Germany, remembrance and alternatives to punishment and shame
Author: angela findlay
Angela Findlay is an Anglo-German artist, writer and public speaker with years of experience working in prisons in England and Germany. She now lectures around the country and is writing a book about WW2 from the German perspective.
I’m really interested in the question of what ‘British’ means to people now. I am curious which images of Britishness are conjured up by Brexiteers. What British means to Black Lives Matter (BLM) protestors, NHS workers, army officers, staunch Conservatives and practicing artists alike. And what British means to you, whether you are British or not.
The reason for my interest comes partly from reading Afua Hirsch’s excellent book, BRIT(ish). Born to British and African parents and raised in middle-class Wimbledon, she explores questions of identity on personal, collective and political levels and reveals the on-going challenges and prejudices faced by many black British. It’s shocking, moving and humbling. And it offers potent insights into Britain’s evident desire to be ‘post-racial’ before it has properly confronted the deeply embedded racism derived from old but intractable beliefs in the superiority of whiteness.
As a person born to parents of differing nationalities, I have often occupied myself with questions of national identity. Now I am fascinated by the concept of ‘British’ more than ever because, from where I’m standing, Britain and Britishness are hurtling towards a potentially exciting cusp of change. I don’t mean the very tangible changes we, along with much of the world, are making as a result of the Covid pandemic. I also don’t mean the changes that will inevitably come about as a result of Brexit and our divorce from the EU. I’m not even referring to the changes the prime minister and government are plotting in order to make Britain ‘the greatest place on earth’. No, all those proposed changes, a bit like HS2 in a post-Covid world, feel slightly old and out of date already. Most have a reactive feel to them, like sticking plasters, firefighting or making-it-up-as-you go-along.
Change is rarely comfortable. And fundamental change even less so. Many people fear it and tend to hold tightly to the status quo in preference of disruption. But I am keen to understand precisely what qualities of ‘British’ people are wanting to hold on to. Because it seems to me, and I am far from alone in this, that Britain – whatever that means – is holding onto something, or at least desperately trying to hold onto something. Critical words that have been around for decades in smaller circles are suddenly trending in new publications, articles and programmes. Where Britishness may once have conjured up images of fish and chips, rainy queues, Mr Bean and the Royal Family; or diplomacy, reserve, wit and multi-culturalism, the main things now being cited both here and abroad – and not without considerable sadness and dismay by countries that have deeply admired and loved the UK – seem to be largely scathing criticisms. Above all, of prevailing attitudes: British self-importance; self-congratulation; delusions of grandeur; flag-waving patriotism; exceptionalism; self-entitlement; immaturity, isolationism, archaism… it is not a flattering list.
What has happened? It’s long been clear that Britain has never got over winning the war and, though it’s less verbalised, losing its empire. Boris Johnson is busy channelling Churchill and the language used by many of our leaders merely reveals how stuck they are in ruts of victor/loser rhetoric on the one hand, and nostalgia on the other. Both are ossified and now misplaced attitudes that infuse national thinking and hinder their ability to respond to the very specific demands of these unbelievably challenging times with the appropriateness some countries with lower death rates have displayed. And of course, our pride in our victories and apparently benign empire is only partially justified anyway. There are far broader perspectives to explore and embrace that will not only bring honest nuance to our favoured narratives, but also acknowledge the lingering dark shadows we have cast over whole areas and peoples in our past. As Afua Hirsch says, ‘Britain definitely has secrets. They lurk in the language and the brickwork and the patterns of society.’
Why is it important to look at them?
Why do we need to look behind us before moving ahead?
Because until we do, many options and possibilities for the future will remain closed to us, not least in relation to the biggest challenge facing the world, climate change. Like a person riddled with festering wounds, Britain cannot move forward with the light optimism it so desires. It can only limp making the wounds more livid. But once we have tended to the hurt, trauma and ethical redress needed to heal our past, we will be able to move forward less hindered. We can then start the process of integrating the fragmented aspects of British society into a healthier, synchronised whole. This more inclusive version of ‘British’ with its stronger, more contemporary identity will restore us to the position of respect and admiration we long for and will then rightly deserve.
It won’t be comfortable… but it will be deeply healing and liberating in the long run.
In the meantime, while I am aware that English, Welsh and Scottish also have individual identities, please send me the words and qualities that ‘British’ conjures up for you.
