Dresden… a spectacular phoenix rising from the ashes

My recent trip to Dresden and Leipzig reminded me what wonderful places German cities can be. Particularly in summer when the music of high quality buskers wafts through squares lined with outdoor cafés offering chilled Grauburgunder and Pfefferling (chantarelle) dishes with white asparagus; when young people ride on rickety city bikes across the cobbles, hands dangling by their sides. It’s only the ever-present cranes punctuating the skyline of sloping roofs, or the gaping, pulled teeth-like gaps between buildings that remind you that all you are looking at was, in the not so distant past, rubble; grey, gaunt, improbably upright façades standing sentry among collapsed homes and destroyed families. 

I have to admit, before I went to Dresden I had questions about travelling to a reconstructed, rather than original, Baroque city. I questioned whether destroyed buildings should be re-built and replicated or whether their ‘death’ should be seen as an opportunity for something new. Or whether a 21stcentury appearance of 18th century architecture still constitutes an historic monument. My first sighting of the city’s famous profile of domes and spires lining the river and my subsequent face-to-face meeting with the ‘Florence on the Elbe’ quickly rendered those questions superfluous. Dresden is simply beautiful.

Of particular interest to me as a newly elected trustee to the London-based Dresden Trust, was the city’s most historic and well-loved landmark, the Frauenkirche. Its bombed remains had been left untouched by the communist regime of East Germany for decades, both as a symbol against war and a memorial for those 25,000 killed in the notorious 2-day aerial bombing attack by Britain’s RAF and the USA. 

After the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall and 1990 reunification of Germany, the future of the Frauenkirche became a focus of the widespread national debates and philosophical soul-searching still continuing to this day. 1993 then launched seventeen months of clearing, documenting and organising the 23,000 cubic meter mound of rubble with characteristic German thoroughness. 8,390 interior and exterior façade stones and ceilings were saved as well as over 90,000 back up blocks and other features. By 2005 – to cut a much longer story short – the church re-opened. Crowned by a shining golden orb – donated by the Dresden Trust as a heartfelt gesture of reconciliation from the people of Britain and created by a team of silversmiths headed by the son of a Bomber Command pilot – the church now proudly dominates the bustling Neumarkt once again, almost a literal phoenix raised from the ashes. 

The golden orb donated by The Dresden Trust

In a former industrial area a few miles away is the antithesis of the Frauenkirche’s resurrection. Housed in an empty gas container, the huge 360˚ digitally processed panorama of the bombed city by the Berlin-based artist, Yadegar Asisi, is almost as mind-blowing. Visitors enter the cylindrical space at ground level but can climb a centrally erected scaffold tower to view the city from various levels. Against a backdrop of music, lights dim or flicker to emulate night or bombs as people stand in silence staring at the abyss of destruction.

Dresden, 1945. A section of the 360˚ Panometer by Yadegar Asisi

Looking at this seems to viscerally insult ones humanity, possibly all the more so because, though we have all clocked the pointlessness of war many times over, “This time, we were the pigs”. In that devastating space, the guest book entry of an American visitor resounds with rare indisputability. This was ‘us’. Whatever our justifications for bombing Dresden – and there are always apparent justifications for aggression, just talk to violent offenders, listen to politicians – we designed bombs to have the maximum impact, not just on buildings or military targets but on civilians. It was an act that rightly continues to needle our ‘heroic victors’ narratives and shake the moral high ground we want to, and often do, occupy. For that reason alone, I am grateful for Dresden. 

Left: one of two original walls left standing

Nearly seventy-five years on, only the dark sections of the original Frauenkirche and the blackened stones that polka-dot the soft sandstone exterior like plasters bear witness to the horrors of those two fateful nights in February 1945. As normal life buzzes at its feet, the church, often filled with music, stands defiantly, a profoundly moving symbol of peace and reconciliation and a testament to the sheer bravery, optimism and determination of Dresdeners.

