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