angela findlay talks

Germany, remembrance and alternatives to punishment and shame

Category: School speakers

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.

 

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What relationship do we expect young Germans today to have to their country’s past?

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I was very interested in two of the questions I was asked in a recent talk to the sixth formers of a London boy’s school. Both were similar and in response to some statistics I showed about German students’ relationships to their country’s past. And both touched on one of my on-going questions in relation to young Germans today: Do we expect them to feel guilt and shame for what their great grandparents were caught up or directly involved in, or can they now be proud of their country and say with genuine conviction “It has nothing to do with me”?

The statistics from a Zeit Magazine survey of 14-19 year olds revealed, among other things, that:

80% believe remembrance of the Nazi times is important

67% believe it is their generation’s duty to make sure that Nazi Germany and the Holocaust aren’t forgotten

60% said they were ashamed of what Germans did in Nazi times

The questions I was then asked were about the other 20%, 33% and 40%. Why don’t they too feel shame, or responsibility? I was not surprised by these questions for I too had found myself asking what the remainder felt when I saw those statistics. But they confirm what I suspected. Not far from the surface of many / most (all?) people is an ongoing sense of incomprehension at what went on. How easy it is to think it couldn’t have happened here. And in precisely that efficient, methodical and organized form it probably couldn’t have. But that’s not the point here. I think what’s more revealing is an evident need or desire to see Germans continuing to feel a sense of shame in connection with their country’s and grandparents’ pasts, as if they are their own.

My own experiences both of being half-German and having years of experience working as an artist with the “guilty” in our prisons have given me a deeper understanding of the psychological effects of punitive attitudes with little emphasis on forgiveness or redemption. But there is a difference between guilt and shame. You are guilty for something you have done. You feel shame for something that you are.

So my question is: when does or can shame stop? And in the years ahead of focused World War I and II commemoration, remembrance and celebration, are we as a nation going to help the younger generations of German’s in a process of liberation from their heritage or are we going to make sure they are bound to it?

My answer to the boys was a question: what do they feel about the episodes in Britain’s past that their (great) grandparents were part of? Do they feel personally responsible and ashamed for what went on in Ireland? Or in colonial times? Are we erecting monuments to the victims of our war in Iraq? Do we personally feel shame and responsibility for any of the dark episodes of our country’s past that our grandparents were involved in? And, as adults, would we want our children to feel shame for things that collectively we have been part of?

I know what I feel, but I think the next few years are going to be fascinating.

What are we “remembering” on Remembrance Day?

I found it symbolically pleasing to be planting bulbs as yesterday’s two-minute silence hummed over the radio waves across the UK. Sitting in the quiet sunshine, I started to “remember”, only to immediately bump into the questions: what and who am I remembering? And to what end? After all I have no personal “memories” of the First and Second World Wars, nor even of Iraq or Afghanistan. Relatives yes, but in the World Wars they were on opposite sides.

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Bomber Harris Memorial, (1992) London

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Having to tell people you are good… the joys of being self-employed

The week ahead is a dauntingly big ‘Admin Week’ for me. Daunting because, for the self-employed, “admin” basically involves telling people that you are good; that they want you and need you. This doesn’t come naturally to the artist in me, precisely because I see my paintings as a way of saying what I want to say without having to say it. And the other parts of me don’t like it either, because they just don’t.

Sure, I have been known to get on my soapbox and spout off about things I believe in, that’s no problem: the huge defects of our prison system; the benefits of the arts to offenders; the potential power of apology within Restorative Justice, the un-funnyness of out of date anti-German jokes; recycling; growing potatoes; the music of The Cat Empire… I clearly spout off about a lot of things. But I find it harder to tell people how good my paintings are and why they should buy one, or how well my talks have been received by schools and why they should book one, or  how great my forthcoming art course on the Greek Island of Skyros will be and that they really should enrol. And yet that is precisely what this admin week requires me to do.

Let’s see if I can make it less painful for myself.

According to the schools and the general public, my talk Crime, Prisons and Offenders – the role the Arts can play is: “brilliant”, “fascinating”, “inspirational”, “thought-provoking”, “intelligent”, “informative” and for many, “the best lecture I have heard”. If you book my lecture you will get to know why.

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I am also offering a new talk which I am very excited about: The other side – Germany, looking forward through the shadows of the past. Years of research into my own anglo-german dual nationality give a picture of an ordinary family in World war II Germany. I also reveal many interesting things that the English don’t seem to know about Germany’s post-war burden of guilt and how they are dealing with it. You can read more about it or book it here

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My mother and her siblings, Berlin 1945

As always my paintings are  available to view, buy or commission here.

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37˚ and rising 76x76cm (mixed media with oil)

And my forthcoming art course on the Island of Skyros from 6-19 July will be truly wonderful for anybody who would still like to book. It is a unique opportunity to learn some of my techniques (Read about them in the article in July’s edition of The Artist magazine) and to spend delightful days bathed in sunshine, warmth, laughter and tzatziki.

Oh roll on Admin Week and get me out there.

low res DSCF0041Greece…

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