angela findlay talks

Germany, remembrance and alternatives to punishment and shame

Category: history

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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

 

 

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War… what is it good for? (Absolutely nothing?)

Over the past 4 weeks, I have been listening to this year’s Reith Lectures “The Mark of Cain” by historian Professor Margaret MacMillan. They are all about war and they are brilliant. Personally, as someone who is equally comfortable / uncomfortable with creativity and destructivity, I find the questions she is exploring absolutely fundamental to what it is to be human.

To briefly summarise:

In her first lecture, Margaret MacMillan asks if war is an essential part of being human. Are we destined to fight? In her second lecture, she explores the role of the warrior in history and culture and asks why both men and women go to war. In the third lecture, she discusses the relationship between war and the civilian and the impact of conflict on noncombatants. And in her fourth lecture she assesses how law and international agreements have attempted to “manage” war. There is a fifth still to come, on war and art.

All of what she says is fascinating, but for me there are a few key points she makes that are vital if we want to understand war. And, as she herself emphasises, we have to understand war if we want to stand a chance of containing it or even preventing it.

The first point in her own words: “We like to think of war as an aberration, as the breakdown of the normal state of peace. This is comforting but wrong. War is deeply woven into the history of human society. Wherever we look in the past, no matter where or how far back we go, groups of people have organised themselves to protect their own territory or ways of life and, often, to attack those of others. Over the centuries we have deplored the results and struggled to tame war, even abolish it, while we have also venerated the warrior and talked of the nobility and grandeur of war. We all, as human beings, have something to say about war.”

It is true. Just as night and day, life and death are integral components of the whole human experience, so are war and peace. Destruction is a necessary part of the process of creation and creativity, aesthetics, design are part of the theatre of destruction. War and peace are intrinsically related and bound to each other.

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The second point she makes is: “We are both fascinated and repulsed by war and those who fight.” This is exactly what I have found while researching and writing my book about my German soldier grandfather. I have felt almost guilty for feeling both those things, and more. War is utterly repulsive, devastating, appalling but it is also exciting, glamorous, awe-inspiring. There is exhilaration in destruction as well as opportunities to reach new heights of bravery, comradeship, adventure, honour, compassion. It is the intensity of living in life/death situations that many people yearn for in times of peace.

A third point is that war also can bring about advances in and benefits to a society. Social change, like women getting the vote having proved their capabilities at filling the male roles left vacant when the men went away to fight; or divides between the very rich and poorest of society being reduced; or the establishment of organisations such as United Nations. Wars often make old structures crumble and corrupt leaders topple. Would total pacifism allow these necessary ruptures in society and their ensuing benefits to happen?

War is usually justified by those who start it. It is “the application of organised violence to gain ends and get others to do what you want” (MacMillan). Machiavelli said “War is just when it is necessary”. Aristotle wrote that the aim of war should be peace. There used to be rules that set bounds on how wars were to be fought: organised truces, the ring fencing of those who were not to be attacked or killed, rules about surrender or the treatment of POWs. But… war, by nature, gets out of control. And now, more than ever, it targets civilians.

It was Sir Arthur (“Bomber”) Harris who declared in the 1940s, “The aim of our bombing is not to knock out specific factories. The aim is the destruction of the German citizen, the killing of German workers and the disruption of civilized community life throughout Germany.” Just as the rape of the enemy’s women has been seen as a legitimate reward for soldiers, in total war it becomes legitimate to attack civilians.

Modern developments on so many levels are resulting in wars across the world becoming increasingly out of control and deadly. To me, full-blown pacifism now feels inadequate and out of reach as an immediate solution. And yet striving for peace has to be the way forward. But how? I think my basic approach is largely in line with Professor MacMillan’s when she says that we have to understand ‘the others’ as well as ourselves. We need to recognise that people on ‘the other side’ also suffer. We need to see each other as humans.

 

Am I the only person who found ‘Darkest Hour’ slightly tedious?

Darkest Hour’s depiction of Churchill in May 1940 is getting standing ovations in cinemas across Britain and America. It will no doubt sweep a mantleshelf of awards into its lap too. Am I the only audience member who was a little bored and slightly sickened by it?

Yes of course, Gary Oldman is truly great as the blatantly alcoholic, often fowl-mouthed, war-mongering Churchill, and the film is beautifully shot and directed etc. etc. And of course winning the war and defeating Hitler was a good and essential thing, something to be celebrated. BUT this black and white, reductionist, at times sentimental, ‘Hero beats Villain’ narrative has now been re-hashed ad nauseam.