D-Day was mind-boggling in every way. So how should we ‘remember’ it when we have no more firsthand witnesses?

With all the D-Day commemorations and talk of heroes of the past week, I have to think of my naval English grandfather. His contribution to D-Day was possibly a little less than heroic. He had been invited to give a naval lecture at his son’s prep school and somehow, failing to realise they were still under security wraps, told a room full of enthralled, wide-eyed boys about the Mulberry Harbours. It was only when he spotted two even wider-eyed parental marines in the audience that he realised the top-secrecy of the information he had just imparted. Convinced he would be court-martialled, he emerged from a sleepless night hugely relieved to find the allied landings splashed all over the morning papers’ front pages.

I have to admit I have been profoundly moved by the commemorative ceremonies of D-Day’s 75th anniversary. It’s of course a well-known story but the BBC’s live coverage of events, first by Huw Edwards in Portsmouth and then by Sophie Raworth in Bayeux cemetery, felt particularly fresh. With the help of original footage, the incredible story of Operation Overlord was brought to life by historians Dan Snow and James Holland and some of the 300 or so nonagenarian veterans who had travelled there for the occasion.

What struck me anew was the sheer scale of the invasion. It is unsurprising that it is still considered the most ambitious and biggest land, air and sea operation ever in history. Every aspect of the assault is almost impossible to imagine, not least the out-of-the-box thinking, off the scale planning and coordination that lay behind it. As one of my single father friends said, “organising a picnic for two is hard enough, so I cannot begin to imagine how they organised…” – and here I’ll give you a few facts – 7000 ships and landing craft, 10,000 vehicles and 156,000 troops to land on a fifty-mile stretch of French beaches within a tiny window of good-enough weather. For the ensuing Battle of Normandy, they had to design and construct two harbours the size of Dover and then somehow get them across the channel. 442,000 cubic meters of concrete had to be transported; breakwaters were created out of old scuttled transport ships and warships of allied countries; they had to build jetties for the millions of tons of supplies and the two million men that would be needed over the next months: an estimated 8000 tons of fuel per day, half a million tanks, gliders, undersea pipelines, self-heating soup cans, air-portable motorbikes…. it’s utterly mind-boggling.

Veterans at Portsmouth

But facts and logistics aside, if that’s possible, the focus of these two days of commemoration was undoubtedly on the raw courage of the men involved. Approximately 4,400 allied soldiers were killed in the Normandy landings of June 6th 1944 and a total of 22,442 men and women died in the subsequent months of the Battle of Normandy. Many of those who fought were mere teenagers; many were conscripts who didn’t want to be there; none of them had any idea if they would return. Seventy-five years on, the last witnesses were returning to the sites of their nightmares to remember their mates who didn’t come back. In spite of the rows of medals proudly displayed across their chests, most don’t see themselves, nor do they want to be seen, as heroes. “A hero is someone who does something they don’t have to do,” said one. “I just had a job to do and I did it.” Instead, it was the friend “who gave his most precious gift, his unfinished life” who was the hero.

Veterans lay wreaths in Bayeux Cemetery

We have followed many veterans over the past decades, but watching and listening to these men had more poignancy than anything I have ever seen in terms of remembrance. Shrunken by age and accompanied by young serving personnel, they tottered across stages or among gleaming rows of beautifully kept war graves to lay wreaths or share their stories. The emotion was tangible even through the television screen as cameras moved in on old faces of men staring into a far distance where the roar of battle still resounds, their usually stiff upper lips wobbling as they wistfully recall their friends or quietly re-live the memories of carnage and gunfire that have privately haunted them for the past seven decades. I can’t think of a more powerful tribute than seeing a 95-year-old veteran with tears in his eyes, saluting.

