angela findlay talks

Germany, remembrance and alternatives to punishment and shame

Category: rape

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.

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An abundance of plays at the Edinburgh Festival revealing the shadow side of the alpha male psyche

Two shows at this year’s Edinburgh Festival left me feeling… well, strange. One was about a male ex-prisoner, the other about a female victim of rape. Light, cheery subject matters for me as always, but actually, intense and personal story telling abounded.

The first play was Doubting Thomas, created by multi-award winning director Jeremy Weller. The listings said: Thomas McCrudden, a man with a tortured and violent past but with hope for a different future, tells his own complex and moving story about abandonment and the stress of being forced to take on multiple roles, in Thomas’s own words, “…none of which were me! When I was growing up, I wasn’t able to accept love, and that created not just a man without a conscience or empathy. It created a monster.” 

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I sat in the front row of the little theatre, on the same level as the actors. Extreme violence was played out at my feet – at one point I had to move them in order not to inadvertently become part of the script and another of Thomas’s victims. Then, at the end, Thomas faces the audience and tells us to ‘ignore people like me at your peril. If they are released without having changed, without having been really seen, they will come to get YOU’. And with a jab of his finger he pointed at me and a couple of others in the front row to emphasise his point.

To be honest he picked the wrong person to jab his finger at as, what he said has of course been part of my message for decades, albeit expressed differently. And “seeing” prisoners is an essential part of my work. But coming from him in the wake of his displays of all too realistic anger and violence, I found myself suddenly devoid of any feeling towards him or his story and was left with a sense of discomfort instead. Why though?

The next day I saw Fabric. A Guardian Review described it thus: Nancy Sullivan is completely engaging and utterly heart-breaking as Leah who grew up dreaming of marriage and who thought she had found her prince in Ben. Abi Zakarian’s script for this one-woman piece is beautifully observed and funny too. What initially seems to be a whip-smart contemporary version of an Alan Bennett Talking Head turns into something far darker as romance gives way to reality and Leah’s life is stained in many different ways. Clever set and sound design, too, in a show that brings dirty little male secrets out into the light.

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Again I was in the front row. This time the violence inflicted on her was alluded to through brilliant use of the stage sets and story-telling by “Leah”. But I still felt like I was right there with her as she was anally raped in a filthy toilet by one of her husband’s friends. The people I was with left raving about both plays, and they were both genuinely good, but also after this one, I left feeling numb.

“… as romance gives way to reality”. Is a woman’s original vision of her life really so “romantic” and “reality” really so brutal? Maybe it is and maybe that is why now, on reflection, I realise I am full, like a Hoover bag that cannot take in any more. Like a brain that has fused through overload, a suitcase whose lid cannot close. All rendered useless. The violence of men that fills the news stories – from Isis and Boko Haram, to the war in Syria and terrorist attacks; the widespread rapes and treatment of women; the sexual abuse of children in the refugee camps… Then there are the stories of greed, egos and abuses of power – Philip Green, Putin and Boris Johnson; the counter-intuitive decisions on our planet, health and general well-being made by our largely (in this current government) male politicians…

I am tired of hearing about yet another cock-up or atrocity as a result of the largely patriarchal structures and values that exist in so much of the world. I am tired of seeing the on-going neglect and abuse of so much of what it means to be female. Of course I am not painting “men” per se as violent perpetrators, scammers and dickheads, nor “women” as delicate, innocent victims. And maybe my involvement with prisoners (95% of which are male) naturally exposes me more. But, as a woman who likes to keep informed, I feel a genuine sense of despair at being constantly confronted with the shadow side of the alpha male psyche as it is played out on the world stage, and the stages of our land, with women, children, the elderly, vulnerable and sick paying the price.

I clearly need a holiday…!

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.

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