What we choose to remember and why are questions that fascinate me, particularly in relation to the World Wars. For how we think of and present the past shapes the future. It’s therefore important to keep up with national narratives and August 2020 has offered a smorgasbord of anniversaries to study. On 6th August, Japan commemorated the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The 14th August was South Korea’s third Japanese Military Comfort Women Victims Memorial Day remembering the women forced to work in Japan’s military brothels. And here in the UK and elsewhere, 15th August was Victory over Japan or VJ Day marking Japan’s surrender and the end of the Second World War. For America the commemoration is actually 2nd September when the official surrender document was signed.
In spite of my on-going interest in WW2 I have known little about the war in the Far East other than Kamikaze pilots, brutal ‘Japs’ and the TV drama series Tenko shown in the early eighties about British, Australian and Dutch women held in a Japanese internment camp. I can still recall the sand-coloured heat, cruel captors and tattered dresses of sun burnt women. I of course have known more about the atomic bomb dropping on Hiroshima, but always as primarily an American/Japanese conflict. It wasn’t until I went there last year that I learned just how involved the British had been in the whole decision-making process.
As it turns out, I am not alone in my ignorance. Aside from widespread awareness of the notorious Japanese cruelty towards those they held captive – POWs, women and children alike – and the physical and mental scars from which many never recovered, it’s a fact, the war in the Far East always played second fiddle to the western imperative of beating the Germans. Even in 1943, troops in the Fourteenth Army fighting the Japanese in Burma referred to themselves as the ‘Forgotten Army.’ Post took months to arrive, resources were limited and their battles went unmentioned in newspapers. Yet by 1945, with around 1.3 million men and women having served in it, it was the largest army not only in the Commonwealth, but the world.
I’d never heard of it. Nor did I know until yesterday that when surviving troops finally returned to the UK in 1946, they were told specifically not to talk about their war but to ‘move on’ like everybody else had been trying to do since VE Day. So, having already been overlooked while fighting some of the most ferocious battles of WW2, they were now being requested both to forget and be forgotten once again. It’s a good example of the selective nature of memory, whether personal or collective. And it highlights the importance of ‘re-membering’ the full body of a past, especially those forgotten parts that were dismembered and sacrificed on the altar of a carefully considered national narrative.
This year’s VJ Day commemorations will have educated many of us on the Pacific War not least its multi-national nature. Gurkhas, Sikhs, Indians, Australians, Canadians, Africans, Americans, Welsh, Scottish and more fought side by side, united in their shared goal of defeating Japan. The 606,000 men that made up the aforementioned Fourteenth Army commanded by General William Slim were from 20 countries speaking 40 different languages. 87% were Indian, 3% African and 10% British.
The BBC’s morning coverage of VJ Day, The Nation Remembers, reflected this beautifully through a multi-cultural programme of readings and music by British Asian actors, Indian musicians, Scottish and African soldiers. Set amongst the conveniently socially distanced trees of the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire and with an incessant breeze ruffling hair and dresses alike, uniformed regiments casually mingled with royal dignitaries and politicians, while elderly veterans clad in best suits and medals shuffled on the arms of descendants or sat on benches staring into the far distance. “To all who served, we thank you,” said leaders from around the world in an online video. The presenter Sophie Raworth and historian Dan Snow once again sensitively drew out memories and stories to paint pictures of almost unimaginable scenes. But it was the veterans’ determined efforts to lay a wreath or stand up for the 2-minute silence that best captured the grit and humility of their generation.
The more formal ‘Nation’s Tribute’ in the evening provided another moving, albeit more polished testament to their resilience. Hosted by Joanna Lumley – in her serious Gurkha supporter and presenter role rather than the Champagne-swigging Patsy of Absolutely Fabulous – and against a stunning backdrop of visuals projected onto Horse Guards Parade, we heard further multinational perspectives by veterans, including ‘Captain Tom’, our lockdown hero.
I could listen to them for hours but our national culture of Remembrance clearly has a remit both to entertain and make us cry. So, in keeping with tradition, military bands, glittering celebrity singers and an actually wonderful danced fight performed by knife-bearing Gurkhas punctuated the programme.
All in all, this event was less nationalistic or victorious and more inclusive than any previous ones I have seen. Maybe Covid-19, maybe the Black Lives Matter protests or maybe increased maturity has finally nudged our commemorations towards the humility of those that knew the horrific cost of war behind any victory. There was even a small injection of public self-questioning into the rightness of such contentious acts as the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. That’s new. And very welcome.
