angela findlay talks

Germany, remembrance and alternatives to punishment and shame

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

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

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

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

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

United enemies - Thomas Schuette - P1010321.jpg

United Enemies – Thomas Schütte (1993-4)

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


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


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.


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.

IMG_6217.jpgIMG_6218.jpg                                                    Pages of the Sea, Weston-super-Mare

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


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.


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.”


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.


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.



‘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.


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


Minefields of ticking time bombs just waiting to explode

Pentonville Prison is “crumbling and rife with vermin”. HMP Birmingham is in a “state of crisis”. Prison staff protest over “unprecedented violence” in jails. “Biggest UK prison riot in decades could and should have been prevented,” report finds.

We have been reading one such headline after another for months now, actually years, probably decades. Almost everything about our prison system is failing and contributing to this dire state: chronic overcrowding, understaffing, lack of purposeful activity, easily available drugs, squalor, rises in violence, self-harm, suicide… they are all interlinking, poisonous contributors to what is becoming a system wholly unfit for purpose. Yet still nothing substantial is done.

Artwork from this year’s Koestler Exhibition on the Southbank

We, as a nation, as a society, are continuing to sleepwalk into a crisis that can only end in a Grenfell Tower-like nightmare scenario brought about by cuts and neglect; brought about by certain groups of people not caring about the well-being of other groups. After the event, it will come out that people had been warning the government, councils, officials of the inevitability of a tragic or dangerous outcome for years. They will describe how all their suggestions had been continuously ignored. There will be anger. There will be a promise of an inquest. Apologies will be made, lessons will be learnt, new standards will eventually be put in place. All after the event that could have been avoided in the first place through the use of a tiny bit of common sense.

Another artwork from the Koestler Exhibition

These are human beings’ lives we are ignoring. Not just the lives of the prisoners, but the officers, the families, the victims, the members of each and every community… We as a nation need to understand that it is in EVERYBODY’S interest that we change this country’s policies on the main purposes of prison. That we listen to the experts like the Howard League for Penal Reform and the Prison Reform Trust. That we stop changing Justice Ministers every five minutes and develop a new vision in which the rehabilitation of prisoners rather than their constant degradation and punishment is seen as the logical way forward for us all. Because releasing even angrier, more humiliated and degraded people back into society does not make sense for anybody.

The Koestler Trust Exhibition can be visited on Level 1 of the Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre until 4th November. Open 10am-11pm daily.

Blessings in the Accursed Mountains

I am just back from hiking in Albania, Kosovo and Montenegro. “Why there??” people asked me, instinctively conjuring up images of gangsters, blood feuds, genocide and war. Two articles about the Accursed Mountains and the Peaks of the Balkans trail had captured my imagination and ten days of trekking through some of the most remote landscapes left in Europe proved my instinct to be right.


Following a local guide, our daily hikes took us through the raw beauty of green valleys lined by jagged silver summits soaring into the intense cobalt of the August skies. The gentle chimes of grazing cows’ bells mingling with light breezes passing through pine needles were broken only by our own puffing as we step-by-stepped our way up the steep inclines. And like the sun breaking through clouds, the warm smiles of shepherds invited us into their makeshift ‘Cafés’ for thick black coffees or fresh yogurt. ‘Accursed’ these mountains were not, indeed we felt blessed. But it was not ever so.


Abandoned bunkers bore witness to the decades of paranoid communist rule under Enver Hoxha, the Albanian head of state from 1944-1985 and his cruel Sigurimi secret police. 175,000 of them once peeped out of rocky outcrops and coastlines like periscopes.


Similarly, a few austere stone ‘kullas’ or towers of refuge stand as reminders of the bloody feuds demanded by the Kanun, the largely oral law that ran parallel to the judiciary one. Made up of four pillars – Honour, Hospitality, Right Conduct, Kin Loyalty – many of the laws were designed to prevent misconduct of any sort. In certain circumstances, however, all four pillars colluded to create a devastating eye-for-an-eye code of vengeance that turned the Christian ‘Thou shalt not kill’ into its opposite. Strict rules defined exactly how killing was to be handled and executed, committing some families to decades of reciprocal murder if permanent truces could not be achieved.


IMG_4884.JPGThe Tower of Refuge at Theth, and inside where discussions would take place

As we walked through villages and stayed in basic log huts run by families as guest homes, the only pillar apparent to us was that of hospitality. A heartfelt warmth streamed through the steady gazes of our hosts’ smiling eyes and even in places with no electricity, a hose pipe for a tap and a barrel of cold spring water for a fridge, the boundless generosity, cleanliness and care people took in providing for their guests was deeply touching. And delicious.



