angela findlay talks

Germany, remembrance and alternatives to punishment and shame

Category: Post-war Germany

Germany losing – at wars or football – brings out the worst in us!

Germany’s shock World Cup exit yesterday – the first time the German team has been knocked out in the group stage since 1938 – naturally started a tsunami of Twitter wisecracks and news headlines.

“Germany’s World Cup 2018 downfall made everyone else pretty happy…” said one.

Oh dear, I thought, here we go. Germany’s homegrown term ‘Schadenfreude’ was coming back to bite them with a vengeance as people free flowed expressions of their ‘pleasure in another’s misfortune’.

“Just re-watched Germany getting knocked out of the world cup. There are very few greater pleasures! ‪#GermanyOut”

Twitter’s full 280-character allowance was filled with two letters: ‘AHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA…’

Others asked:

“World champion now?!” followed by a punching fist and hysterically laughing emojis.

Of course the age-old war references were also wheeled out:

“Germany went to Russia 3 times unprepared

1) World War 1

2) World War 2

3) World Cup 2018

It seems they never learn from their past”

(Actually they probably have learnt more from their past than anybody else in the world, but anyway)

Even the Telegraph headlined with the old fav:

“Don’t mention ze Var”.

 

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Germany, meanwhile instantly, and in many cases tearfully, agreed it deserved to lose:

“That was just shit – and totally deserved too,” admitted one fan. “A lethargic and sad appearance,” said another.

And they were right. South Korea deserved to win. The reigning champions had lacked the obvious passion of other teams. Their tactics were old and mechanical, completely outdated in the face of the raw hunger to win displayed by so many other nations. And their long downfall from the position of winners naturally creates welcome hope and space for others. Maybe they had become too complacent and their emotional defeat will finally soften, even humanise, their robotic reputation.

While all this was going on, I was at Chalke Valley History Festival near Salisbury listening to two historians, whose books on the Second World War and Germany I had recently read. Keith Lowe’s The Fear and the Freedom gives a brilliant insight into the aftermath of the world conflict that touched every sphere of life in some way and created so much of the world that we know today. James Hawes’s The shortest history of Germany rattles through the centuries of upheaval at breakneck speed exposing Germany’s volatile past, fluid borders and a great deal more.

The contrasting attitudes to the Germans presented by these two occasions couldn’t have been starker. I realise now that my disinterest in competitive sport and my interest in history stem from the same fundamental dislike… of the winner / loser mentality. Both war and more recently sport are wholly about winning, the latter often at the cost of sportsmanship. Gloating is something we British love to do. We hold tightly to the glories of our past so we can readily produce them at any opportune moment, often as grudges or gripes. As one disappointed German said to an English gloater last night:

“We used to admire your sporting fair play in Germany. You are shamefully disregarding this. Maybe it sounds old-fashioned and conservative, but maybe you should think about it when you get back to your keyboard. Sometimes it’s good to play fair play in life. Best wishes and I keep fingers crossed for the English team.”

After the lecture about German history, a question arose about Germany today. It carried a whiff of the old British triumphalism, the kind that dozes just below the surface. (I appreciate you might have to have German blood to fully notice how often it is stirred.) James Hawes responded by saying he had no time whatsoever for the “spitfire” mentality. To my, and actually his, surprise, half the audience broke into spontaneous applause. I felt proud of my fellow, very English audience.

In sport, the black and white division into winners and losers changes over the course of each tournament, but always leaves the world divided. Into those that are happy and those who are devastated. The ‘other side’ is always the foe, to be ruthlessly beaten. As in war.

In the study of history, the past changes face. As you deepen your relationship with nations, events and wars, you gain understanding. The popular myths shift until a more rounded picture emerges. The winner / loser mentality is replaced by nuance, empathy even. As Keith Lowe suggested as a way forward for us all, the separate victim, hero and villain archetypes into which individuals and whole nations fall, merge to become just human beings being human in all its forms.

