angela findlay talks

Germany, remembrance and alternatives to punishment and shame

Category: Peace

Could the question to start 2019 be: What can we, Great Britain, put in? rather than: What can we get out?

I’d like to focus my last blog of 2018 on a single question that arose out of a letter written by a German citizen and published in The Guardian. It is addressed to all of us here in Britain and I feel it captures the essence of the principles we celebrate and/or practice in some form or other over the Christmas period: family and giving.

It says: “Dear friends in Britain. Maybe you are not aware of what Europe will miss when you leave. We will miss your refreshing views, because living on the continent can give a blinkered viewpoint. We will miss your international experience and networks. We will miss your calmness and pragmatism. We will miss your long democratic experience in developing the future EU. Together we are strong! Please stay. We are waiting for you with open arms.

Regardless of what we personally voted or believe in relation to Brexit, I find it refreshing to read of our national strengths as seen from the perspective of Europe, particularly in these times when they are all but completely hidden by the incessant bickering and division. And so, I wonder if we couldn’t just press the pause button on all current discourses to change the main question from: What can we get out (for ourselves) by remaining / leaving?  to What can we put in (for the greater good)?

As the letter, and many more like it express, we are wanted and needed in the massive peace keeping project that arose out of the horrors of the Second World War. But we are so focused on what is best for us, on getting what ‘the people who have spoken’ want, that we are overlooking our potentially far more important role as a genuinely ‘Great’ Britain.

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United Enemies – Thomas Schütte (1993-4)

As a formerly victorious island nation protected by a whacking great moat, we underestimate the proximity of border issues to war. Unlike Germany with its nine borders or the many other European countries with five or six, we have little experience of being joined at the hip to foreign cultures, languages, politics or religions. And yet, history shows us again and again that it is healthy borders between countries that are the barometer of war or peace. We just have to look at our current ‘little’ issue in Ireland to see how difficult borders can be and what a huge impact a conflict of interests can have. That 310-mile border is stalling the Brexit negotiations with the EU, threatening a return of the Troubles, causing internal political conflict and creating an impasse that will ultimately affect us all adversely if it goes unresolved. Mainland Europe knows first hand the importance of borders united in cooperation and agreement. I sometimes fear we in Britain have become a little complacent about peace, yet it is surely the most important of all the founding principles of a European Union.

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May we rise to the challenge this coming year, to serve the bigger picture of peace and unity rather than just our national selves – in whatever form that may take. And with that I wish all my readers a very happy, inspired and peaceful 2019. Thank you for reading my blogs. I appreciate you!

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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.

 

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