angela findlay talks

Germany, remembrance and alternatives to punishment and shame

Category: World War 2

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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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.

“We write to understand…”

As I write my February blog, Sir Anthony Beevor, historian and bestselling author of epics such as “Berlin” and “Stalingrad”, is talking on Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs. I am humbled by his ongoing questioning of the facts in spite of his already huge achievements in bringing World War 2 to life in extraordinary detail. And I’m grateful for his admission of how hard it is to research this horrendous episode of history. His voice wobbles as he talks of reading the gruesome accounts of the rapes, murders and infinite human suffering. “We write to understand,” he says, emphasising the necessity for us to “learn the lessons of history”.

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For years now, I too have been staring into the darkness of German history, the soil in which half my family’s roots reside, trying to understand what happened, how something like Nazism and the Holocaust could have happened. I read and read and watch endless footage, like a detective piecing together the evidence from a crime scene. I don’t have any need to blame or justify, I just find my eyes straining in their attempts to make out the outlines of some kind of meaning to it all, for anybody.

Germany as a nation has heaved itself out of the rubble, brushed itself down and with cap in hand has apologized, over and over again. And now the shroud of silence in which post-war Germans wrapped themselves with a stubborn “We knew nothing”, is also finally being shed in painful spasms as more and more grandchildren excavate their family stories in search of the truth. In his brilliant new book The German War: A Nation Under Arms 1939-45, Nicholas Stargardt dispels the myth of total ignorance of what was going on once and for all by gently revealing the inner thoughts of German soldiers and civilians as expressed in their letters and diaries. For many people, however, it is still too painful, too shameful, to go anywhere near their past and I can totally appreciate why.

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Writing my book is without doubt one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. For months now I have been living in the sepia world of the 1940’s, digging down like a miner into the bloodied soil of Germany’s past to retrieve the shards of its shattered reality. Each time I come up for air I have to adjust my eyes to the bright lights of 2017, re-learn how to laugh and talk and enjoy. But like the Sunday evening of a weekend home from boarding school, the impending descent back into the mineshaft looms, until I climb down the ladder and re-enter the blackness once more, waiting for my eyes to adjust before I can continue my work.

It is indeed painful work. It challenges family loyalties threatening to expose the wounds around which new lives were built, like barbed wire absorbed by tree trunks on their way to the sky. It hurts to question the thoughts and actions of your own much-loved grandparents in those impossible times, to grasp what decisions they were faced with and to accept their possible fallibility. I don’t want to be the surgeon that rips off the bandages that held their psyches together, for I too am on the operating table, and yet the promise of understanding, of learning the lessons of the past, and of healing both generations, overrides everything, like the promise of gold urges the miner to keep on digging.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

“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 ?

 

 

Germany’s welcoming response to the refugee crisis doesn’t surprise me. The more Germans are allowed to acknowledge their own WW2 traumas, the more their personal and collective memories of the horrors of the 1944-50 flights and expulsions come to light.

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Germany’s ‘open house’ policy and newly attributed “moral leadership” within the mounting refugee crisis was indeed initially surprising. It certainly wasn’t always so. I’m remembering the 17-year-old boy I met in the nineties when I was working as an artist in Cologne Prison. His name was Christian and he had been placed in the special segregated unit there because his crime was so contentious on a national scale. He was one of four young Neo-Nazis responsible for burning down the house of a large Turkish family in Solingen in May 1993, killing three girls and two women and injuring fourteen other family members. It was the most severe instance of anti-foreigner violence in modern Germany and in 1995, Christian was found guilty of murder, attempted murder and arson and sentenced to 10 years.

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He joined my art class in September’93 and in my notes I wrote: “Strange, he has the “courage” to throw fire bombs into a house to destroy 5 Turkish people and yet when it comes to painting in a communal picture, he is so hesitant, unsure of himself, scared. He paints delicate flower heads with blue petals with incredible care and concentration… and gets very hurt when other members of the group destroy them.” This apparent contradictory combination of tenderness and vulnerability mixed with extreme hatred and violence often surfaced in such prisoners’ artworks and would no doubt also be visible in the works of today’s perpetrators of violence.

Fortunately the relatively few Neo-Nazis today are the last of the extreme right Germans determined to maintain the legacy of Hitler’s pathological racism and nationalism. In the nineties they still had support from some ordinary people who applauded them when they burned down refugee camps. However, Germany and Germans have changed, even the tabloid press coverage of the current crisis is more sympathetic with one paper, Bild, printing out information sheets in Arabic for refugees.