Germany’s fall from 2014 winners and oft-times finalists or semi-finalists, may be making many people happy. Personally, I derive more happiness from the levelling approach of history than the peaks and troughs of win-lose competitive sport. So I am with the tweeter who said:

“Sending hugs to German fans in Berlin who are definitely not having a good day”.

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Light at the end of the tunnel…

Yesterday I wrote two words that I have frequently thought I would never get to write: THE END. Of course it is not The End by any stretch, but nonetheless this week, for the very first time, I caught sight of a teeny-weeny light at the end of the tunnel; just enough to be able to acknowledge its reality, in writing. I am talking about my book; the book that I have been writing for the past three years and researching for well over ten.

To be honest, I have never known a task so challenging. The idea arose out of my talks to schools and Arts Societies all over the country in which I present the Second World War and its aftermath “through the eyes of an ordinary German family”; my family to be precise. “I had no idea,” is the usual, unanimous response. And here in Britain, we actually don’t. So when audience members started asking me with such regularity “Have you written a book?” or told me in no uncertain terms “You must write a book”, I decided to seize the gauntlet. I’ll just stretch the contents of the talks, I thought naively.

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Three years on, here I am, feeling blind, battered and bloated from too much sedentary screen time. The task started off resembling a huge mountain sitting diametrically across the path to my future. There was no way round and no way over, only through. First I had to shovel. Shit mostly, my own and Germany’s. Gradually the mountain lowered until it was a hill and I could see glimpses of blue sky and easy, flat terrain beyond. And then I had to tunnel through, descending down a mineshaft-like ladder into the darkness, incrementally moving forward but unable to see if I am going in the right direction while all the time trying to trust I will pop out at some point.

Taking breaks – to travel and deliver my talks, to look after my mum, to be sociable – they all meant scrambling back out, adjusting my eyes to the sunlight and rummaging around in my brain to find conversational threads leading back from the 1940’s to the present day. But I’d always have to climb back down again. I’d dread it. It hurt. I’d procrastinate, faff, tidy or clean something; even ironing a pile of shirts would have been preferable. Eventually the ticking of my mental clock would boom so loudly that I’d practically parachute down the shaft and scrabble back to where I had left off, my eyes readjusting to the darkness, my body resuming its static position and my mind returning to the impossible questions. In some ways it would have been much easier to just stay down there.

Back in December, my first editor told me, “Writing a book is like giving birth.” She knew, she had both written a book and given birth to twins. “And writing a book was more painful,” she admitted. It’s funny because I do feel like a heavily pregnant woman, shuffling through my days with an extra load that will one day be birthed into the world beyond my little office to develop a life if it’s own. I sometimes feel I am months overdue, but this baby has to stay a bit longer in the oven. I know I have more digging and scrabbling around in the dark to do. But that glimpse of light, even though  it was tiny and has vanished again, was there. And I am heading for it.

 

If you would like intermittant updates on the progress of my book, please “follow” this monthly blog.

 

It’s time to remember… and this year even German footballers wore poppies

It’s Remembrance time. Red paper and enamel poppies are blooming on lapels all over the nation as people remember those who fought in conflict, and the huge sacrifices they made. Last night, the Festival of Remembrance at the Royal Albert Hall opened with a stunning rendition of “I vow to thee my country”. First, just three slow and quiet brass instruments; then violins joined in; then drums, voices, and finally the whole orchestra played, while flag- and oversized headwear-bearing members of the forces, marched into the hall in step with the music. We were only four minutes into the hundred-minute programme and the lump in my throat was already swollen and wobbling out of control. Gosh we do this so well.

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I felt very differently two nights ago, however. I had just finished giving my unavoidably somber talk Counter memorials: Germany’s post WWII culture of apology and atonement, when an elderly audience member told the hall about FIFA’s recent decision to allow players to wear poppies (last year it had forbidden them). And, he continued, the German team had also agreed to wear them. All the players would wear black armbands sporting a red poppy for the England / Germany friendly match at Wembley, on the eve of Armistice Day. I honestly wanted to cry, right there and then. But I couldn’t tell if I was deeply moved, deeply angry or some uncomfortable combination of the two.

