I found it almost impossible to write over the summer or to organise my thoughts into some sort of coherent flow while the sun shone outside producing the intrepid army of courgettes that now lies liquidized in my freezer. Instead I hung out in Nazi Germany, trying to organise 9 years of research into a 40 minute talk for schools and as yet unknown audiences. It was a process of willing black and white photographs to come to life to reveal what has been lurking in the corners of Germany’s post-war national silence for 50 years. But I also found myself wondering (with regular twangs of self-doubt) what the point is of still talking about this subject? And is it still relevant and important for today’s younger generations of English and Germans to engage with Hitler and the Holocaust, or have Bin Laden & other contemporary despots taken his place as ‘Dr Evil’?
Many of todays under 50-year-old Germans express having “die Schnauze voll” (a full snout, or being sick to the back teeth) of the themes of Nazi Germany and national guilt. Does that impart the message: “What Grandpa did has nothing to do with me. I don’t have to bear his guilt”? Or are they expressing the desire for release from the incessant discourses and policies of atonement and apology that infuse German political, social and cultural life?
With the benefit of only being half-German I have enough distance to still find the subject infinitely fascinating without being fully identified with it. But it’s an on-going and at times difficult process trying to unravel how the inevitable impact on my mother of such a huge historic episode ended up having such a defined, albeit less tangible, impact on me.
Whether it’s conscious or unconscious, many Germans of the grandchild generation do bear the burdensome, yet often denied, guilt of their grandparents. According to Harald Welzer’s research “Grandpa wasn’t a Nazi”, two thirds either see their grandparents as heroes, resistors or victims of National Socialism. It’s natural to defend your family but as far as I am concerned, that is enough reason to keep talking about it. For me it has only been possible to understand my grandparent’s position in this period by looking at their potential, albeit unwitting, culpability in the face. In her memoirs my grandmother conveys the fear of living under a dictatorship and challenges her critics by asking what they would have done? I ask myself the same question. And in my talks I ask my audiences the same. Plus: What do they do in the face of discrimination, racism, injustice today? We wouldn’t all be the heroes or resistors of our daydreams or online personas, nor mere victims. So at what point do we, even in our inaction, become ‘guilty’?
After a couple of rehearsals of my talk, I learnt from the comments made that there were various points to it. But above all it was the personal stories of my grandfather, my mother and me that were relevant in bringing to life the challenges, decisions and actions of an ordinary German family in and after the Second World War. Maybe it is important to remember that as humans we all have choices. But we also have fears and weaknesses.
For more information on my talk The other side: The Second World War through the eyes of an ordinary German family please go to http://www.angelafindlaytalks.com