angela findlay talks

Germany, remembrance and alternatives to punishment and shame

Category: Holocaust

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.

 

 

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“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.

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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“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?

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

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As I started writing this month’s blog this morning, the Queen was visiting Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp for the first time, apparently at her request.

Much has been criticised or mocked about her State visit in the press: the timing – the eve of a summit where David Cameron is expected to begin new negotiations in relation to Britain’s EU membership; her apparently politically-biased speech in which she referred to a division in Europe being “dangerous” and that guarding against it “remains a common endeavour”; the Queen’s unenthusiastic reception of the German president’s gift of a portrait of her as a child on a blue horse with her father; even the reason for her going was apparently to put Angela Merkel, who is often referred to as Queen of Europe, back in her place…!

The cynics and critics are in their element and yet, regardless of all that, it seems to me that for an 89 year old lady who has been, and is, so closely linked by blood and history to Germany, the gesture of total reconciliation on an official level is of more importance and relevance than any of the other more petty stuff.

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I think it is hard for the generations that didn’t experience WW2 in the direct way these octogenarians did, to fully grasp the lasting impact of war. Many wrap their memories in silence and take them to the grave. But often you hear about people who begin to talk about their experiences in old age, or as they approach their death. It’s as if they want to resolve or put to rest what they haven’t up until that point been able to do. Only last night I was speaking with a woman who told me that her father’s last wish before he died had been to return to the place he was held as a POW in Germany in WW2. What a strange choice of place to go… or is it?

Today, on request of the Queen, Bernard Levy, an 89-year-old soldier who was 19 at the time Bergen-Belsen was liberated by the British in 1945, attended the wreath-laying ceremony at the camp. He said: “For 68 years I’d shut the whole subject out of my mind. But we’ve got to make sure that this particular horror stays in people’s minds… It is fitting the Queen should go. Holocaust education is so paramount, and many kids of today don’t really know about it. The Queen going there lends credence.”

The Chief Rabbi agreed: “The memory of the Holocaust remains such a fundamental aspect of modern Jewish identity that the Queen’s journey to memorialise the victims will be viewed as tremendously significant by Jewish communities across the world.”

And for many Germans, simply the fact that one of the last state visits the Queen will ever make was to Germany will be experienced with a great sense of honour.

So regardless of any implied political undertones of the rest of the visit, today’s visit to Bergen-Belsen will have made a huge difference to many people. “It’s difficult to imagine” is what the Queen said on leaving the camp and I suspect she will have gone on trying to imagine as she left the country. The experience of visiting a concentration camp site doesn’t leave you easily. So my only criticism of the Queen’s State visit would be that it ended on such a sombre note. Her last experience of Germany will reference that darkest of episodes in history from which we are all trying to move forward. But maybe I am wrong there. Maybe it was perfectly planned for the “complete reconciliation” the Queen was said to be wanting to achieve.


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