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On the one hand, I felt awe at the magnanimity of the Germans, showing willingness to adopt the wholly British symbol, whose origin was about remembering – crudely put – all those killed by their forefathers in World War One. I know, I know, Remembrance today extends well beyond that, but nonetheless, the poppy is a singularly British image of our war dead, a huge amount of which died at the hands of the Germans. I wholly support the German decision, but I wonder, would we wear a German symbol that commemorates fallen German soldiers? ‘Bloody good on you, Germany’, I felt but didn’t say, that irritating lump having lodged itself too profusely in my throat.

On the other hand though, I felt furious. Just how much further do Germans have to go in acknowledging the wars? Now they even have to mourn our dead, while their dead soldiers barely get a nod! They, as the losing nation, didn’t, and still hardly, honour their soldiers, even though they lost 4-5 million in WWII alone, compared to the 1.7 million that the British (and Commonwealth) lost in both world wars combined. Of course it’s not about numbers, but that’s a lot of bereaved German families who have none of the comfort that their men will be remembered. For decades there were no memorials to German soldiers at all. They were all looked on with shame and silence. And yet many of them would have been no different to ours: men fighting for their nation. Very few people in this country have thought about what it is like for the losing side, for which stirring patriotism and national pride are anathema. I know that because I talk to audiences, of all ages, all over the country about this, and the overwhelming reaction is: “Gosh, I had no idea. That’s so sad / moving / wrong…”

Untitled.png‘In memory of the dead…’ A WWII memorial in Itzehoe, Germany

You can see I get disproportionally emotional at this time of year! My Anglo-German roots wrestle and strangle each other in my chest as I try to work out what Remembrance should, or could, be about, and to what end. It is wholly right to remember all those we do, but has our little red poppy symbol become so distractingly potent, that it can knock, or raise, public figures off and onto their perches, simply through its absence or presence? Surely that kind of “poppy fascism” (to use Jon Snow’s controversial words) isn’t the right way forward? To me, the difference of sentiments expressed in the words of the English and German football representatives respectively, sum up both what is good, and what is missing, in our culture of Remembrance.

Martin Glenn, the FA (Football Association) chief executive, said: “Remembering and commemorating the men and women who have served this country is ingrained in our nation. Many have made the ultimate sacrifice and we will be honouring them, both on and off the pitch, for our match against Germany. I would like to thank the German Football Association for also agreeing to wear the poppy for the match, in a show of solidarity and unity at this important time.”

Reinhard Grindel, the DFB (Deutscher Fussball Bund) president, said: “I positively welcome the decision to allow both the English and the German national teams to wear poppy armbands, because these are not about political propaganda in any way. They’re about remembering the kind of values that were kicked to the ground in two world wars, but are cherished by football: respect, tolerance, and humanity.

2008_0825Berlin080016.jpgKäthe Kolwitz: ‘To the victims of War and Dictatorship’, Berlin

The main distinction between the World War ‘winners’ and the ‘losers’ in their approach to Remembrance, is that the winners look back, to all that was. And the losers look forward, to what we should strive for. I think we need both. German WWII remembrance culture is a 365 days a year affair. Their memorials are visible and active reminders of the futility of war, loss, destruction, and discrimination, and they serve to help people learn from the past. Maybe, within the extraordinarily beautiful choreography and largely heart-expanding music (I’d personally prefer a little less of the Spielberg-esque sentimentality) of our Festivals of Remembrance, we too could include more of the gritty reality of war that Harry Patch, the last WWI veteran, knew all too well: “It was not worth it. It was not worth one, let alone all the millions.”

 

 

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.

IMG_0284.jpgscene of the Beer Hall Putsch, 1923

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.