Possibly the biggest gem of all to shine in these mountains was our guide, Arineta Mula. Strong, beautiful, gentle and funny she is the face of triumph, not only over adversity but also of the peaks for which we strove each day. As a 9-year-old in the 1998-99 Kosovo war, her family had fled their home in Peja only to be rounded up by Serb forces and locked in a petrol-soaked sports hall. NATO intervened just in time to save their lives but they were still far from safe. With their house destroyed and their remaining worldly possessions in bags, young Arineta climbed her first mountain as the family fled to Albania. This long climb would sow the seed of her passion for mountaineering that has led her and two others to become the first Kosovans to reach the top of Mount Everest. And with two of the other ‘Seven Summits’ already under her belt and almost enough funding for the other four, she looks to become an even bigger national hero than she clearly already is. After all the knowledge she shared with us and all her kind attention to our needs, I can only offer her the same encouragement she gave us and pass on to her the blessing bestowed on me by an old cheese maker living in a ramshackle shelter: “May the sun shine on your journey and in your heart, Arineta.”

IMG_5540.jpg Arineta Mula

Albania’s face is now rapidly changing as endless new glass and mirrored corporate buildings, hotels and temple-like petrol stations are erected further south. But the hiking trips, so beautifully organised by Balkan Natural Adventures, will continue to offer curious visitors glimpses of untouched beauty that are both rare and precious.


Further information at Balkan Natural Adventures https: //


And finally, a fascinating read about the blood feuds is Ismail Kadare’s Broken April.



War… what is it good for? (Absolutely nothing?)

Over the past 4 weeks, I have been listening to this year’s Reith Lectures “The Mark of Cain” by historian Professor Margaret MacMillan. They are all about war and they are brilliant. Personally, as someone who is equally comfortable / uncomfortable with creativity and destructivity, I find the questions she is exploring absolutely fundamental to what it is to be human.

To briefly summarise:

In her first lecture, Margaret MacMillan asks if war is an essential part of being human. Are we destined to fight? In her second lecture, she explores the role of the warrior in history and culture and asks why both men and women go to war. In the third lecture, she discusses the relationship between war and the civilian and the impact of conflict on noncombatants. And in her fourth lecture she assesses how law and international agreements have attempted to “manage” war. There is a fifth still to come, on war and art.

All of what she says is fascinating, but for me there are a few key points she makes that are vital if we want to understand war. And, as she herself emphasises, we have to understand war if we want to stand a chance of containing it or even preventing it.

The first point in her own words: “We like to think of war as an aberration, as the breakdown of the normal state of peace. This is comforting but wrong. War is deeply woven into the history of human society. Wherever we look in the past, no matter where or how far back we go, groups of people have organised themselves to protect their own territory or ways of life and, often, to attack those of others. Over the centuries we have deplored the results and struggled to tame war, even abolish it, while we have also venerated the warrior and talked of the nobility and grandeur of war. We all, as human beings, have something to say about war.”

It is true. Just as night and day, life and death are integral components of the whole human experience, so are war and peace. Destruction is a necessary part of the process of creation and creativity, aesthetics, design are part of the theatre of destruction. War and peace are intrinsically related and bound to each other.


The second point she makes is: “We are both fascinated and repulsed by war and those who fight.” This is exactly what I have found while researching and writing my book about my German soldier grandfather. I have felt almost guilty for feeling both those things, and more. War is utterly repulsive, devastating, appalling but it is also exciting, glamorous, awe-inspiring. There is exhilaration in destruction as well as opportunities to reach new heights of bravery, comradeship, adventure, honour, compassion. It is the intensity of living in life/death situations that many people yearn for in times of peace.

A third point is that war also can bring about advances in and benefits to a society. Social change, like women getting the vote having proved their capabilities at filling the male roles left vacant when the men went away to fight; or divides between the very rich and poorest of society being reduced; or the establishment of organisations such as United Nations. Wars often make old structures crumble and corrupt leaders topple. Would total pacifism allow these necessary ruptures in society and their ensuing benefits to happen?

War is usually justified by those who start it. It is “the application of organised violence to gain ends and get others to do what you want” (MacMillan). Machiavelli said “War is just when it is necessary”. Aristotle wrote that the aim of war should be peace. There used to be rules that set bounds on how wars were to be fought: organised truces, the ring fencing of those who were not to be attacked or killed, rules about surrender or the treatment of POWs. But… war, by nature, gets out of control. And now, more than ever, it targets civilians.

It was Sir Arthur (“Bomber”) Harris who declared in the 1940s, “The aim of our bombing is not to knock out specific factories. The aim is the destruction of the German citizen, the killing of German workers and the disruption of civilized community life throughout Germany.” Just as the rape of the enemy’s women has been seen as a legitimate reward for soldiers, in total war it becomes legitimate to attack civilians.

Modern developments on so many levels are resulting in wars across the world becoming increasingly out of control and deadly. To me, full-blown pacifism now feels inadequate and out of reach as an immediate solution. And yet striving for peace has to be the way forward. But how? I think my basic approach is largely in line with Professor MacMillan’s when she says that we have to understand ‘the others’ as well as ourselves. We need to recognise that people on ‘the other side’ also suffer. We need to see each other as humans.


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”.

Good news and great ideas… or just bleedin’ obvious and long overdue?


So there’s good news and bad news on the prison front this month.

