examples of how to deal with (self-) destructive thoughts rather than exercise revenge.

So many people aren’t that fortunate. Their upbringing, religious convictions, lack of guidance or simply their experience of the world don’t equip them with what it takes to hold those thoughts in check. I believe that far behind the heinous acts that fill our newspapers actually lies a deeply hidden need to be understood, respected and seen; loved even. It’s so hard to do, but I know I want to try.

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

What relationship do we expect young Germans today to have to their country’s past?

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I was very interested in two of the questions I was asked in a recent talk to the sixth formers of a London boy’s school. Both were similar and in response to some statistics I showed about German students’ relationships to their country’s past. And both touched on one of my on-going questions in relation to young Germans today: Do we expect them to feel guilt and shame for what their great grandparents were caught up or directly involved in, or can they now be proud of their country and say with genuine conviction “It has nothing to do with me”?

The statistics from a Zeit Magazine survey of 14-19 year olds revealed, among other things, that:

80% believe remembrance of the Nazi times is important

67% believe it is their generation’s duty to make sure that Nazi Germany and the Holocaust aren’t forgotten

60% said they were ashamed of what Germans did in Nazi times

The questions I was then asked were about the other 20%, 33% and 40%. Why don’t they too feel shame, or responsibility? I was not surprised by these questions for I too had found myself asking what the remainder felt when I saw those statistics. But they confirm what I suspected. Not far from the surface of many / most (all?) people is an ongoing sense of incomprehension at what went on. How easy it is to think it couldn’t have happened here. And in precisely that efficient, methodical and organized form it probably couldn’t have. But that’s not the point here. I think what’s more revealing is an evident need or desire to see Germans continuing to feel a sense of shame in connection with their country’s and grandparents’ pasts, as if they are their own.

My own experiences both of being half-German and having years of experience working as an artist with the “guilty” in our prisons have given me a deeper understanding of the psychological effects of punitive attitudes with little emphasis on forgiveness or redemption. But there is a difference between guilt and shame. You are guilty for something you have done. You feel shame for something that you are.

So my question is: when does or can shame stop? And in the years ahead of focused World War I and II commemoration, remembrance and celebration, are we as a nation going to help the younger generations of German’s in a process of liberation from their heritage or are we going to make sure they are bound to it?

My answer to the boys was a question: what do they feel about the episodes in Britain’s past that their (great) grandparents were part of? Do they feel personally responsible and ashamed for what went on in Ireland? Or in colonial times? Are we erecting monuments to the victims of our war in Iraq? Do we personally feel shame and responsibility for any of the dark episodes of our country’s past that our grandparents were involved in? And, as adults, would we want our children to feel shame for things that collectively we have been part of?

I know what I feel, but I think the next few years are going to be fascinating.

What are we “remembering” on Remembrance Day?

I found it symbolically pleasing to be planting bulbs as yesterday’s two-minute silence hummed over the radio waves across the UK. Sitting in the quiet sunshine, I started to “remember”, only to immediately bump into the questions: what and who am I remembering? And to what end? After all I have no personal “memories” of the First and Second World Wars, nor even of Iraq or Afghanistan. Relatives yes, but in the World Wars they were on opposite sides.

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Bomber Harris Memorial, (1992) London

I thought back to the fascinating debate on Radio 4’s Moral Maze on Wednesday discussing this very topic in relation to the role of the poppy and what we are doing when we wear one… or don’t wear one? And immediately after, Four Thought on “How to remember”. They were asking whether we are remembering British victory? The horrors and gore of war? The “fallen heroes” and the sacrifices they made…? Is it even right to sanitise the often-horrendous way they died with the word “fallen” or would it be a more effective deterrent to future wars to think in terms of faces and limbs being blown off? And if deterrent to future wars is the aim of remembrance, can it be considered to be working if the government showed itself so ready to rush into another one earlier this year? So I’m wondering if memorials honoured with poppy wreaths provide today’s generations with a meaningful relationship to war, or are they, as certainly in my case, raising more unsettling questions than the silent remembrance they are possibly designed for?

The seconds are ticking and in my increasing panic to use the remainder of the two minutes well, my German half pipes up – possibly unhelpfully in this instance. I thought how not a single memorial was built to the German soldiers after the Second World War. Understandably perhaps, and yet looking back, weren’t most of them like professional soldiers the world over – duty-bound to fight and sacrifice their lives for their country? Instead of remembering their own, Germany was faced with huge questions of how to remember, and apologise to, the millions of victims of their Nazi regime. The resulting difference between British and German forms of commemoration is naturally huge. And fascinating.

ondisplayatstationaHorst Hoheisel: Denk-Stein-Sammlung / Thought Stones Collection (1988-95) Kassel Station                        in remembrance of Kassel’s vanished Jews.

Germany’s extensive memorial and counter memorial culture became less about remembering a nation’s brave armed forces by presenting them in bronze on raised plinths to be looked up to, and more about looking unflinchingly at the dark horrors of war and remembering all the victims, soldiers and widespread fallout that reaches far across the boundaries of national identities and “sides”. Their memorials are specifically designed to touch each individual deeply in their core as human beings, going beyond the difference-enhancing concept of nationality or the polarising perception of winners and losers. They are integrated into the cities and everyday lives of Germans as bleak, humbling and thought provoking triggers, reminding people, with or without personal memories, of the horrors of war while quietly affirming the very real commitment to it never happening again.

The two minutes are up, I continue planting bulbs accidentally digging up some of the ones I have just planted while  I still try to work out who and how to remember on this important day.

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