IMG_0574Nuremberg Congress Hall

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.

 

 

There’s an unhelpful form of Tourette Syndrome lurking within certain British men…

What is it about some British men? It’s as if they have a form of Tourette’s that makes it impossible for them not to heed Basil’s advice and not mention the war. Smug winner syndrome, even 70 years on. I mean is it really a good idea, Boris Johnson, is it remotely mature or diplomatic to respond to a perfectly reasonable suggestion that Britain could not expect to get a better deal outside the EU than it enjoyed inside, by equating such an approach to “punishment beatings… in the manner of some world war two movie”? (The Guardian, 18.01.17)

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It honestly makes me wince, not because it’s insensitive, antagonistic or unnecessary, but because it is so unbelievably, pathetically childish. I once laughed at Will Self’s brilliant verbal portrait of Boris as “an enigma wrapped up in a whoopee cushion” but I don’t find him remotely enigmatic or amusing anymore. Just dangerously out of date and out of touch.

Then shortly after Boris had demonstrated his true nature once again, another national embarrassment came to his rescue in the form of Michael Gove tweeting: People “offended” by The Foreign Secretary’s comments today are humourless, deliberately obtuse, snowflakes – it’s a witty metaphor ‪#getalife

Witty? It’s such an old hat trick to try and stand on the head of ones opponent to make oneself taller when they are winning the argument, that any residual humour was sucked out of it decades ago. Are such British men – and I say men because (correct me if I am wrong) I’ve never heard a woman say such things – remotely aware of how stupid they look harping on about WW2 so long after the event? Especially at a time when our country is a total mess, while the losers of the war have long since brushed themselves down, built their country up, learnt the lessons of the past, apologised for it with deep earnestness and humility, and are now trying to move forward in ways informed by the kind of maturity that arises out of darkly, sobering experiences.

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An Antiques Roadshow episode on BBC 1 was recently dedicated as a Holocaust Memorial with survivors telling the stories behind the extraordinary, treasured and priceless ‘bits and pieces’ they had salvaged from those dreadful times. It was deeply moving and stood in such stark contrast to the flippant and thoughtless comments by our own homegrown, floppy-haired idiot.

So, apologies for not “#getting a life” in the way Michael Gove would like me to. I’ve tolerated such jokes and references since I was little and trust me they get very boring indeed. And we as a nation are made to look ridiculous, and have been for years, when allowing our integrity to be debased by cheap jibes at old wounds. I once felt ashamed of my German roots for obvious reasons. But right now, with some of the people we have front-lining our national face to the rest of the world, I feel fortunate to be able to look to Germany and Angela Merkel for some of my sense of national pride.

 

 

Left right, left right, left right…

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I am on a very long walk – 600km so far – and as my legs go through the motions of left right, left right, left right I find myself thinking about my German grandfather going through the same physical motions as he marched into Russia with his Wehrmacht troops in 1941. I am walking West across the north of Spain on a pilgrimage to the spiritual destination of Santiago de Compostela. He was marching East across Russia to capture the strategically important destination of Moscow.

Heeresfilmstelle, Bildarchiv Gebirgs-J‰ger gehen im Morgengrauen ¸ber die deutsch-russische Interessengrenze. 8./Geb.Jg.Regt.99 Aufnahme am: 22.6.41 Ort: 2km. westl. Zabiala, Abschnitt Lemberg, Land: Russland Bildberichter: Kˆnig

This is the closest I have come to understanding not only the distances he covered but the physicality of walking and the mindset of reaching a pre-set destination. As I walk past fellow pilgrims the similarities to soldiers are not lost on me. The array of limps and leg bandages; the heavy packs carrying all the essential worldly possessions; the determination to keep going. Left right, left right – the action becomes mechanical, rhythmical, beautiful even. The earth is below, the sky is above and we walk between them, the connectors, tiny but upright, our two-legged movement being one of the distinguishing factors that make us human beings. My focus is more on the symbolic sky – exploring or even experiencing the heaven of religious teachings, learning how to love and be on this earth in a better way. My grandfather’s aim was victory, to conquer land, gain ‘Lebensraum’ for the German ‘Volk’. He marched through dust, snow and mud. I walk through space and sunlight. He was met by tanks, gunfire and death. I am met by smiles, encouragement and life. He had to kill and win. I just have to walk and surrender myself.