There are many layers and reasons behind this change but one important one has to be the on-going emergence of the war-torn memories and personal traumas long suppressed within German families and long ignored by the World War 2 narrative of the history books. After the war, the experiences of the German population were considered irrelevant in the face of the trauma Germany had inflicted on others. Its status as a country of immigration has always been denied yet most Germans today will have family members who have memories of being caught up in the massive migrations of 1944-5 when 14 million people of German ethnicity were on the move. Largely made up of old people, women and children under 16, the stream of refugees were either fleeing westwards from the rapidly advancing and avenging Soviet army, or were forcibly expelled from their more eastern countries of origin – East Prussia, Pomerania, the Baltic states etc. It was a quarter of the German population and, as Neil Macgregor, out going Director of the British Museum said, “is the largest episode of forced mass migration in history”.

VertreibungLike the refugees today the Germans only had what they could carry with them. Unlike the refugees arriving today however, they arrived in a largely destroyed land where they were not welcome and were seen simply as a burden and threat to the already scarce housing and resources. On arrival in the Allied Occupation Zones some expellees / refugees were interned in former concentration camps, like Auschwitz less than 2 weeks after its liberation by the Soviets. Or they were placed in labour camps where they were often subjected to sadistic beatings, torture, sexual violence and malnutrition. Other expellees lived in refugee camps; many were just stranded and some, like my mother and her family, were able to live with relatives.

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The story of my mother’s escape by train from a burning Berlin and the brutal Russian army in 1945 impressed on me, already as a child, what it must be like to lose everything – home, belongings and every other symbol of safety and familiarity. I have vivid imaginings of her as an 11 year old, being rudely woken at 4am, grabbing a hideous new doll instead of her love-worn, old one, and being taken with her little sister to the heaving Berlin main station where they were shoved through the window of a train leaving their mother and older sister behind to a fate unknown. Weeks later they too left to catch the last train out of Berlin, locking the door of their home behind them never to see it or any of their belongings again. I imagine this story resonates with millions of Germans then and so many millions more people now.

Christian was an extreme example of post-war German xenophobia. His heinous act back in 1993 along with the atrocities of the Third Reich in the 1930s-40s may, however, have contributed to Germany’s slightly unexpected current role as “moral leaders”. Could it be that it really is lighting the way forward for all other European nations and beyond to what is widely perceived as the “right thing to do”? Either way, I am proud of Germany’s government for its spontaneous open arm policy and proud of the Germans for going out of their ways to make it happen instantly. I just find it frustrating that the Volkswagen corruption scandal (how can people be so stupid?) is now distracting from this otherwise clear demonstration of a country that has collectively learnt the lessons of its past.

Left right, left right, left right…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Holocaust Memorial Day, 27th January 2015

 

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Today was Holocaust Memorial Day, commemorating the day Auschwitz-Birkenau was liberated by the advancing Soviet army seventy years ago. Today Jews and non-Jews alike were reminded to remember what so many of us have no personal recollection of. Reminded how important it is to remember so that it will never happen again.

Today was also the launch of my talk on German Memorials and Counter Memorials, the second in my trilogy of talks “The other side” about World War II from a German point of view. It was a happy coincidence that King William’s College on the Isle of Man invited me to give this particular talk on this particular day, for it encouraged me and my audience not only to think about the victims of the Nazi policies of annihilation but also about the perpetrators and Germany’s ongoing and thorough process of apology on behalf of them.

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One would hope that remembering the victims and the horrors would be enough to prevent such atrocities being repeated; that humanity as a whole would have learned the lessons. Alas, Bosnia, Rwanda, the Sudan, Cambodia and all that is going on now prove the truth in Primo Levi’s warning: “What happened can happen again.”

The last survivors of Auschwitz are still alive amongst us, offering us glimpses into a time and world that, even to them, must now be almost unimaginable. Their stories travel to our schools and enter our lives through our televisions, radios, and Internet. And yet even seventy years on, we still can’t fully grasp how, or even that it could have happened. For those of us who are non-Jewish and do not experience the visceral pain of having lost whole generations of our families, the stories and images still have the ability to shock, filling us with incomprehension at the extremes to which humanity, or rather inhumanity, can go. In Britain we have been spared the fate of becoming victims, fleeing persecution and war, losing everything we had to live in freezing, filthy, disease-ridden conditions. It is easy to feel complacent and confident that that won’t happen to us here. And maybe it won’t. But what I often wonder is how quickly any of us could become perpetrators. The jihadists have brought massacres of innocent people into our societies and the recent Charlie Hebdo incident in Paris has galvanized people into action and protest. It would be easy to point our fingers and blame the people we feel threatened by, just like ordinary Germans did in the 1930s (albeit largely due to the anti-Semitic propaganda). And I imagine that just like ordinary Germans  became capable of actions, or non-actions, that no one would have ever imagined, so could any of us. Give us a shortage of water, a shortage of food or fuel or wood or even just cut off the Internet or phone lines for a wee while! It wouldn’t take long…

I know it is important to remember but sometimes I ask myself why it is so important to “remember” something that was before our time. What are we remembering? On what level? And to what end? These are questions I am going to be asking throughout this year in monthly blogs and a programme of talks, art exhibitions, collaborations, writings and discussions. 2015 is the 70th anniversary of the end of WW2 and 10 years since I started my research into my German roots. And to mark the occasion I want to see what can help us truly learn the lessons of history, what can we ourselves do, to ensure that “Never again” really is never again.

