angela findlay talks

Germany, remembrance and alternatives to punishment and shame

Category: WW2

‘Shot’ for what you represent

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She flushed and shifted in her chair.

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

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

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

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

 

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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.

 

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Remember…

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

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

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

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

Or can one never remember enough?

 

 

Standing in their footprints…

What is it that makes standing in the exact location of something historical, momentous or simply in the footprints of someone famous, so thrilling? Or horrifying? On Tuesday I was standing on a stage in the beautiful east coastal town of Aldeburgh ready to give one of my talks on Germany’s WW2 memorial culture when someone said, “You’re standing exactly where Bill Nighy stood last night”. It was tiny but there it was, a subtle tingle, a flutter of excitement. I like Bill Nighy and I liked knowing that I was so hot on his heels, talking in a venue in which he too had talked. But what’s really happening, what are our bodies or minds reacting to when we are in the presence even of such tenuous claims to fame or significance?

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This visceral reaction to places or objects that are linked to certain people or events has always fascinated me. The idea that the physical world can hold the memory of something or someone is not new. It is what lies behind the religious culture of relics and its modern day equivalence seen in the inflated profits that arise at auctions of Margaret Thatcher’s handbag or Princess Diana’s Versace dress. Holding my deceased father’s hairbrush is for me a way of feeling him close. People just do feel more strongly connected to other people via “things” or places.

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Three weeks ago I was in Munich, both to visit friends and cousins and to do research for my book about the long shadows of WW2. There is probably no other city in Germany in which visitors can bump so casually and frequently into the hefty pillars that supported the rise of Nazism. On a two-hour walking tour we visited the beer hall, scene of the famous 1923 Beer Hall Putsch; the site of the ‘Brown House’, now destroyed but then headquarters of the NSDAP (National Socialist German Worker’s Party); the Gestapo Headquarters; the Führerbau, now a Music School, where the 1938 Munich Treaty was signed by Western leaders in a hopeful attempt to halt Hitler in his tracks. And just outside the city, is Dachau, the first Nazi concentration camp, site of infinite suffering, cruelty and death and home to the infamous sign Arbeit macht frei (Work sets you free).

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With my now well-trained imagination, I find it easy to superimpose the black and white photographs of the 1930s and 40s onto the vibrant, colourful scenes of contemporary Munich and bring them to life. The cobbled streets and stone walls of the massive buildings seem to whisper me some of their memories. I can ‘hear’ the synchronized march of Nazi boots, the cheers of jubilant crowds that once filled the vast squares. I can ‘see’ the bombed devastation behind the renovated facades. Nothing, however, prepared me for Nuremberg.

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It’s a medieval town, home to Albrecht Dürer, Kaspar Hauser… and the Nuremberg Rallies of 1923-38. I visited the Rally grounds with the now almost obligatory Information Centre, one of hundreds around the country casting an unflinching gaze on every aspect of Germany’s Nazi past. I walked past the unfinished Congress Hall where a young couple was posing in full wedding attire for a camera.

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I walked around the edges of the Zepplin Grandstand with its countless entrances enabling people to stream in with the greatest ease and fill it to maximum capacity. I walked along the now overgrown rows of stone seats that had once looked out onto the spectacle…

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and then onto the small platform from which Hitler had addressed the people.

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The scale of the place, the vastness of the now empty space bar a few parked lorries, it was nothing less than completely horrifying. I felt terror fill my body. I felt sick. I hurt from the ache of pure dread. Never have I stood in such a powerful place, the exact place from which Hitler had fired his deadliest poison arrows into the minds and hearts of ordinary Germans.

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The air echoed with his evil words disguised as virtue and full of empty promise; the space filled with the theatrical displays of military might. I could see the whole force of the Nazi movement in all its ugly, popular power. And for that moment, standing in that place, I understood it all. How it had happened. How it had worked so effectively. But far worse, I understood the hitherto unthinkable thought, that it could, one day, all happen again.

But it won’t, not it we don’t let it. Not if we don’t forget that it did.

 

 

Munich in March

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

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

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A video installation outside the former Nazi headquarters

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

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

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

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

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Infront of the Staatskanzlei / State Chancellery…

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

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

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

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Jewish memorial at Dachau

What purpose does Holocaust Memorial Day serve for those generations who can’t “remember”?

On Monday I was invited to give my talk about Germany’s memorial culture of apology and atonement (read more) at Brighton College as part of their Holocaust Studies Week. One student asked a question being debated by current historians: “When can we let WW2 recede into the past like other episodes of history do?”

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Today, 27th January, is International Holocaust Memorial Day, the date that marks the day Auschwitz-Birkenau was liberated by Soviet troops in 1945. It is the day on which we are asked to remember the 11 million victims killed in the Holocaust – 6 million Jews and 5 million Soviet POWs, homosexuals, Sinti and Roma, mentally or physically disabled, Roman Catholics, political dissidents, ethnic Poles, Slavs and Ukrainians. All had become victims of the Nazi hatred that deemed them to be “Untermenschen”, literally ‘beneath’ or ‘below’ human; sub-humans. They were killed because they were seen to be a threat to the ideal world image that Hitler and his followers were striving to manifest.