Left right, left right, left right – we all do it. We travel through our lives.  But what is our intention? And what is our chosen destination?

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.


VE Day 70 years on – a time to celebrate victory or a time to also to look more closely at the price of war to women and girls?  

Within the context of my interest in WW2 Remembrance, May offers a welcome break from the misery and darkness. It is indeed a time to celebrate, for on May 8th 1945 Churchill was finally able to announce that the war was over in Europe. The jubilation was naturally boundless and Britain threw the biggest street party the country had ever seen. The Allies had triumphed over the Nazi enemy, Germany had unconditionally surrendered, and it would be the end of death and destruction.

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May 8th 2015 was the 70th Anniversary of VE Day, Victory in Europe Day. It too offered an opportunity both to celebrate as well as to honour and thank those alive, and dead, who helped bring about the victory. The BBC is broadcasting a whole range of programmes and coverage in this vein, but so far there has been one that has stood out for being a break in what at times comes across as a fairly one-sided or incomplete narrative. In The Rape of Berlin broadcast on the BBC World Service, http://bbc.in/1GBlBDs Lucy Ash looks at the subject that even Germans today have difficulty in re-visiting. It looks beyond the simplified duality of the triumph of the victors versus the evil of the losers, to the very dark underbelly of war and its largely unacknowledged victims. I am talking here about the fate of millions of German women and children who fell victim to the biggest mass rape in history.

They both killed... they both died (AF, 2010)

They both killed… they both died (AF, 2010)

For German civilians 8th May was, of course, no relief; no assurance that their misery would end. They would continue to be at the mercy of the ever-advancing and avenging Soviet army that had been sweeping westwards since 1944, and were considered free game for many an allied soldier who wanted to exact revenge for Hitler’s war of annihilation. As a result women and children from 8 – 80 years old were brutally raped, often multiple times and over long periods, many killed in the process or dying from their injuries. The violence against German women was, however, seen by many to be justifiable. The Soviets had propaganda posters positively encouraging it. “Soldier, you are now on German soil, the hour of revenge has struck!” UK and US soldiers, possibly others too, were also guilty of that war crime. For G.I.s rape would normally result in execution but no G.I. was executed for the rape of a German citizen.

Papa, kill the German! 1942

Papa, kill the German! 1942

Wartime sexual violence against women and girls is a widespread and age-old weapon of conflicts all around the world. We just have to look at what is happening – everywhere it seems – today. But rape is rarely mentioned as an inevitable by-product to warring nations, despite history showing us time and again how it goes hand in hand with the more familiar images of warfare – munitions, rubble and death. I find it problematic, as anyone reading my other blogs will already know, that in our Remembrance ceremonies our attention is almost exclusively focused on the heroics and bravery of war, the soldiers who fought or fight for us, the victories. Of course this is a vital element, but it so easily sanitizes what is usually insane, turning it into an honourable, admirable thing even, yet overlooking the unbearable suffering of civilians, none of whom get medals or recognition for their bravery.

Social acknowledgment of rape is possibly one of the ways towards healing for the victims. And in my trilogy of talks The other side I am trying to present a fuller picture of WW2 by including the experiences of German women and children. The overwhelming response of my audiences has been an initial stunned silence followed by a quiet “I had no idea”.

I really feel it is time we did have an idea.

Finally, I am looking forward to watching Savage Peace on BBC2 tonight at 10pm as it is all about this.

“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.

