angela findlay talks

Germany, remembrance and alternatives to punishment and shame

Category: WWI

100 years on – remembering to learn the lessons of history

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Wound in Time

by Carol Ann Duffy, 2018

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

chanting their bitter psalms, cannot heal it.

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

the earth nursing its ticking metal eggs, hatching

new carnage. But how could you know, brave

as belief as you boarded the boats, singing?

The end of God in the poisonous, shrapneled air.

Poetry gargling it own blood. We sense it was love

you gave your world for; the town squares silent,

awaiting their cenotaphs. What happened next?

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

History might as well be water, chastising this shore;

For we learn nothing from your endless sacrifice.

Your faces drowning in the pages of the sea.

 

 

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It’s time to remember… and this year even German footballers wore poppies

It’s Remembrance time. Red paper and enamel poppies are blooming on lapels all over the nation as people remember those who fought in conflict, and the huge sacrifices they made. Last night, the Festival of Remembrance at the Royal Albert Hall opened with a stunning rendition of “I vow to thee my country”. First, just three slow and quiet brass instruments; then violins joined in; then drums, voices, and finally the whole orchestra played, while flag- and oversized headwear-bearing members of the forces, marched into the hall in step with the music. We were only four minutes into the hundred-minute programme and the lump in my throat was already swollen and wobbling out of control. Gosh we do this so well.

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I felt very differently two nights ago, however. I had just finished giving my unavoidably somber talk Counter memorials: Germany’s post WWII culture of apology and atonement, when an elderly audience member told the hall about FIFA’s recent decision to allow players to wear poppies (last year it had forbidden them). And, he continued, the German team had also agreed to wear them. All the players would wear black armbands sporting a red poppy for the England / Germany friendly match at Wembley, on the eve of Armistice Day. I honestly wanted to cry, right there and then. But I couldn’t tell if I was deeply moved, deeply angry or some uncomfortable combination of the two.

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On the one hand, I felt awe at the magnanimity of the Germans, showing willingness to adopt the wholly British symbol, whose origin was about remembering – crudely put – all those killed by their forefathers in World War One. I know, I know, Remembrance today extends well beyond that, but nonetheless, the poppy is a singularly British image of our war dead, a huge amount of which died at the hands of the Germans. I wholly support the German decision, but I wonder, would we wear a German symbol that commemorates fallen German soldiers? ‘Bloody good on you, Germany’, I felt but didn’t say, that irritating lump having lodged itself too profusely in my throat.

On the other hand though, I felt furious. Just how much further do Germans have to go in acknowledging the wars? Now they even have to mourn our dead, while their dead soldiers barely get a nod! They, as the losing nation, didn’t, and still hardly, honour their soldiers, even though they lost 4-5 million in WWII alone, compared to the 1.7 million that the British (and Commonwealth) lost in both world wars combined. Of course it’s not about numbers, but that’s a lot of bereaved German families who have none of the comfort that their men will be remembered. For decades there were no memorials to German soldiers at all. They were all looked on with shame and silence. And yet many of them would have been no different to ours: men fighting for their nation. Very few people in this country have thought about what it is like for the losing side, for which stirring patriotism and national pride are anathema. I know that because I talk to audiences, of all ages, all over the country about this, and the overwhelming reaction is: “Gosh, I had no idea. That’s so sad / moving / wrong…”

Untitled.png‘In memory of the dead…’ A WWII memorial in Itzehoe, Germany

You can see I get disproportionally emotional at this time of year! My Anglo-German roots wrestle and strangle each other in my chest as I try to work out what Remembrance should, or could, be about, and to what end. It is wholly right to remember all those we do, but has our little red poppy symbol become so distractingly potent, that it can knock, or raise, public figures off and onto their perches, simply through its absence or presence? Surely that kind of “poppy fascism” (to use Jon Snow’s controversial words) isn’t the right way forward? To me, the difference of sentiments expressed in the words of the English and German football representatives respectively, sum up both what is good, and what is missing, in our culture of Remembrance.

Martin Glenn, the FA (Football Association) chief executive, said: “Remembering and commemorating the men and women who have served this country is ingrained in our nation. Many have made the ultimate sacrifice and we will be honouring them, both on and off the pitch, for our match against Germany. I would like to thank the German Football Association for also agreeing to wear the poppy for the match, in a show of solidarity and unity at this important time.”

Reinhard Grindel, the DFB (Deutscher Fussball Bund) president, said: “I positively welcome the decision to allow both the English and the German national teams to wear poppy armbands, because these are not about political propaganda in any way. They’re about remembering the kind of values that were kicked to the ground in two world wars, but are cherished by football: respect, tolerance, and humanity.

2008_0825Berlin080016.jpgKäthe Kolwitz: ‘To the victims of War and Dictatorship’, Berlin

The main distinction between the World War ‘winners’ and the ‘losers’ in their approach to Remembrance, is that the winners look back, to all that was. And the losers look forward, to what we should strive for. I think we need both. German WWII remembrance culture is a 365 days a year affair. Their memorials are visible and active reminders of the futility of war, loss, destruction, and discrimination, and they serve to help people learn from the past. Maybe, within the extraordinarily beautiful choreography and largely heart-expanding music (I’d personally prefer a little less of the Spielberg-esque sentimentality) of our Festivals of Remembrance, we too could include more of the gritty reality of war that Harry Patch, the last WWI veteran, knew all too well: “It was not worth it. It was not worth one, let alone all the millions.”

 

 

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”.

Simon Jenkins I would kiss you, if I could…

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…for your refreshing article on 30.01.14 in the Guardian:

Germany, I apologise for this sickening avalanche of first world war worship. The festival of self-congratulation will be the British at their worst, and there are still years to endure. A tragedy for both our nations.

http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/jan/30/first-world-war-worship-sickening-avalanche?commentpage=1

I too would like to apologise to the Germans for the largely immature, thoughtless, self-centred approach we seem to be taking towards this 4-year centenary. What on earth do we think we are doing? To what end are we striving with all this emphasis on ourselves as a nation of heroes, victims, winners? Our obsession with our victory a century ago is being seen with bemusement on the continent. Read some of Germany’s responses to Michael Gove’s renewed attempts to push the whole blame for the start of WWI on the Germans. Every parent knows that finger-pointing is childish. And yet the Minister of Education (of children no less) is still doing it 100 years after the event??! It’s not as if we are an otherwise innocent and peaceful nation that is regularly and reluctantly dragged into wars. Our leaders are gung-ho and ready to go. Look at Blair and Cameron chafing at the bit to get back into battle at the first opportunity.

Don’t get me wrong though. I believe in remembering; I believe in acknowledging the suffering of and sacrifices made by so many; I believe in commemorating the end of a war; and I believe in feeling pride for the outstanding acts of bravery within the parameters of a battle. But, and it’s a big but, all sides involved in a war are made of people: brothers, wives, sons, mothers, friends… And by celebrating our victory we are in effect celebrating the deaths and suffering of our then-enemy, who in fact had been our close friends and are now our allies. Do we really have to push the Germans down (again) in order to elevate ourselves to our favourite position of victors and heroes? Germany, naturally doesn’t have the same obsession with their role in the war(s). And as a result they have an inclusive, humble and sensitive approach both to war and remembrance. Couldn’t we embrace the idea that there are no real winners, just lots of losers, and that remembrance of the horrors that all sides went through can serve as an incentive to never let it happen again? Because the longer and louder we keep blowing our trumpets, the longer and more blatantly we will look ridiculous.

Book Angela Findlay’s new talk.  The other side: WWII through the eyes of an ordinary German family. www.angelafindlaytalks.com

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