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Can the British not come up with a more original, nuanced take on the World War Two story? Can it just for once include some of the more uncomfortable truths about Britain’s role? Like Churchill’s refusal to send aid to the people of Bengal in 1943, leaving them to starve? Like Britain’s own prevailing anti-Semitic attitudes? Like the behaviour of some of the allied soldiers who felt justified in raping, looting and intimidating civilians? If we are going to have another film about Churchill, couldn’t it focus on the 1945 allied policy of the Potsdam Treaty to transfer / expel all German-speaking populations remaining in Poland, Hungary, Romania, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia, many of whom had lived there for hundreds of years, to the now 25% reduced German territory. “A clean sweep will be made,” said our hero Churchill about the idea. Later, with 14 million German women, children and elderly on the move, freezing or starving to death or being murdered or raped, he came to call the mass expulsion a “tragedy on a prodigious scale.”

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Other European countries are turning the events of World War Two over and over in their minds, inspecting them from infinite, non-nationalistic angles. Look at the harrowing 2015 Danish-German movie ‘Land of Mine’ about the teenage German soldiers, forced to clear the minefields along the Danish coast after the end of the war. Neither side comes out well. It’s not about the winners and the losers, the heros and the villains, it’s about the moral, practical dilemmas faced by all individuals of those times; about the tragedy and fall out of war; about the hero and villain within each and every one of us.

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I am sure I am not the only one who is genuinely bored of seeing and hearing privileged, white, often elderly men in positions of power leading their countries into war and destruction or greed-driven bankruptcy? So, instead of harking back to a victory that is over 70 years old; instead of whipping up audiences into nostalgic frenzy and feeding their desperate hunger for strong leadership and Britain to be “great” again; instead of white-washing our own failings and mistakes, why not focus on things that genuinely would make Britain great again… today?

Can we not, for example, become world leaders in a speedy banishment of damaging plastic products and thereby become great for our forward-looking contribution to saving the planet? Can we not address the devastating inequality of our education system and become great by creating a system that is truly beneficial for all the various needs of young people? Can we not address the inhumane conditions in which we hold prisoners, guilty or not, and become great for our mature, preventative and rehabilitative approach to those disadvantaged by violent upbringings or lack of positive guidance? Can we not be great for our fair, affordable, punctual, green and efficient housing policies or transport systems? The list is endless…

Darkest Hour looks back wistfully to a national hero who, yes, was great at the time in leading the country to victory. But he was not just hero and Britain was not just heroic. Whole nations never are just one thing. There are always nuances, endless shades of grey and it is time that we, as a nation of brilliant minds and hearts, stop wheeling out the old favourite national narratives like we wheel out the old war veterans every November, ignoring their wobbly voices pleading “None of it was worth even a single life”.

For as long as we give our war heroes standing ovations, we will be able to justify war. For as long as we project our own national villain onto others we will be stuck in a binary discussion of Me = goody, hero; Them = baddy, lesser, monster, threat, enemy… we know where that leads. To me, Britain will be really great when our leaders, policies and ceremonies acknowledge the full and wider impact of war and suffering and demonstrate that they genuinely want to avoid it.

Standing in their footprints…

What is it that makes standing in the exact location of something historical, momentous or simply in the footprints of someone famous, so thrilling? Or horrifying? On Tuesday I was standing on a stage in the beautiful east coastal town of Aldeburgh ready to give one of my talks on Germany’s WW2 memorial culture when someone said, “You’re standing exactly where Bill Nighy stood last night”. It was tiny but there it was, a subtle tingle, a flutter of excitement. I like Bill Nighy and I liked knowing that I was so hot on his heels, talking in a venue in which he too had talked. But what’s really happening, what are our bodies or minds reacting to when we are in the presence even of such tenuous claims to fame or significance?

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This visceral reaction to places or objects that are linked to certain people or events has always fascinated me. The idea that the physical world can hold the memory of something or someone is not new. It is what lies behind the religious culture of relics and its modern day equivalence seen in the inflated profits that arise at auctions of Margaret Thatcher’s handbag or Princess Diana’s Versace dress. Holding my deceased father’s hairbrush is for me a way of feeling him close. People just do feel more strongly connected to other people via “things” or places.