Veterans in Bayeux Cemetery

Through them, we can touch history. But what happens when they are gone? I already feel a sense of nostalgia for the old-school dignity, modesty and courage that defined them. And what about the lessons they implore us to learn: Keep away from war, resolve for it never to happen again and remember. This Channel 4 footage of two British and German veterans meeting for a beer makes it clear just how painful, to the point of impossible, it has been for some of them to extend the hand of friendship to their former enemy. But when they are gone, I think that kind of future-orientated reconciliation is precisely what our remembrance culture should focus on rather than past victory, heroism and ‘triumph over evil’. “Too much remembering is a dangerous business,” Simon Jenkins says here and I agree.

As is always so clear on such occasions, our current world war commemorations are also designed for the families of those who served. Every soldier or casualty of war is someone’s son or grandfather, wife or mother, so could we from now on extend the healing attributes of honour, gratitude, pride and remembrance to others beyond ‘our own’ and re-dress the imbalance of our history books by broadening our victor’s narrative to include a far bigger picture of what actually went on for us to win the war?

It’s good that the 40,000 French civilians shot for resisting were included in these celebrations. There was also acknowledgment of the occupied French living in daily terror of the Nazi regime and the vital roles of the millions of men and women working behind the scenes in factories, hospitals, Bletchley Park as well as all those who risked their lives to report on the front lines. But President Putin, who wasn’t invited, reminded us that the Russians are also worthy of remembrance and gratitude for the three years and gargantuan losses they endured fighting German forces both prior to and after D-Day. And American friends, whose grandfathers had fought just as bravely in Italian campaigns, told me they wanted them be given the same level of acknowledgment as the D-Day heroes.

Angela Merkel in Portsmouth

I don’t expect anyone to share my thoughts for German soldiers, but on this day I found myself imagining those young German men who woke up in their bunkers on June 6th 1944 to the terrifying spectacle of 1,700 enemy ships rolling towards them like a tsunami from hell. Many of them were conscripts and “just doing their job”; many of them didn’t want to be there; many had instant psychiatric breakdowns and up to 9,000 became D-Day casualties. Many of them will be the fathers and grandfathers of our German friends today.

Other articles on the subject:

It’s time to move on from these overblown commemorations of war | Simon Jenkins | Opinion | The Guardian

The Latest: German ambassador talks of war ‘we provoked’            

75 years after D-Day we’re still astounded by the sheer scale of Operation Overlord

Doing time… or simply wasting time?

When you work in prisons or other extreme situations, certain snapshot images ink themselves on the walls of your memory. Hidden from view for much of the time, they appear like a tattoo when a sleeve is rolled up. I have one such image that often causes me to stop and think. 

Doing time

It came about on one of my morning rounds, walking from wing to wing gathering up the participants of my art class to accompany them to the art studio. I had a key for all the locked gates through which you had to travel to get anywhere in the prison, but not a key for the cells. Casting his eye over my list of names, a prison officer stuck his metal key into a cell door, turned twice and pulled. The door opened to reveal a small, wiry man sitting on a neatly made, metal-framed bed just staring at the narrow space in front of him. He was dressed and ready for another day of… nothing; of waiting for time to pass. The slight slump of his body and thin, grey hair combed back from his forehead accentuated his pallor as he slowly turned his head to face us. Blank eyes betrayed a hint of the resigned surprise of someone who had got used to the loss of all privacy and power. For a tiny moment our eyes met. Was it a flash of hope I saw before the officer, realising his mistake, pulled the door closed without a word and locked it once again? I stood motionless as he studied the list and moved towards another cell, imagining the tiny man turning back his head to continue staring through the tidy arrangement of objects on the table opposite him: a single mug, a jar of cheap instant coffee, a toothbrush and a roll of toilet paper. 

I still see this man when I am running though wild garlic-filled beech forests or soaking in the exuberance of my mother’s colourful flower beds; when I feel the warmth of sunshine or the heat of a bath. I think of him still sitting there alone, just quietly waiting… wasting. And that basically sums up what our prisons are. One big waste: of time, of money, of opportunity, but, worst of all, of human lives. If you put aside questions of whether a person is guilty and deserving of punishment and, for one minute, place yourself into his cell and slip on his shoes… what do you feel? 