The good news is that the Justice Secretary, David Gauke, has declared that “there is a role for the arts” in criminal justice. He believes it’s a good idea. In an interview with The Times on May 25th, Mr Gauke said “the creative sector is a big employer, you hear stories of someone involved in a prison production who ends up in the West End as a lighting technician…” He wants “a culture of rehabilitation” that encourages “drama, writing and painting in prisons.”

Feltham - Christopher copy.jpg

For a prison service that is close to breaking point, this is good news indeed. And Mr Gauke is making sense in other areas too. Twenty five years ago the prison population was 44,000, now it’s 84,000. He wants it to drop. He recognizes that in terms of rehabilitation, short sentences do not work. Tagging could be one alternative to incarceration. There should also be alternatives for many women and mentally ill prisoners. He believes in the power of work to change people’s lives. Apparently he also wants to start a wider debate about “what punishment means”.


It’s all good stuff. So what’s the bad news?

It’s not exactly bad, it’s just not as good as it sounds. Mr Gauke is the fourth person to occupy the position of Justice Secretary in the three years since Michael Gove (love him or hate him) self-imploded taking with him all his well-received proposals for prison reform. Mr Gauke’s ideas are not new. They are ideas that most people in the sector have been voicing for decades. Fighting for even. For many of us, they are so obvious that it is baffling that politicians are able to voice them with the earnestness that they do.

Reforms like these have been promised again and again but nothing ever actually gets done. So while I welcome Mr Gauke’s words and intentions, I will only applaud them and regain hope for our dire prison system when I see action. That will be the genuinely good news so many of us are waiting for.


To read more:


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.

Version 2

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.


Unconditional obedience or conscientious disobedience? Which should it be for a soldier?

Interesting things are happening in Germany in relation to the army. Did you know that in early 2020 the British will close the last British garrisons in Germany and all units will be transferred to the UK? Some training areas will remain in British hands, but this will be the end of an era – more than 70 years, to be precise, of British presence in Germany since the end of the Second World War. I have to admit I had no idea that we were still there.

But that isn’t the only way in which, on a military level, things are changing. Just on Wednesday the German Defense Minister, Ursula von der Leyen, signed a new “Traditionserlass” at an army barracks in Hannover. An almost impossible word to translate, it is a form of proclamation, or edict, defining the traditions that a soldier in Germany’s Bundeswehr (federal armed forces) can refer to, and which they cannot.

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Unlike British soldiers who can draw on the traditions of their army’s past with pride, present-day German soldiers are faced with a dilemma as the Wehrmacht, (the army created from the Reichswehr of the Weimar Republic and operational in the Nazi-era) were complicit in some of the war crimes. The soldiers, like my grandfather who was a professional soldier and cadet from the age of 10, had had to swear allegiance to Hitler and no other authority. It made most of them feel bound by duty.

After the war, the Wehrmacht was declared “clean” by former Wehrmacht officers, on the one hand wanting to protect themselves and, on the other, wanting to preserve its warrior cult image of brave men willing to fight to the end. This ‘cleanness’, however, was aggressively disproved in the 1995 Crimes of the Wehrmacht exhibition in Hamburg. The evident complicity of the armed forces, particularly in Russia, delivered a huge blow to people who had clung onto the image like a life raft, and cast a shadow over the German army that still lingers to this day. I remember the tangible shock rippling through my own family as their family narrative shifted shape.

What is coming out at the moment, triggering the need for this ‘Traditionsnerlass’, is that even today some German soldiers are drawing on that period of their organisation’s history as a source of strength. Last spring, in a search of all the barracks, hundreds of Nazi helmets and insignia were discovered. This far right extremism is what clearly needs addressing through a kind of belated de-nazifiation process. From now on, it is the history of the traditions of the 60+ year old Bundeswehr that will be drawn on for inspiration.

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All that said, I find it fascinating, and admirable, that within the German military, crucial debates have taken place. Like “When should a soldier disobey an order?” The question alone appears to undermine the very concept of the unconditional obedience of a soldier. But as a result of asking it, the German military manual states that a military order is not binding if it is not “of any use for service” or cannot reasonably be executed. German law forbids the use of its military to do anything other than defend Germany itself, even though it does participate in some humanitarian and NATO coalition missions. The military emphasises “innere Führung”, basically an “inner leadership” based on conscience. As a result, German soldiers can refuse combat assignments or disobey orders, obviously only with legitimate grounds, with no consequences.


It’s also somehow reassuringly symbolic that the place where new soldiers are traditionally sworn to their duties is the Bendlerblock, a Berlin museum to German resistance built on the site where some of the participants of the 1944 ‘Stauffenberg’ assassination attempt against Hitler were executed. My grandfather, as a Wehrmacht General, was approached to be part of this plot but declined. He believed it was murder and “…because I reject all violent politics. We soldiers have to obey and not start a revolution…”

I think this captures the bizarre and tragic moral dilemma of those dreadful times. I’m fascinated by the lessons of history that Germany has learnt, and continues to learn. There’s much more to think about on this subject, and I am doing it every day as I write my book, but for this month, Happy Easter and/or beginning of Spring!

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