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Three weeks ago I was in Munich, both to visit friends and cousins and to do research for my book about the long shadows of WW2. There is probably no other city in Germany in which visitors can bump so casually and frequently into the hefty pillars that supported the rise of Nazism. On a two-hour walking tour we visited the beer hall, scene of the famous 1923 Beer Hall Putsch; the site of the ‘Brown House’, now destroyed but then headquarters of the NSDAP (National Socialist German Worker’s Party); the Gestapo Headquarters; the Führerbau, now a Music School, where the 1938 Munich Treaty was signed by Western leaders in a hopeful attempt to halt Hitler in his tracks. And just outside the city, is Dachau, the first Nazi concentration camp, site of infinite suffering, cruelty and death and home to the infamous sign Arbeit macht frei (Work sets you free).

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With my now well-trained imagination, I find it easy to superimpose the black and white photographs of the 1930s and 40s onto the vibrant, colourful scenes of contemporary Munich and bring them to life. The cobbled streets and stone walls of the massive buildings seem to whisper me some of their memories. I can ‘hear’ the synchronized march of Nazi boots, the cheers of jubilant crowds that once filled the vast squares. I can ‘see’ the bombed devastation behind the renovated facades. Nothing, however, prepared me for Nuremberg.

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It’s a medieval town, home to Albrecht Dürer, Kaspar Hauser… and the Nuremberg Rallies of 1923-38. I visited the Rally grounds with the now almost obligatory Information Centre, one of hundreds around the country casting an unflinching gaze on every aspect of Germany’s Nazi past. I walked past the unfinished Congress Hall where a young couple was posing in full wedding attire for a camera.

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I walked around the edges of the Zepplin Grandstand with its countless entrances enabling people to stream in with the greatest ease and fill it to maximum capacity. I walked along the now overgrown rows of stone seats that had once looked out onto the spectacle…

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and then onto the small platform from which Hitler had addressed the people.

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The scale of the place, the vastness of the now empty space bar a few parked lorries, it was nothing less than completely horrifying. I felt terror fill my body. I felt sick. I hurt from the ache of pure dread. Never have I stood in such a powerful place, the exact place from which Hitler had fired his deadliest poison arrows into the minds and hearts of ordinary Germans.

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The air echoed with his evil words disguised as virtue and full of empty promise; the space filled with the theatrical displays of military might. I could see the whole force of the Nazi movement in all its ugly, popular power. And for that moment, standing in that place, I understood it all. How it had happened. How it had worked so effectively. But far worse, I understood the hitherto unthinkable thought, that it could, one day, all happen again.

But it won’t, not it we don’t let it. Not if we don’t forget that it did.

 

 

“We write to understand…”

As I write my February blog, Sir Anthony Beevor, historian and bestselling author of epics such as “Berlin” and “Stalingrad”, is talking on Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs. I am humbled by his ongoing questioning of the facts in spite of his already huge achievements in bringing World War 2 to life in extraordinary detail. And I’m grateful for his admission of how hard it is to research this horrendous episode of history. His voice wobbles as he talks of reading the gruesome accounts of the rapes, murders and infinite human suffering. “We write to understand,” he says, emphasising the necessity for us to “learn the lessons of history”.

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For years now, I too have been staring into the darkness of German history, the soil in which half my family’s roots reside, trying to understand what happened, how something like Nazism and the Holocaust could have happened. I read and read and watch endless footage, like a detective piecing together the evidence from a crime scene. I don’t have any need to blame or justify, I just find my eyes straining in their attempts to make out the outlines of some kind of meaning to it all, for anybody.

Germany as a nation has heaved itself out of the rubble, brushed itself down and with cap in hand has apologized, over and over again. And now the shroud of silence in which post-war Germans wrapped themselves with a stubborn “We knew nothing”, is also finally being shed in painful spasms as more and more grandchildren excavate their family stories in search of the truth. In his brilliant new book The German War: A Nation Under Arms 1939-45, Nicholas Stargardt dispels the myth of total ignorance of what was going on once and for all by gently revealing the inner thoughts of German soldiers and civilians as expressed in their letters and diaries. For many people, however, it is still too painful, too shameful, to go anywhere near their past and I can totally appreciate why.