I know I bang on about it, but I hate waste. And the illogic of locking people up in increasingly depraved conditions with nothing purposeful to do, and then ejecting them back into society with the expectancy that they will somehow be changed for the better, urgently needs to be addressed. We all know the benefits of exposure to nature, the arts, colour, fresh air, exercise, work, self-discipline, being listened to… the list is long. So why, why are we systemically depriving the people in our prisons of all those things? The prison service’s self-declared mission is to help offenders lead “law-abiding and useful lives on release.” Yet in practice, it too often does the opposite.

As Brexit procrastinations continue to drag minds and resources away from pretty much all other societal issues and constant changes in Justice Secretaries and Prison Ministers prevent anything from getting done, our prisons are becoming even more overcrowded, understaffed, drug-infested, inhumane, dangerous and failing institutions. There are thousands of my ‘small, wiry man’ sitting on beds in tiny cells, over half of them with literary skills of an eleven year old, many of them victims of violence, neglect and abuse as children, each costing £38,000 per year, each just waiting and wasting while we become increasingly guilty of ‘looking away’. 

So what can you do? There are lots of wonderful initiatives, charities and people trying to make our prisons better places. Let the government know the current situation is unacceptable by supporting their work. Here are a few suggestions: Prison Reform Trust or Howard League for Penal Reform or The Forgiveness Project or The Koestler Trust or contact your local prison and offer to teach literacy, become a prison visitor or mentor to someone on their release. You will probably find it incredibly rewarding!

Japan’s heartfelt call for peace… but could it be even stronger?

Whose call to peace is stronger? The call made by victims of conflict, or the call made by former perpetrators? That was the question I found myself asking as I wandered Hiroshima’s Peace Memorial Park earlier this month. 

Memorial Cenotaph
Hiroshima Peace Park
The A-Bomb Dome
The A-Bomb Dome

Japan is unique in so many ways. It’s a fascinating place of extremes and contradictions, where sublime beauty and attention to detail exist beside mass-produced, plastic-wrapped ugliness. I don’t think I have ever been to a place where so many things feel completely alien.

Of course Japan is also unique for being the only country in the world to have been victim not just to one, but two nuclear bombings. And it is very clear from the messages in Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum that that narrative has played a strong role in defining how Japan sees itself today. Throughout the park were heartfelt messages offering pacifism and reconciliation as a path forward. 

I honestly can’t imagine how anybody could emerge from the Peace Museum’s collection of photographs and preserved artefacts untouched by the epic tragedy. Twisted clocks stopped in their tracks at 8.15am and the charred remains of a lunch box or child’s tricycle serve as illustrations to the deeply moving and disturbing testimonies of eyewitnesses or parents, whose children blistered and bubbled to their deaths. Surely nobody can think atomic warfare is a good idea. 

And yet, as I wandered the park, I found a “but” forming in my mind. Not about the inarguable suffering of the inhabitants of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but about the fact that the Japanese were also known for being the aggressors of ruthless cruelty, particularly in the Pacific theatre. For their call for peace to be truly effective, I needed ‘Japan the perpetrator of huge suffering’ to stand hand in hand with ‘Japan the victim’. But this admission of guilt is largely lacking. And maybe it is wrong of me to expect Japan to respond as honestly as Germany in this regard. After all, is it not just responding the same way as all countries… in fact, most perpetrators of crime… well actually, most of us as individuals when it comes to our own misdeeds?

Over the years there have been expressions of remorse, such as Prime Minister Shinzō Abe expressing “deep repentance” for Japan’s actions during World War II at a Joint Session of the United States Congress in 2015. But one could see this through a cynical lens, as a strategic move designed to emphasise Japan’s reconciliation and alliance with the USA: Two former enemies turned staunch allies become leaders in the promotion of free value and the rules of engagement in the international community. Meanwhile, Japanese textbooks focus on the suffering the Japanese public had to endure and gloss over Japan’s own devastating actions as an imperial power. Even when they do acknowledge them, it is again as a victim. They look at Japanese foot soldiers’ suffering in Burma, Thailand and Indonesia, ignoring the perspective of the countries colonised or attacked by Japanese forces, like China, Korea and South East Asia.

