angela findlay talks

Germany, remembrance and alternatives to punishment and shame

Category: Remembrance

100 years on – remembering to learn the lessons of history

It’s the eleventh of the eleventh, one hundred years on from the day when three signatures scribbled urgently on a piece of paper in a train carriage in France, finally brought the horrors of the First World War to an end.

Screen Shot 2018-11-11 at 17.20.16.pngGerman president, Frank-Walter Steinmeier laying a wreath at the Cenotaph

Our Armistice Day Remembrance culture has, at times, been guilty of displaying the triumphant undertones of the victor’s perspective, of sanitising or glorifying war, or of failing to acknowledge our victims. Today, however, a subtle change of tone could be detected as the German President, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, became the first German leader to take part in our national service, placing a wreath at the foot of the Cenotaph after Prince Charles. It was a powerful gesture of reconciliation, a handshake inconceivable even a few years ago. May we continue in that direction.

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Wanting to find a way to ‘remember’ in a personal, rather than a poppy-orientated, ceremonial way, we headed to Weston-super-Mare… I know, fish & chips and hellish amusement arcades are an unlikely setting for commemoration. But Danny Boyle’s Pages of the Sea project was transforming beaches all over the country into altars of personal and collective remembrance. Director of the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympic Games, Boyle’s concept was simple, but beautifully symbolic: Artists at each location would etch a portrait of an individual from WW1 into the sand, to be washed away by the incoming tide.

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As streaming sunshine replaced the forecasted rain, people created stencilled silhouettes of soldiers into the wet sand.

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Standing under the rusty underbelly of the pier, a lone trumpeter played familiar tunes from the times and a dance performance presented the sacrifices made by women who lost their men.

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There were readings, songs and a washing line of fluttering personal tributes. I hung my own, to my Great, possibly Great Great Uncle, Captain the Hon Gerald Legge. I had found an account of his death in a book by the author J. G. Millais:

“Poor Gerald was killed in Gallipoli in August 1915 whilst bravely leading his men into action… He was last seen mortally wounded on the ground and cheering on the men of whom he was so proud.”

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When the festivities were over and people dissipated – the incoming tide still far away – a lone grenadier guard, complete with bearskin, made his way to the now finished sand portrait. Ducking under the cordon, he placed himself at the top of the head and silently saluted. Moving to one corner, he saluted again. A serious, intensive salute to an invisible audience. Nobody was really watching except us. He was lost in his own private world as he moved on to another corner to stand in heartfelt salute a final time before making his way back up the beach.

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It felt like a profound goodbye; closure on 100 years of remembering. From now on, may we not forget those who made the ultimate sacrifice, but focus our attention on learning from their words that “war is hell,” that “everything should be done to avoid war” and that “war isn’t worth one life.”

 

The Wound in Time

by Carol Ann Duffy, 2018

It is the wound in Time. The century’s tides,

chanting their bitter psalms, cannot heal it.

Not the war to end all wars; death’s birthing place;

the earth nursing its ticking metal eggs, hatching

new carnage. But how could you know, brave

as belief as you boarded the boats, singing?

The end of God in the poisonous, shrapneled air.

Poetry gargling it own blood. We sense it was love

you gave your world for; the town squares silent,

awaiting their cenotaphs. What happened next?

War. And after that? War. And now? War. War.

History might as well be water, chastising this shore;

For we learn nothing from your endless sacrifice.

Your faces drowning in the pages of the sea.

 

 

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‘Shot’ for what you represent

I had a funny experience the other day… not sure if I mean funny-ha-ha or funny as in quite strange. Or maybe it simply made something visible that usually remains disguised or hidden.

I had just arrived at the theatre where I was due to give my talk on German WW2 counter memorials. The woman, who had booked me on the recommendation of several other art societies, greeted me warmly, bought us each a coffee and sat down opposite me in the café.

“I am so looking forward to this talk,” she said enthusiastically.

I always feel slightly guilty when people say that before this particular lecture, knowing I am going to be taking my audience through some dark, heavy and potentially very challenging material.