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Writing my book is without doubt one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. For months now I have been living in the sepia world of the 1940’s, digging down like a miner into the bloodied soil of Germany’s past to retrieve the shards of its shattered reality. Each time I come up for air I have to adjust my eyes to the bright lights of 2017, re-learn how to laugh and talk and enjoy. But like the Sunday evening of a weekend home from boarding school, the impending descent back into the mineshaft looms, until I climb down the ladder and re-enter the blackness once more, waiting for my eyes to adjust before I can continue my work.

It is indeed painful work. It challenges family loyalties threatening to expose the wounds around which new lives were built, like barbed wire absorbed by tree trunks on their way to the sky. It hurts to question the thoughts and actions of your own much-loved grandparents in those impossible times, to grasp what decisions they were faced with and to accept their possible fallibility. I don’t want to be the surgeon that rips off the bandages that held their psyches together, for I too am on the operating table, and yet the promise of understanding, of learning the lessons of the past, and of healing both generations, overrides everything, like the promise of gold urges the miner to keep on digging.

I haven’t worked with many terrorists during my prison years but there was one who for years I, and my class of eight male prisoners, called ‘Habibi’ – the word for ‘my darling’ as we later found out.

Behind every terrorist act is a human being with a grievance. Some will probably call me a ‘terrorist sympathiser’ for saying that, but one of the most important lessons I learnt from working and talking with countless criminals is that people themselves are not innately evil. Their deeds might be, but they themselves are not. That’s why many of the over-simplified, dualistic discourses in the recent ‘To bomb or not to bomb in Syria?’ debate really got under my skin. Action vs. Non-Action, Good vs. Evil, Right vs. Wrong…

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I have no first-hand experience of today’s terrorists (thank goodness) but in the nineties I did work closely with a Lebanese man awaiting trial for his major role in one of Germany’s biggest terrorist attacks in which five Kurdish politicians were blown up in a restaurant in Berlin in 1992. As a terrorist he was considered a potential danger and security hazard and kept in enforced isolation. So for him my art class became his only excursion from his cell. Why the authorities found it fitting to place him in my care when I myself was locked in the room with no beeper, no key, no guard, still puzzles me! He asked the group to call him Habibi, so obligingly we did. It was only many years later that I discovered that was the word for “my darling”.

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Back then you would have never associated Habibi (I will stick with that name for potential legal reasons) as looking like a typical terrorist. Today his big dark beard would possibly arouse an involuntary prejudice against a stereotype, but other than that he had smiling eyes, a polite and gentle demeanor and wore shorts and sandals. In an introductory exercise to my mural workshop I got the men to plant a painted seed into a painted earth and let it grow up into the (painted) sunlight. Habibi’s seed blossomed into a beautiful, expansive, healthy looking shrub with red flowers.

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He subsequently translated it onto the wall and then, with a newly found artistic confidence he painted another tree, and added birds. But these birds looked war torn with tatty feathers as if they were fleeing exploding bombs – the bombs that were tearing his country apart, or the bomb that he himself had helped plant? One bird painted with special care was sitting on a nest of five eggs. I couldn’t help but make a link to the five for whose deaths he was in part responsible.

One day Habibi entered the classroom looking like a freshly shorn sheep. He was trembling, in shock and somehow horrifyingly naked. I encouraged him to tell me, and subsequently draw, how he had come to lose the big dark beard that was both his religious and personal identity. This proved to be the trigger for a huge release of pent-up rage first against the prison guards, thirteen of whom had frog marched him out of his cell, chained him to a bed and, pinning him down, shaved off his beard. His rant didn’t stop there however. He raged on about the war in his country and how “they” were killing “his” children. He clearly felt his bombing activity to be justified. It was self-defense derived from a sense of total injustice and helplessness, a state in which he and his people were the victims not the perpetrators.

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Does this ring any bells? Is this not part of what is happening today – for both sides? Reacting to violence with violence perpetrates… well, more violence. And more innocent victims whose deaths need to be avenged. Of course it does, and as this progresses each side feels ever more justified in their violence. So when “taking action”, in itself a potentially positive thing, becomes synonymous with bombing and every other attempt to solve the problem is seen as taking no action, don’t our leaders too become advocators of the very eye-for-an-eye Old Testament mentality that we are trying to combat?

Armed with more national self-reflection, basic human psychology and a genuine will for peace, our leaders could become real leaders in their quest to find solutions for some of the worlds’ massive and complex problems. But for them to be that they need to act completely differently to the real terrorists.

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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