As always, veterans asked us to remember those that fought; to ‘appreciate the value of the freedoms we enjoy’ for which so many gave their lives; and ‘to resolve never to be involved in another war.’ Akiko Macdonald, a Japanese woman married to an English man and working with veterans on both sides, called for reconciliation: ‘Yesterday’s foe is today’s friend.’ And Prince William asked us once again ‘to learn the lessons of the past’. I have often done that too in my talks and blogs. But this year I found myself asking what ‘learning from the past’ could mean for us today?
What I have learnt from the largely overlooked war in the Far East is the importance and power of working together, of overcoming difference to unite in a common goal. If we are to successfully tackle the enormous environmental, economic and social challenges the whole world faces, we need to learn to operate as a united body. Just as the Fourteenth Army overcame the challenges of national and cultural difference, we need to see beyond and rise above all that divides us. We need to pool resources, ideas and energy for the greater good of everyone. For as General Slim recognised in his journal, it was the ‘comradeship’ within the Fourteenth Army that ultimately turned defeat into victory.
To watch the BBC coverage of the Commemorations I mention
Things have to change… surely no-one could disagree with that? For Covid has neatly lined up in plain sight all that is unsustainable, unjust and disproportionately vulnerable in our society. The question is: How? Who can we rely on to bring about change? I have already gone through a list of potential candidates to lead the way – the prime minister, politicians, councils, charities, schools – but they are all tied up in complicated knots of agendas, quotas, targets, financial restraints, guidelines… the list is long. So I have been asking myself, what I personally can do. But aside from the things I already do, I haven’t come up with much that doesn’t involve getting angry or overwhelmed to little effect.
It’s quite easy to become despondent isn’t it? In spite of my initial high-octane optimism that this pandemic was a global wake-up call of such volume that nobody could sleep through it, I have to admit to succumbing to little bouts of chocolate- and mid-week-rosé-fuelled Can’t-be-arsed Syndrome myself. Because as lockdown eases, it has become increasingly clear that some of those in positions of power haven’t woken-up. It’s sort of not in their interest to. So that leaves us to bring about the changes. You, me, him, her, them. And I think I have finally identified two places we could start. One is in the past, the other in the present.
In order to move into a new future with lightness, vision and energy, we need to face and reconsider our past. History is intrinsically linked to identity – who we are and how we got here – and is broadly made up of heroes, victims and villains. Of course it’s natural to want to see your ancestors and nation as heroic. And if they can’t be heroes, then victim. The move to villain, on the other hand, is huge, hard and largely unprecedented. But people need a healthy balance of their country’s strengths and weaknesses and that requires shining the spotlight of awareness and truth into the dark, painful and uncomfortable corners of our history. Not just for deep moral reasons, but because unresolved trauma, injustice or wrongdoing refuse to rest. Instead they remain potent disruptors, passing from generation to generation in search of resolution.
We have just witnessed how the footfall of the recent Black Lives Matter protests rattled the buried crimes of our colonial past until they erupted through the pavements, toppling outdated values from their pedestals in order to draw attention to the costly price of British imperialism. Counter protests claiming the removal of statues is to ‘destroy history and heritage’ don’t wash, for statues don’t uphold history, just the values of the time; the events and people we want to remember. Like carefully selected snapshots of a nation’s best side, they are not the whole picture.
Whatever you think of protest, it has time and again been the vital precursor to change. It was, after all, the student demonstrations of 1968 that demanded Germany finally pull its reluctant head out of the sandy silence to face the atrocities of its past and seek atonement. The current protests are also a demand for a more honest appraisal of who we are, not just as a nation but as individuals whose values and actions have been unconsciously shaped by the deeds, and misdeeds, of those who went before us.
So, we each have a real choice here. We can either keep repeating the familiar stories of past glory, riches and world power while watching on as our present falls into widening abysses of social injustice, inequality and environmental destruction. Or we can pull out the roots of these fissures and start to lay more solid and fertile foundations for a better future for the younger generations.
The second starting point comes from a lesson I used to teach prisoners in my mural painting classes, one that I myself now need to relearn: that regardless of what is going on around you, there is always personal choice.