“I’m so glad,” I responded. Then, feeling a need to steer her expectations added, “It’s not an easy talk, but it feels important that people know what Germany has been doing to apologise and atone for what happened…”

“And so they jolly well should apologise and atone for what they did,” she spouted energetically before I had even finished my sentence. “AND feel very guilty about it.” Then, with her voice building up to a full body-shudder, she added, “Urrrgh, I hate them.”

I have to say, the depth of feeling behind her words surprised me a little. Not least because I had assumed she would have seen my website or Anglo-German biographical blurb during the booking process. But I also wanted to laugh out loud at the huge, clanging foot she had just placed in our conversation confirming what I have always maintained – that unless you have German roots, you would not necessarily notice the often scantily clad, on-going blame and dislike directed at our former friends and foe. We all know that ‘Bashing the Boche’ and dissing the Germans continues to be a bit of a national hobby, particularly by the media. It’s disguised as humour, but is actually one of the last bastions of racism to avoid the censorship of even the most politically correct among us. I hadn’t come up against quite such an overt loathing of my roots for a while though.

I smiled an ‘Oops!’ kind of smile over my cappuccino. I actually felt for her, anticipating the deep embarrassment she would feel both during and after the talk. Wanting to spare her as much as possible I asked, “I wonder which particular Germans you are referring to? You’ll hear in the talk that I actually have German roots…”

She flushed and shifted in her chair.

“Oh!” she said. And then, clearly not knowing what else to say, picked her hand off the table, turned it into a pistol, pointed it at my face and, with full sound effects, pulled the trigger.

It’s strange to be ‘shot’ for who you are or what you represent to someone else, even in jest. And yet it happens everywhere.

I thank this woman though, because her reaction contrasts so strongly with the reactions of most people after the talk. The stillness and silence as I speak, the long applause followed by searching questions and heartfelt  comments – they all confirm how important it is, also for ourselves, that we try to understand the very people we think we dislike most.

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You can read more about my talk Counter memorials: Germany’s post war culture of apology and atonement here.

 

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.

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.”

 

 

What if, just ‘what if’, death isn’t quite the full stop many think it is…?

The end of October / beginning of November is traditionally the time of year when people from all different cultures think of, and remember, the dead. For Pagans it is Samhain; for Christians, All Souls; for Mexicans, the Day of the Dead. It was / is believed that the veils between the living and the dead become thinnest now, allowing people to gain access to their dead loved ones. In modern, western, secular societies, it generally morphs into a black and orange bonanza of carved pumpkins and ghouls, a commercial excuse for a bright explosion of fireworks and increasingly terrifying costumes.

Death, in our culture, is widely seen as a negative; the Grim Reaper to be feared or fought. Or it is an ending to be deferred, as long as possible, at whatever cost. It is the opposite of birth, and not to be celebrated as a portal between what we call ‘life’ and a different form of life beyond. For so many people, it is just one final curtain fall, an over and out… THE END.

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Of course none of us know though! The most inevitable aspect of life is also the least knowable… such a wonderful design. However, I believe we are missing out on a hugely important level to life by relegating death to the role of a big full stop.

Over the last 14 years I have been developing an extraordinary relationship with my dead German grandfather with whom I shared just 8 days on this earth. He died on 1st November 1964, a week after I was born, and yet, even as a dead man, he had a profound impact on my life. Some people might find that strange, a form of looking backwards, as if moving through life can only be a linear, forward motion. As a society we are obsessed with moving onwards, growing up, progressing, getting bigger, better, more than we already are. But a long time ago, I was forced to stop in my tracks and look back at whatever it was that was pulling the strings of my actions and emotions like a puppet. I’m now so glad I did.

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For as long as my grandfather remained just ‘dead’, an unknown presence lurking in the dark recesses of my unconscious, he was a heavy, detrimental force. Today psychologists have names for this kind of phenomenon: post memory, transgenerational transmission – even geneticists have ‘epigenetics’, a kind of baton-passing on the level of our genes. The moment, however, I started to pay my grandfather some attention, he transformed into a dynamic energy with limbs that liberated rather than bound me.