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From where we are standing now Nazism looks more like the fantastical and elaborate plan of a Bond villain. And the fact that the Holocaust played out in as cultured and civilized a country as Germany is still baffling. Of course we now all sign online petitions and march in the streets in protest of the tiniest things, and here in Britain we are at very low risk of becoming victims of genocide anyway. So why do we have Remembrance Days like today?

I always find the word “Remembrance” problematic in these situations. We can’t possibly “remember” people we didn’t know in the first place. We can only remember the fact that millions did die in worse than horrendous ways. But is that enough? Maybe it’s being half-German and therefore having a more complex relationship to what happened, but I’ve come to see Holocaust Memorial Day as being more about trying to imagine and empathise with the millions of families that have to live with the huge, gaping voids left behind by those who were killed. For, like open wounds, they will be felt by generations to come.

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 I also think today is about learning – all of us really learning – the lessons of the past. And part of that learning is the recognition that prior to the extremes of genocide, there are many stages; it does not happen on its own, played out by others, somewhere else. It is a subtle, steady process, which can start with the disgruntled murmurs of discrimination or calls for exclusion that we can already hear in the face of the current, impossibly difficult refugee crisis. How easy it is to see people who are different to “us” as “other”, even as less deserving of a place within our image of how our world should be. And how easy it is to think that because we are not actively doing anything we are not perpetrators of any such discrimination and exclusion.

Germany’s counter memorials are daily reminders that “It must never happen again”. They ask everyday Germans to remain vigilant. Here in Britain we are more distanced from the Holocaust, and yet ultimately, under pressure and in certain situations where we feel threatened, none of us are immune to becoming complicit, even if it is simply by looking away. Maybe that is why WW2 can’t be allowed to recede into the past quite yet and maybe that is one of the purposes of Holocaust Remembrance Day.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Daring to look your family’s past in the face

Last week a Chinese schoolboy approached me after my talk The other side: The Second World War through the eyes of an ordinary German family. Slightly trembling and in broken English he asked me if I had been frightened looking into my family’s past. In my talk I describe the journey I started 10 years ago, of peering deep into the darkest episode of modern history to discover what role my family, above all my German grandfather, a decorated Wehrmacht General, had played, or may have played. I knew the boy was asking this question for a personal reason, the shadows of his own family demons were almost visible, passing like clouds over his terrified face.

My grasp of Chinese history is woefully thin. I wracked my brains for atrocities or events that this boy’s family member(s) could have been involved in. Tiananmen Square in 1989 sprang to mind along with the general sense of horrors perpetrated by Chairman Mao’s regime. But actually it didn’t matter whether I knew the precise what, when, where and who of his story. What mattered was the impact it was having on his life.

It has happened before that my story has resonated with people of different nationalities. I have had a number of young German pupils as well as elderly men or women come up to me after my talks to shake my hand, and thank me. Sometimes the older people are in tears. It seems that in my story they recognize a story that is also theirs but which they themselves have not been able to tell. Recently I had a young Russian sixth former offer me an apology on behalf of her grandfather in return for the apology I had offered for mine. Hers had fought in the notoriously fierce battle for Berlin right at the end of WW2 in which the brutal rape of German girls and women from 8-80 years old had not only been commonplace but also positively encouraged. The girl who approached me knew her great grandfather had been part of this and, though she was born 50+ years later, she wanted to say sorry to me.Allemagne, Berlin. 2 mai 1945. Le drapeau rouge flotte sur les to”ts du Reichstag

I was born 20 years after the end of the war and, similarly, my grandfather had been part of Hitler’s massive invasion that swept through her grandparent’s land killing tens of millions of Russians. I too had needed to say sorry for that. So here we all are, the third and fourth post-war generations all with something in common: a shared sense of guilt and shame and a need or desire to apologise… for something we didn’t do.

main_1200It’s so strange, that people who have genuinely committed horrendous deeds can often feel no guilt or shame, but rather justification, as so many Nazis did. And people who have done nothing wrong – rape victims, survivors, children – can feel guilt and shame for their mere association with bad deeds, even if they happened long before they were born. For the latter, once identified, the sense of guilt can generally be more easily dispelled with facts. As Brené Brown brilliantly defines in her inspiring Ted Talk Listening to Shame https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=psN1DORYYV0 the difference between guilt and shame is that guilt is for something you have done. Shame, however, is for who you are. And that’s what makes it a lot harder to shift. Shame is a widespread and international epidemic. It can be a debilitating state of low self-esteem, isolation, disconnection, violence or self-harm, depression, fear of being vulnerable and showing yourself, of excelling or even of feeling worthy of love, joy and the good things in life. But there are ways through it.

And so I found myself reassuring the frightened Chinese boy at my side, that whatever his family member had done, he himself was not guilty. He had not done it. What he might feel, however, is shame. And of course fear. I certainly had felt fear of what I might discover but I now know that the very first step towards shedding the shame is to overcome that fear and to look the deeds of the relatives and forefathers in the face.

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