‘Sorry’ does indeed seem to be the hardest word to say

February 2015 saw the 70th anniversary of the bombing of Dresden, a contentious and highly debated element of the British and American war campaign. The deaths of 25,000 civilians and the destruction of the medieval city of Dresden known as the “Jewel of the Elbe” was without doubt one of the low points in the British military strategy.

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On 13th February this year Germany held one of their rare commemorations for their own dead. It started with a service in the re-built Frauenkirche / Church of our Lady and continued later in the streets when up to 10,000 people formed a human chain along Dresden’s riverfront, holding hands to commemorate the dead and call for peace.

With my on-going interest in World War commemorations, this was of course a significant one, for two reasons really. On the one hand it remembers German victims of war and on the other it remembers an event that many people see as a British war crime.

On the evenings of 13th and 14th February 1945, 1,200 RAF and USAAF bombers dropped 3,900 tons of explosives and incendiary bombs on the city. The fires consolidated into an inferno both suffocating people as the blaze sucked oxygen from the air and quite literally “melting” them. 13 square miles of the city were destroyed. Some estimates were that 250,000 were killed in the raids but it’s probably closer to 25,000, most of them civilians and refugees fleeing the Soviet army.

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Critics claim there was no military justification for the destruction. Others argue that Dresden was an important supply centre for the Germans as they fought the approaching Soviet Army. Above all, the bombings were intended to break the German population’s morale.

Reading the coverage of the Commemoration service I was once again struck by the huge difference between the British and German attitudes to the war. Even on this occasion Germany’s approach was apologetic, inclusive and instructive. It is clear that Germany’s horrendous past has left them genuinely wanting to learn the lessons of history and avoid all future wars. German President Joachim Gauck assured dignitaries from Britain and other former Allied nations: “You should know that we bear no lasting grudge… We are fully aware of who started that murderous war. Though we are remembering the German victims here today, we will never forget the victims of Germany’s belligerence.” And Dresden Mayor Helma Orosz warned “War, hatred and violence begin in peoples’ minds. We must resist any attempt at once again categorizing people based on their origin and skin color.”

In Britain the majority of coverage of the event did not ask searching questions. In fact one article was dedicated to an adamant denial that the Archbishop of Canterbury had apologised for the bombing. You can read the full article on the link below but this is a part of what he said: “… Much debate surrounds this most controversial raid of the Allied bombing campaign. Whatever the arguments, events here 70 years ago left a deep wound and diminished all our humanity. So as a follower of Jesus I stand here among you with a profound feeling of regret and deep sorrow.”

Later in a BBC 5 Live interview a spokesman had to reassure that he was not apologizing. “Any suggestion that the Archbishop was apologising is manifestly false. The Archbishop’s comments were a reflection in a solemn ceremony on the tragedy of war. They very carefully avoided apologising, and those present, including the president of Germany, recognised the difference.”

I have to say, I find this extraordinary. Could we not on this one occasion just open our hearts and apologise? Could we not offer the one tiny but hugely healing word ‘Sorry’ if only for the huge cost of human life and what was clearly a devastating act, regardless of whether it was justified or not by some military strategy? Germany hasn’t stopped saying sorry and admitting its guilt, for decades now and for absolutely  everything they did. It took us 38 years to admit wrongdoing and apologise for Bloody Sunday and yet that was all that was wanted. Germany isn’t in any way asking for an apology but couldn’t we not have the – what is it? – the balls? the kindness? the honesty? the moral strength? the humanity to just say ‘sorry’ anyway. It won’t detract from our victory, our honour and glory. Nor will it lessen the memory of our brave men and women who fought the enemy. We weren’t clean or blameless in every aspect of warfare so in this of all years, can we not find the strength to admit openly that we too caused incredible suffering and destruction for which we are simply ‘sorry’?

http://www.suttonguardian.co.uk/news/national/11794039.Dresden_speech__not_apology___Welby/

http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/feb/11/guardian-view-second-world-war-commemorations-dont-leave-dresden-out-of-story

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