IMG_2823.jpg    Bologna memorial monument to the WWII anti-fascist resistance partisans martyrs on the wall of Sala Borsa in Piazza del Nettuno

Being who he was, a Wehrmacht General in WWII, did not made this relationship-forming always an easy or comfortable process. But attention is like love. It heals. By giving attention to the dead, maybe particularly those who were locked in shame, tragedy or suffering, by continuing to interact with and include them in life, something beautiful happens. Maybe, just maybe, the dead still need us in some way. Maybe we can finish off or redress or apologise for what they couldn’t. Maybe when we are dead, we would like someone to do something for us too. We can’t, after all, know for sure that death really is the end…

Remember…

Having spent the past two weeks in France enjoying everything that France has to offer and so much of what I love in life, it is hard to write my monthly blog on my slightly sombre themes of memorials, World War II, the Nazis, remembrance and all that stuff. And particularly on an iPhone from a campervan! But today, as we were driving past anyway, I went to a memorial that has to be one of the most memorable in terms of its immediate and tangible connection to Nazi atrocities.

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Oradour-sur-Glane was a village that was destroyed by the Nazis on 10th June 1944. Not only was the entire village destroyed, but all 642 of its inhabitants in the most brutal way. Just a matter of days after the D-day landings, the Nazis were clearly panicking and feeling the need to demonstrate that their strength was still intact. A group of SS men, who had fought and been brutalised on the Eastern Front, sought revenge for the disappearance of one of their own by rounding up the entire population of the village, separating the men in barns, shooting them and then burning them. The women and children were locked in the church where they were all burned.

The destroyed village has since been preserved as a testimony, monument and memorial to the wholly unnecessary atrocity committed by the Nazis. Walking around it you see not only the eerie shells of the buildings – homes, shops, cafes, places of trade and the church – but also the remains of the everyday possessions of the villagers: their sewing machines, their bicycles, their cars, their beds, their chairs and tables, their spectacles and their watches stopped at the hour that their owners’ lives stopped.

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I had read about this place and, as I always tend to do, I cried. But when I walked around, repeatedly being asked in French to remember, to remember the men, women and children who died that day, I couldn’t really feel anything. Maybe it was the presence of so many other tourists; maybe it was the conscious monumentalisation of the place; maybe so much time has passed that even imagining has become too difficult for people like me who weren’t even alive in those times. Or maybe the joy and sunshine, the rosé and stunning summer scenery, the little French villages, blue shuttered houses and fields full of smiling sunflowers of the last two weeks made me not want to feel the sadness, tragedy and destruction of those times? Maybe I now no longer need to ‘remember’ quite as often as I have in past years. Because through writing my book, much of which touches on this subject and the first draft of which is being read as I write this blog, I am beginning to feel that I personally have remembered enough of the horrors that the Nazis did to others. Maybe I am reaching a time when I will be able to drive past such a place without feeling the pull to stop and ‘remember’.

Or can one never remember enough?

 

 

Munich in March

A city in which the ruins of history survive to serve as warnings for the present and pointers to a different future…

German memorials honour the brave resistors of Nazism, unreservedly condemn the perpetrators, apologise to the victims and warn us all to remain vigilant so these things can never happen again.

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A video installation outside the former Nazi headquarters

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In honour of Georg Elser, who tried but failed to single-handedly blow up Hitler and other high-ranking Nazi leaders on 8th November 1939. Elser was held prisoner for five years and then executed in Dachau.

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A large open square with benches created in the heart of Munich in 1946, dedicated to remembering the reasons why the victims of Nazism were targeted: for their politics or religion, for their sexual identity, disabilities, race, for being Jewish or for not doing the Hitler salute…

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An eternal flame has been burning since 1985. A warning as much as a commemoration

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Dachau concentration camp, one of the first, started in 1933. Birdsong filled silence seemed to say what words can’t.

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Infront of the Staatskanzlei / State Chancellery…

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a memorial to Munich’s fallen soldiers in WWI. After WWII few if any memorials were built honouring Germany’s soldiers, but gradually inscriptions were added to remember the fallen and missing.