After my talks on Germany’s culture of apology and atonement, I am often told stories of parents who had fought in WW2 and been able to forgive the Germans… but not the Japanese. Germany was, of course, every bit as cruel albeit in a different way, but it has long held up its national hands in the most unconditional admission of culpability and display of penitence any nation has ever shown towards its own deeds. When people wonder why Japan hasn’t done the same, it could be argued that the answer lies in the reversal of the question: Why has Germany done so much? For Germany is utterly unique in this regard and Japan is merely following the tradition of all other nations around the world. 

The idea of national guilt and the potential need for a nation to apologise is a newish one. And, having been a staunch supporter of apology as a way to forge a new identity, I am actually questioning its importance as a gesture long after the event. True apology is deeply transformative, but when it comes to retrospectively apologising on behalf of a nation, can an apology by people who didn’t do anything to people to whom something wasn’t done have any real effect? So I think my question is now taking the shape of: How can a nation acknowledge its misdeeds and actively dismantle their negative legacy? This could be in relation to slavery, colonialism, war crimes, discrimination… By doing so, we open up the possibility of having dialogues that are less binary than the divisive, fact-based discourses about perpetrators and victims, right or wrong, good or bad etc. and rather focus on the experiences of individuals now; how they have been impacted and what would help them.

So, in answer to my opening question ‘Whose call to peace is stronger?’ I think I would answer, that of the former perpetrator. Because, in order to arrive there, they have had to pass though a deeper process of unflinching honesty, self-reflection, humility and genuine transformation.

Between Birth and Death lies Brexit and very little else it seems… until you enter the world of Art

In these final weeks before the Brexit deadline, I should probably be saying a few words. I’m prone to giving little speeches after all. But I just can’t bring myself to join in the clatter of opinions and emotions. Indeed, when we cross the March 29th threshold, I will be far away in another country, and slightly hoping to get stuck there. Anyway, there are more important things in life than bloody Brexit as my recent visit to the Bill Viola / Michelangelo: Life Death Rebirth exhibition proved. 

On a beautiful, sunny Sunday morning, I arrived at the still closed doors of the Royal Academy determined to be first in and to have my long-standing hero, Michelangelo, to myself with all the quiet intimacy his tiny, yet exquisite drawings require. So I entered the first darkened room wholly unprepared to come face to face with a floor-to-ceiling-high woman squatting with splayed legs in the final throes of childbirth. Next to her, equally huge, a ghostly figure swirled like white ink dropped in black water. And beyond that, the hollow-cheeked face of an old woman sucked her final breaths through a respirator. 

Bill Viola Nante’s Triptych (1992)

While very moving, Bill Viola’s video installation Nante’s Triptych is, in some ways, a fairly obvious depiction of humanity. Between the life-filled rotundity of the baby’s face and the sunken cavities that collapse the old woman’s into little more than a skin-covered scull, lies what we call ‘Life’. Birth and Death become mere moments, portals into and out of the human experience. 

But standing in front of these huge videos I saw something else too. It was like I was staring at a visual rendition of one of the underlying plots of the book I’m writing. For, as I took my first breaths in a nursing home in Kent, my German grandfather was heaving his last in the family home in Schleswig Holstein. Our lives overlapped for a mere six days and yet, behind the changing backdrops to my physical existence, he too continued to exist. As I tripped and tromped my way through the various milestones of my life, he was there; an absent presence, like the shadowy figure of a backstage assistant, moving behind the scenes, invisible to the audience but essential for the illusion of the stage ‘reality’. “The dead are invisible, they are not absent,” St Augustine had said. And looking at that central panel, Viola seems to be saying that too; we all occupy the same space, between Birth, Death and Rebirth.

