angela findlay talks

Germany, remembrance and alternatives to punishment and shame

Category: Germany

‘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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Brötchen and Brexit

Just back from a trip to visit family and friends in Hamburg and Cologne. Whenever I am in Germany, I find myself indulging in the familiar, yet distinctly different, smells and tastes of fresh brötchen and good coffee; my body relaxes into the warmth of the modern apartments while my mind clicks into a different gear, re-structuring sentences and dusting down long-unused words and concepts that don’t exist in English. It’s a funny kind of home-coming feeling, away from home.

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I was, of course, asked about Brexit. It has dwindled in significance since the German elections, for Angela Merkel’s ensuing demise has given Germany a headache of its own. It felt strange being in a Germany that is punishing her for her open-arm policy to refugees. ‘Mutti’ has, after all, been such a solid rock and island of hope to us all in the choppy European waters. Nonetheless, the people I met – from bank managers to former colleagues and elderly relatives – all wondered how Brexit was going to work. “I don’t know, I can’t see it yet,” I’d say, trying not to be disloyal to the choices made by the ‘British people’. “The country is very divided on almost every issue involved,” I’d continue, and then change the subject. The impending split always pushes me into a bit of a national vacuum.

Nobody I talked to criticised or blamed anybody. Yet, viewed from the continent, Britain’s political forward stumblings look embarrassingly like insular self-centeredness. We are causing considerable upheaval and uncertainty on many layers of EU society and people would be in their full rights to be pissed off with us. But no, the overriding sentiment conveyed was sadness. The kind of sadness expressed recently on Radio 4 by the Swedish minister who is losing a valued negotiating ally at the EU table. The kind of sadness felt by team members when one of them leaves; or the sadness of losing a good friend who is relocating to another town or country. It’s personal.

We have so many friends in Europe, so many people who like and value us. I really hope, within the on-going discourse of “what’s best for Britain”, there will also be a big space for thoughts on what might make our departure from the EU easier and less sad for our friends.

From Battenberg to Mountbatten in one slice of cake

I’m finally watching the Netflix series ‘The Crown’ and what an education it is! Not only in the structures behind our most British of establishments, the Monarchy, but also in the innate internationalism that lies within it. With shameful ignorance, I keep pressing ‘pause’ to ask: so whose surname is Windsor – it seems to have been pulled out of a hat? And who were the Mountbattens? Within the claustrophobically rigid regulations of the Royal Family, normality gets turned on its head, almost made up as you go along: traditional gender divisions, nationality, even the very concept of British-ness. Ironically the Queen inadvertently championed the then radical feminist issue of not only being allowed, but obliged, to keep her maiden name (Windsor) rather than adopting her husband’s family name (Mountbatten).

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The hidden German lurking within the very concepts that some would consider archetypal English, (if there is even such a thing anymore) fascinates me. I love how German traditions and ideas have increasingly been adopted and integrated into English ones, above all around Christmas: Stollen, candles on trees, Advent Crowns. Before World War One, the overt marriage of the two countries was not considered remotely problematic. It was desired and encouraged. All that changed, however, when the Germans became our enemy.

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Watching ‘The Crown’ I’m reminded of the origins of the Mountbatten surname, Prince Philip’s surname, which we don’t hear all that often. I discovered it several years ago and made artworks around it, so forgive me if you know the story already. Mountbatten sounds so English and yet is pure German and its origins can loosely be summed up in two words: Battenberg Cake.

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As a cake, it is about as quintessentially English as you can get, if only for the fact that no other country would make such a basically revolting looking (and tasting?) piece of patisserie, least of all Germany, whose bakeries are mouth-watering affairs of visual and gustatory delights.

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‘Mountbatten’ was introduced into the Royal Family when Prince Louis von Battenberg married Queen Victoria’s granddaughter. Louis was both a German Prince and a British Naval Officer who was appointed First Sea Lord, the professional head of the British naval service, in 1912. The pink and yellow with marzipan derives from their wedding cake.

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However… when the First World War broke out in 1914, Louis was forced into retirement. And after the sinking of the ocean liner Lusitania by the German U-boats, anti-German sentiments escalated until it was considered more than un-cool having a German in the Royal Family. And so, Louis von Battenberg’s name was changed, from Batten Mountain (Berg is German for mountain) to Mountbatten. Neat eh!

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Anyway, Happy New Year and may 2018 be a healthy, gentle and fulfilling year. And thank you to all of you who have been reading my blog. Whether I know you or not, I really appreciate it.

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