 

Image 1: Gleis 17 / Platform 17, Grunewald Station, Berlin (1998)

Image 2: Memorial for the deported Jews of Berlin (1991) by Karol Broniatowski

Remembrance Sunday: “David Cameron was close to tears and bit his lip…” For goodness sake, that sounds like something out of Fifty Shades of Grey.

It’s 11am on 11.11.14 and that makes it time to write down my thoughts and reflections on what has been going on recently in terms of Remembrance.

Watching the Albert Hall Festival of Remembrance on Saturday night, I was struck once again by how well we British do pomp, symbolism and ceremony. It was truly powerful and with its combination of stirring music, potent narrative, and visual spectacle it has become an art form. Developed and refined over decades, it is designed to move you. And these days, I am quite sure, to make you cry.

Which is why I came away once again feeling slightly irritated by it. Irritated by the format that we are used to seeing  in the films of Spielberg and other directors of sentimental, patriotic films, designed to manipulate your heart strings and tear ducts  Nothing necessarily wrong with that, except that we seem to be living in a era where showing emotions, and watching other people showing their emotions in order to make us show our emotions, is not only de rigueur but essential to good viewing. It’s actually quite a feat to succeed at making such grandiosity sentimental. I don’t want to knock it as the sentiments definitely have their place. And there were many, many genuinely moving bits. Personally the inclusion of the young German boy praying in German for reconciliation and peace was the brave, albeit blink-and-you-miss-it, touch that I so long to see more of.

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But once again I have to ask, what are we being asked to do? On the one hand we are remembering (though most generations now can’t “remember” they can only imagine) and honouring those who died; those who gave their lives “in the ultimate sacrifice”. And of course that is crucial, “lest we forget”. But, in order for those men and women not to have died in vain, isn’t it of equal importance that we remember, with as visceral an experience, the true horrors of war? I’m not suggesting that there should have been dismembered limbs and shrapnel raining down on the audience instead of poppy petals, but by beautifying the ceremony to the extent it was, are we not being lulled into continuing the belief that war is all about honour, patriotism and other such lofty values?

I am wondering if some of the language we use hasn’t become outmoded to the point of being sloppy, ambiguous and actually not true. Doesn’t “The Great War” for example still smack a little of triumphalism? And if World War I really had been “the war to end all wars” there wouldn’t have been a Second World War, nor would our politicians be quite so gung-ho about entering into current war situations.

And talking of politicians, there was one bit of BBC commentary (and I usually love the BBC) where the commentator revealed that: “David Cameron was close to tears and bit his lip”. For goodness sake, that sounds like something out of Fifty Shades of Grey. I mean really, of what interest or relevance is that to the event? Why does his political position have anything at all to do with our personal or collective processes of remembering? (Unless it had been a demonstration of remorse and humility by Tony Blair of course.)

OK, I know I am biased. I study, write and lecture about the German process of remembrance and how different it is in form and effect from the British process. Their constant and overt references to their own aggression, destructivity and shame have made them into a nation of active pacifists. I accept that one could dismiss this difference as being purely due to them being the ‘losers’ and us the ‘winners’. But I don’t believe that is the point. Can we really talk about winners and losers in relation to WWI when more than 16 million are dead? Does the presence of poppies everywhere (oh no, I have stumbled into the contentious domain of poppies) really do the job well enough? Poppies were and are a great national symbol, but they seem to have gained such momentum and significance that they actually might be preventing us subsequent generations not only from grasping the horrors of all warfare but also from acting in ways that will ensure that it really doesn’t happen again. It is all too easy to substitute deep and effective contemplation with a poppy.

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That said, like most people I too love the ceramic poppy field at the Tower of London, an immersive and beautiful spectacle. But its disappearance is critical to the concept and its success as a memorial. The fact that Boris Johnson and The Evening Standard successfully campaigned to have its presence extended and preserved is missing the point and robbing it – and the people – of its potency. Those 888, 246 service men who died didn’t have that chance to extend their lives for even a second. Missing the poppies, losing the poppies, confirming the poppies to memory, those are the kinds of experiences that will teach us to love and treasure what we have, to act on opportunities while they are there and to preserve the memories in our own hearts “Lest we forget”.

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