Michelangelo The lamentation over the Dead Christ (1540)

Overtaking other early visitors immersed in subsequent room-sized Viola installations, I eventually reached a row of Michelangelo’s drawings and shrank my full attention into each one in turn. And there I saw what I value most in the world. There, vibrating through the tiny pencil strokes evoking Mary’s extreme tenderness towards her child, the weightlessness of Christ’s resurrection and the dynamic muscularity of writhing male figures, was the most sublime evidence of the soul. That invisible part of us that transcends birth, life, death… even Brexit. In this country the word ‘soul’ is often spurned for its religious connotations. As a result, even the concept of soul is all but ignored or avoided by modern politics, the school curriculum, medicine and science… but not by Art. In Germany, the word for soul is Seele. It effortlessly encompasses all that is intangible about us – mental, psychological, emotional, spiritual, psychic – so it is more liberally embraced and supported in many spheres of life. This is what I fear we have been losing sight of in pre-Brexit Britain; that essence of what we love and value about a Michelangelo or any other truly great piece of art.

Michelangelo Three labours of Hercules (1530-33)

Whatever happens on March 29th – ok, here we go, here’s my penny’s worth on the subject of Brexit – I see Britain as a nation in grave danger of losing touch with its soul. The fool’s gold of ‘economic growth’, ‘financial independence’, ‘control’, ‘national identity’ and ‘greatness’ with which we are endlessly pounded will merely dump us on a new shore battered, divided and disorientated. Some people and businesses, above all in the City, will thrive, but many more won’t because those aren’t the things that make a nation as a whole happy, fair or humane. Look at the 45% rise in knife crime of recent years… it’s not just down to the cuts in policing. Neither is an increase to policing the main solution. No, this country has been short-sighted and plain wrong to cut out and close down so many of the small things that nurture and nourish peoples’ souls; youth centres, productive activities in prisons, learning assistance, the arts… Those are the things that make a real difference to many peoples’ lives. That’s why I am choosing to duck beneath the turbulent political waves rocking our country and beyond, to fill myself with art and cultivate spaces where the quieter qualities of soul and all that we as humans share in common, can thrive. Because without those, Britain will become infinitely poorer whichever way Brexit goes.

Message to pupils of a Catholic school I recently talked at.

This article by Ben Okri on transcendence in art is one of the best I’ve ever read: https://www.royalacademy.org.uk/article/bill-viola-michelangelo-ben-okri-birth-transcendence

Bearing witness to war… thanks to Marie Colvin and Don McCullin

Marie Colvin: “Despite all the videos you see [from governments] and all the sanitised language… the scene on the ground has remained remarkably the same for hundreds of years. Craters. Burned houses. Mutilated bodies. Women weeping for children and husbands. Men for their wives, mothers, children.”*

Don McCullin“War is partly madness, mostly insanity and the rest of it is schizophrenia.”

UK Defence Secretary, Gavin Williamson: “Brexit has brought us to a great moment in our history. A moment when we must strengthen our global presence, enhance our lethality and increase our mass…” and be willing to take military action and able to deploy “hard power”.**

While the ‘War’ Secretary flexes our national muscles, anti-war rhetoric is headlining in cinemas and art galleries. And I for one welcome it with open arms because it is coming from people who have experienced war first hand.

Seven years ago, on 22nd February 2012, Marie Colvin, one of the most celebrated war correspondents of our time, was killed while covering the Siege of Homs in Syria. The recently released film A Private War is a powerful homage to her and the relentless bravery she displayed at the frontlines of the world’s most dangerous conflicts in order “to bear witness” to the human suffering. Easily recognisable by her trademark black eyepatch, American-born Colvin worked for The Sunday Times for more than 25 years. By the time she died aged 56, she had probably seen more war than most soldiers.

Paul Conroy and Marie Colvin on her final assignment
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