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Remembering Sophie Scholl, the 21 year old student, and the White Rose Resistance members who were arrested and executed for distributing anti-war leaflets.

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In memory of those citizens who risked their lives taking this alley in order to avoid walking past the Nazi Commemoration of the Beerhall Putsch, where it was obligatory to do the Nazi salute.

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Jewish memorial at Dachau

“Lest we forget”… what? Surely not just the fallen soldiers, but also the futility, waste, destruction and misery of war?

After my talks on Germany’s unique culture of ‘counter memorials’, I am often asked what I would do differently within our British culture of Remembrance. I am always reluctant to pass any kind of judgment on what is one of Britain’s most poignant occasions, for we are true experts in creating meaningful and visual spectacles of solemn ceremony, national pride and gratitude. But now, as the last witnesses of the two World Wars disappear, is it time to shift the emphasis of our remembrance culture from an almost exclusive focus on the fallen soldiers of those two wars to include a broader picture of the casualties and victims of war in general?

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The Royal British Legion’s poppy appeal seemed to think it is time, and this year asked the nation to Rethink Remembrance by recognising the sacrifices made by today’s generation too. I would go even further and shine a spotlight onto the ordinary women, children and elderly who are less obviously “heroic”, but no less brave, casualties of war. For they too pay the ultimate price. Then there are all those whose lives will be impacted for years to come by the losses of their soldier spouses, children or parents, plus the innocent victims of our wartime aggressions – the civilians of the enemy caught in the cross fire of our military strategies and sometimes dubious political decisions. And there are those who have been left physically or mentally scarred for life… who have lost homes, jobs, loved ones… the list is so long.

With our beautiful solemn rituals and sanitizing language, are we in danger of justifying war in a way that makes it an attractive option today? By calling all soldiers who died “fallen heroes” are we mis-using the words ‘heroes’ and ‘fall’, because thousands of them were just young men who were simply following orders to run into a storm of bullets and die a certain death as part of an ill-conceived campaign? Is that heroic, or could we now own the painful facts that it was a tragic misjudgment on the part of those in power with catastrophic results?

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Shrouds of the Somme, a moving new memorial by the artist Rob Heard, first displayed in Exeter and now on in Bristol, seems to me to get closer to the imagery and reality of war that can redress the gulf between the glory of victory and what in reality is generally a bloody, muddy mess. If our rhetoric could include a broader victim awareness along side our wholly justified practice of remembering and honouring those who died defending their countries, I wonder if we would be reminded of the futility, waste, destruction and total sadness of war and seek to avoid it with even more resolve ?

 

 

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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I don’t wear a red poppy, not deliberately to make a point, nor out of disrespect – it just isn’t the symbol that captures enough of what, how and to what end I want remember.

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It is Remembrance season and once again I find myself feeling slightly uncomfortable, a bit pedantic, no doubt irritating and at worst offensively unpatriotic. And yet Remembrance is one of my favourite themes and both my grandfathers fought in the World Wars. So why can’t I jump whole-heartedly into the seas of poppies and poppy wearers, dignitaries and wreaths, that stream through our streets to lap up against memorials and into churches each November? Of course I want to ‘remember’ and acknowledge all the soldiers who died or were wounded serving their country, but discordant questions waft like dried leaves or ghosts through the architecture of British Remembrance rituals. So once again I ask myself and all of us collectively: what exactly are we remembering, and to what end? Remembrance is by nature vital, solemn, beautiful, meaningful… in many ways we do it so well. But beneath the tradition, ceremony and ritual conveyed through a distinctly military visual language, the message has also, in today’s world, become slightly flawed, inadequate and at times hypocritical.

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First we have the red poppy, the symbol of commemoration of military personnel who have died in war. They are sold by the Royal British Legion, a charity providing financial, social, political and emotional support to those who have served or are currently serving and their dependants – there is no question, it is a truly worthy movement of support. But it inspires the question: why is it even necessary? Why are these people, sent by their governments to fight wars not of their making, not wholly supported and cared for on their return by those same governments? Should that not be a self-evident part of the contract they enter into?

