angela findlay talks

Germany, remembrance and alternatives to punishment and shame

Category: German Trauma

Daring to look your family’s past in the face

Last week a Chinese schoolboy approached me after my talk The other side: The Second World War through the eyes of an ordinary German family. Slightly trembling and in broken English he asked me if I had been frightened looking into my family’s past. In my talk I describe the journey I started 10 years ago, of peering deep into the darkest episode of modern history to discover what role my family, above all my German grandfather, a decorated Wehrmacht General, had played, or may have played. I knew the boy was asking this question for a personal reason, the shadows of his own family demons were almost visible, passing like clouds over his terrified face.

My grasp of Chinese history is woefully thin. I wracked my brains for atrocities or events that this boy’s family member(s) could have been involved in. Tiananmen Square in 1989 sprang to mind along with the general sense of horrors perpetrated by Chairman Mao’s regime. But actually it didn’t matter whether I knew the precise what, when, where and who of his story. What mattered was the impact it was having on his life.

It has happened before that my story has resonated with people of different nationalities. I have had a number of young German pupils as well as elderly men or women come up to me after my talks to shake my hand, and thank me. Sometimes the older people are in tears. It seems that in my story they recognize a story that is also theirs but which they themselves have not been able to tell. Recently I had a young Russian sixth former offer me an apology on behalf of her grandfather in return for the apology I had offered for mine. Hers had fought in the notoriously fierce battle for Berlin right at the end of WW2 in which the brutal rape of German girls and women from 8-80 years old had not only been commonplace but also positively encouraged. The girl who approached me knew her great grandfather had been part of this and, though she was born 50+ years later, she wanted to say sorry to me.Allemagne, Berlin. 2 mai 1945. Le drapeau rouge flotte sur les to”ts du Reichstag

I was born 20 years after the end of the war and, similarly, my grandfather had been part of Hitler’s massive invasion that swept through her grandparent’s land killing tens of millions of Russians. I too had needed to say sorry for that. So here we all are, the third and fourth post-war generations all with something in common: a shared sense of guilt and shame and a need or desire to apologise… for something we didn’t do.

main_1200It’s so strange, that people who have genuinely committed horrendous deeds can often feel no guilt or shame, but rather justification, as so many Nazis did. And people who have done nothing wrong – rape victims, survivors, children – can feel guilt and shame for their mere association with bad deeds, even if they happened long before they were born. For the latter, once identified, the sense of guilt can generally be more easily dispelled with facts. As Brené Brown brilliantly defines in her inspiring Ted Talk Listening to Shame https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=psN1DORYYV0 the difference between guilt and shame is that guilt is for something you have done. Shame, however, is for who you are. And that’s what makes it a lot harder to shift. Shame is a widespread and international epidemic. It can be a debilitating state of low self-esteem, isolation, disconnection, violence or self-harm, depression, fear of being vulnerable and showing yourself, of excelling or even of feeling worthy of love, joy and the good things in life. But there are ways through it.

And so I found myself reassuring the frightened Chinese boy at my side, that whatever his family member had done, he himself was not guilty. He had not done it. What he might feel, however, is shame. And of course fear. I certainly had felt fear of what I might discover but I now know that the very first step towards shedding the shame is to overcome that fear and to look the deeds of the relatives and forefathers in the face.

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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.

Left right, left right, left right…

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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?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

“Tell your story… until your past stops tearing you apart”

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Tell your story.
Let it nourish you, sustain you and claim you.
Tell your story.
Let it feed you, heal you and release you.
Tell your story.
Let it twist and re-mix your shadowed heart.
Tell your story,
Until your past stops tearing your present apart.

I heard the above words recently on Radio 4’s Spoken Word programme “Writing a new South Africa”. You can hear it here at 14.38 minutes: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b053bsfm
Spoken aloud, with all the power of someone who knows the potency of the words, it struck me that this is precisely what I have been doing in the past years.

I know I bang on about Germany; about WW2; about Remembrance and Commemoration. And over the next months, particularly from 8th May, the 70th Anniversary of the official ending of WW2, until 11th November, the UK’s Remembrance Day, I will be talking even more than ever about these things. Why? Because they are all part of my story. And I will be telling it through a series of talks and lectures, blogs, discussions, conversations and an exhibition all under the loose title: The Other Side.

The story I will be telling is based on my family’s story, but I am just one voice of millions who have similar stories that haven’t been told. All of them are intrinsically linked to the huge events of 1930’s and 40’s Germany, the main facts of which are largely known. But not all the facts are acknowledged in the UK, for they could interrupt the smoother narrative we prefer to pass on to our children and threaten the clean cut position we cherish as the benevolent victors over evil.

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It took a long time to excavate the story of my German roots from beneath the collective silence under which it, and so many other German or European stories like it, have been buried. Now brought into the light of day I can see clearly how stories that remain unearthed, untold, “tear your present apart”.

If you want to hear the story I have to tell, follow this blog or follow me on Facebook and Twitter @angelas_talks or keep an eye on my website http://www.angelafindlaytalks.com for news of talks near you.

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.

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.

Bomber Harris memorial

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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