angela findlay talks

Germany, remembrance and alternatives to punishment and shame

Category: Identity

“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.

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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.

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Bomber Harris Memorial, (1992) London

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

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

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

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

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

Is there a point in still talking about Second World War Germany ?

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I found it almost impossible to write over the summer or to organise my thoughts into some sort of coherent flow while the sun shone outside producing the intrepid army of courgettes that now lies liquidized in my freezer. Instead I hung out in Nazi Germany, trying to organise 9 years of research into a 40 minute talk for schools and as yet unknown audiences. It was a process of willing black and white photographs to come to life to reveal what has been lurking in the corners of Germany’s post-war national silence for 50 years. But I also found myself wondering (with regular twangs of self-doubt) what the point is of still talking about this subject? And is it still relevant and important for today’s younger generations of English and Germans to engage with Hitler and the Holocaust, or have Bin Laden & other contemporary despots taken his place as ‘Dr Evil’?

Many of todays under 50-year-old Germans express having “die Schnauze voll” (a full snout, or being sick to the back teeth) of the themes of Nazi Germany and national guilt. Does that impart the message: “What Grandpa did has nothing to do with me. I don’t have to bear his guilt”? Or are they expressing the desire for release from the incessant discourses and policies of atonement and apology that infuse German political, social and cultural life?

With the benefit of only being half-German I have enough distance to still find the subject infinitely fascinating without being fully identified with it. But it’s an on-going and at times difficult process trying to unravel how the inevitable impact on my mother of such a huge historic episode ended up having such a defined, albeit less tangible, impact on me.

Whether it’s conscious or unconscious, many Germans of the grandchild generation do bear the burdensome, yet often denied, guilt of their grandparents. According to Harald Welzer’s research “Grandpa wasn’t a Nazi”, two thirds either see their grandparents as heroes, resistors or victims of National Socialism. It’s natural to defend your family but as far as I am concerned, that is enough reason to keep talking about it. For me it has only been possible to understand my grandparent’s position in this period by looking at their potential, albeit unwitting, culpability in the face. In her memoirs my grandmother conveys the fear of living under a dictatorship and challenges her critics by asking what they would have done? I ask myself the same question. And in my talks I ask my audiences the same. Plus: What do they do in the face of discrimination, racism, injustice today? We wouldn’t all be the heroes or resistors of our daydreams or online personas, nor mere victims. So at what point do we, even in our inaction, become ‘guilty’?

After a couple of rehearsals of my talk, I learnt from the comments made that there were various points to it. But above all it was the personal stories of my grandfather, my mother and me that were relevant in bringing to life the challenges, decisions and actions of an ordinary German family in and after the Second World War. Maybe it is important to remember that as humans we all have choices. But we also have fears and weaknesses.

For more information on my talk The other side: The Second World War through the eyes of an ordinary German family please go to http://www.angelafindlaytalks.com

Searching for identity, through art and dance

Akram Khan’s solo dance production “Desh” has to be one of the most beautiful and moving pieces I have ever seen. It is a visceral exploration of and search for identity; an attempt to bridge the gulf between two vastly differing cultures – Bangladesh and the UK – and a personal quest by Khan to find resolution within his own family and indeed himself. (http://www.akramkhancompany.net/)

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Akram Khan in Desh, Sadler’s Wells, 2013

I had a triple hit of identity issues on Friday. It all started with my being rudely awoken by unexpectedly urgent and slightly panicked questions into who I am and what on earth my life is about.

These thoughts nagged at me all the way to London where I thankfully became distracted by my role as judge for the pastels category of the annual Koestler Exhibition of prisoners art. (http://www.koestlertrust.org.uk/) The building, where I used to work, was once again crammed from floor to ceiling with over 8000 multi-media entries from prisoners in the UK and beyond. Regardless of the level of technical ability, much of the work surprises with its raw and forceful intensity. With their formal identities concealed, anonymous faces with unwavering eyes speak all the louder; they become the language by which these otherwise voiceless people can speak to us on the outside about their situation and themselves.

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Door – Colnbrook IRC, Zelda Cheatle Gold Koestler Award 2011, Photography

Finally, in the evening, Khan’s body transformed the Sadler’s Wells stage into an arena for a hugely emotional pursuit of identity, something we can surely all identify with judging by the snivels and soaked tissues of the audience (not least me).

I too long to find a way of translating my own jolty journey with all its cul-de-sacs and pot-holed tracks, into such a visually stunning portrayal of the conflicts that can arise from a mixed cultural heritage. I have already used all sorts of materials from mud to cake, even my own body, to explore and resolve the questions of who I am.  Judging by my morning’s episode, however, my journey is clearly not yet finished.

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 From the Born and Bound series, collaboration with John Heseltine (www.johnheseltine.com)

1945 to 2013 in one painting

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Untitled (with lipstick) 2011

by Angela Findlay

My most recent solo show Fragments of time at McAllister Fine Art in Godalming is entering its final week. It shows work combining photographic collage and oil and is a development of ideas and techniques that led to a collaboration with John Helseltine and a joint  exhibition Filling the cracks in 2011

Reflecting on the paintings I find myself wondering where to next? This body of work has been the result of several years of an on-going interest in capturing glimpses of the everyday, usually overlooked and yet often very beautiful testimonies to peoples’ lives within the privacy of their homes. Initially I worked from a dawning sense of the fragility of what we call “home”, a paradox in the face of the security and consistency we seek there.

In 1945 as an eleven year old German girl, my mother fled her home with her younger sister, the approaching Russian army a mere 40 miles away. The few stories of her childhood experiences float silently in my imagination, their edges blurring with those of my own memories. The implications of her sparse accounts didn’t register fully until I was older. But the images she sketched of a Berlin in flames, the train station heaving with jostling people, and the agonising choice of which doll to take – the beloved but threadbare one or the brand new one from her father on leave from the front? – began to provide a source of inspiration for my work.

My mother’s home was taken over by the Russians, the seats of the chairs slashed in search of money and valuables. All was lost except what they could carry with them. Their home disintegrated. Yet the building still stands. I visited it a few years ago, wandered around imagining those that inhabited its tall-ceilinged rooms after they had left. And then later, through the Soviet occupied times. If I scratched at the predictably white wood chip paper that plasters the walls of so many German homes today, filling the cracks, creating a crisp, clean albeit bumpy, blank surface for the next occupiers, would I stumble on traces of the colours and patterns they chose to line their world? Would I come closer to understanding what happens when your world falls apart and vanishes?

www.angelafindlay.com

www.angelafindlaytalks.com

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