Then there’s the ‘To wear or not to wear a poppy?’ question, that rages on each year. Except at times it doesn’t feel like a question but an order; “Poppy Fascism” as some have named it, with people being publically chastised and shamed for not wearing a red poppy. This year it was Jeremy Corbyn, a long-sworn pacifist first. Then more recently Sienna Miller, the actress branded as ‘disrespectful’ in a Twitter storm for not wearing a poppy in televised interviews about her forthcoming film. (The fact that the pin was tearing at her silk dress and removed seconds before she went on air was deemed irrelevant.) Sir Gerald Howarth, a former Conservative defence minister, declared “There should be no excuse for not wearing one so we can honour the war dead.” Is he saying that a poppy is an essential prerequisite to honouring the war dead when for some it is a more personal, complex and inner process? Do we really need a badge that declares we are doing it in the ‘right’ way?

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And now today’s papers are filled with criticism of a distinctly compliant poppy-wearing Corbyn for not having bowed deep enough when he laid his red wreath. And equally for his hand-written message in which he said: “In memory of the fallen in all wars. Let us resolve to create a world of peace.” Sir Gerald clearly had more to say and declared that Mr Corbyn needed to “observe the formalities which all of us subscribe to. It is nothing to do with whether you agree with a particular campaign or not… The Leader of the Opposition needs to understand that you cannot compromise on respect for our fallen, because it is those of our country who have put their lives on the line in two World Wars, who safeguarded for us the freedom to speak our minds today.”

Ok, let’s just look at those words more closely. According to Sir Gerald, a representative of the official voice on the subject of Remembrance, “all of us subscribe” to the formalities. Do we? Should we? Do some simply not think about it while others feel coerced to toe the official line? And is being resolved to create a world of peace really “compromising on respect for our fallen”? And hang on, that world “fallen” grates too in its glaring understatement of the reality. Soldiers don’t usually just trip over and “fall”, they are shot or blown to pieces; many will have died in agony, alone, frightened, slowly. You can’t say that of course, but is overtly not wanting that to happen to more people in the future so wrong? And did “they” put their lives on the line or did it have something to do with the politics of the governments that sent them? And then the real whoppa – they were apparently dying in order to safeguard the “freedom to speak our minds today”. I’m sure they were but can Sir Gerald really not spot the flaw in what he is saying, the sheer hypocrisy of it? Here is a man, Corbyn – and I am not a full-blown supporter of him before I’m written off by his critics simply for being that – who is trying to speak his mind and yet is being shamed and publically shouted down and told he absolutely shouldn’t speak his mind at the one event of the year when huge amounts of people are thinking and talking about some of the most vital questions that face us as human beings: War and Peace; Life and Death. Love.

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As wars continue, with horrific frequency and Britain continues to display an unusual appetite to pursue them, could it be that the words “Lest we forget” urgently need to take on a broader meaning? In his book Empires of the Dead, David Crane describes how post-1917 “a picture of ordered sanity” was created out of “the psychic and physical mangling of a whole generation”. Some of this lingers on today. Could it be that Corbyn represents a more contemporary voice that wants to include more conspicuously in our rituals of Remembrance, the insane but usually un-spoken fall-out of war, namely the victims. War is not just about soldiers bravely fighting and dying for their country. There are always innocent victims. Thousands and millions of them: women, children, elderly, vulnerable and displaced people. There are animals, cultural artifacts, homes, cities and the countryside all destroyed by war. And peoples’ souls, hearts and lives are broken and made frail from fear and trauma. The list goes on, as do the effects…

Harry Patch, the 111-year-old veteran who came to be a symbol of Remembrance Day himself, conveyed the message: “It wasn’t worth it. No war is worth it. No war is worth the loss of a couple of lives let alone thousands…” I would wear a red poppy, ten red poppies, if I felt that was the underlying message in the forefront of our attitudes AND policies towards war. Or should I say, PEACE.

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