Creativity is all about choices. No rights or wrongs, just a series of decisions. It’s a process in which successes and strengths are built upon, while mistakes and weaknesses are learnt from, transformed and integrated. The prisoners experienced how each person becomes a co-creator working toward a common goal, the details of which emerged along the way. Initially they couldn’t apply this freedom of choice to their daily prison lives. ‘Choice?’ they’d say. ‘What choice? We can’t be with loved ones, we can’t go to the pub, we can’t even have a shower when we choose!’ True, I’d agree before suggesting that they did maintain a freedom of choice when it came to how to respond to each given moment, person or situation. Would they smile, curse or punch? Put the pencil back in the materials cupboard, or nick it? Over time, they witnessed how their choices began to change their world, and then other worlds they touched. A ripple effect of change…
Of course this wisdom is not mine. It was the basis of the teachings of Viktor Frankl, the Austrian neurologist, psychiatrist and creator of logotherapy who claimed: “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
He should know. He survived Auschwitz and various other camps by discovering what he believed was the primary purpose in life: the quest for meaning. In the early days of psychology and psychotherapy, there was an assumption that we exist in order to reach a certain level of pleasure, power or success. Sigmund Freud’s ‘pleasure principle,’ claimed that the central motivator in human life was to gain as much gratification of our fundamental needs and urges as possible. His disciple, Alfred Adler, substituted ‘pleasure’ with ‘power’ as the prime driver of human striving. His theory believed that all of us are born with an innate feeling of inferiority, which we try to overcome by striving for superiority through power, influence and money. For Frankl, on the other hand, all these goals were actually symptoms that a person had failed to find meaning; a meaningful goal, task or person. Meaning fills the void that so often fuels the unhealthy and destructive drives for personal power and pleasure. Covid and lockdown nudged many of us into searches for meaning, now it’s our choice whether we pursue it.
I have experienced deep meaning and reward in facing and redeeming the uncomfortable aspects of my German national and familial heritage. In tiny and larger ways, the process changed me as I uncovered unconscious drivers; it changed members of my family and it continues to change people who attend my talks… That’s why I can’t encourage people enough to look at their own history and lineage, warts and all, before the people who can tell you about them disappear. If we can heal our past and make good choices in our present, maybe, just maybe, we will succeed in steering our masked and fragile society to a future that is fairer, kinder and more sustainable for all.
In Victor Frankl’s words: Live as if you were living a second time, and as though you had acted wrongly the first time.
Something huge is happening in the UK. Britain’s colonial past is storming into the present and will not quieten until we listen to what it has to say. The national journey ahead of us will be deeply healing if we do.
In the past three weeks, the words “I can’t breathe” have become a universal slogan. And no, they have nothing to do with the Corona virus. They were the dying words of George Floyd as he was slowly killed, in full view, by a Minneapolis police officer. Like a match to dry tinder, his appalling, videotaped death ignited fury. Black Lives Matter and other anti-racist movements leapt to life spreading protests like bush fires through streets around the world. In the UK, while many people peacefully chanted, knelt or lay down in solidarity with the murdered man and fellow victims of racism, others went further, rocking the symbols of white supremacy quite literally off their pedestals.
In Bristol, the main target was the widely-despised statue of Edward Colston. Since his death in 1721, the philanthropist’s name and generosity had been celebrated in famous landmarks – a street, a school, the city’s largest concert hall – while the uncomfortable truth of his lucrative role as Deputy Governor of the Royal African Company (RAC), the most prolific slave-trading institution in British history, was hushed up. Estimates suggest he himself presided over the shipping of around 84,500 African men, women and children to the Americas to be sold as slaves. Horrendous 2-3 month sea journeys chained to the slave decks caused 19,000 to perish. Their RAC-branded bodies were unceremoniously tipped into the Atlantic Ocean as “wastage.”
Colston’s bronze presence has long been contentious in the city that used to be known as the ‘slave capital,’ but previous attempts to remove him had failed. On June 7th, however, Colston the philanthropist met his slave-trader Hyde when he was toppled off his perch and dumped head first into the harbour like one of the thousands of slaves under his watch. Whether you agree with such activism or not, it could hardly have been a more perfect gesture of karmic comeuppance. The aftershocks of his heavy landing are still reverberating, cracking the shiny veneer of Britain’s preferred version of history upon which it has built its largely benevolent national self-image.
I am not interested in judging the wisdom of this action – it was emotional and inevitable. I do not condone any of the subsequent violence and I deplore the eruption of the Far Right onto the streets with their eagerness to fight… anything. I am, however, glad that it was sufficiently contentious to prise open the Pandora’s Box of Britain’s imperialism making it impossible to slam the lid down on the restless ghosts of historic crimes.
Anyone who has attended my talks or read my blogs will know I have long been calling for Britain to look at, learn from and redress its own past wrongdoings. It has hitherto been far too easy to hide them in the shadows of the more recent Nazi genocide against which every atrocity naturally pales. For far too long, our history books and curriculums have primarily been testaments to our greatness: our victories and sacrifices, our worldwide achievements and position, the industrial revolution, the apparent huge benefits of British rule, the abolition of slavery… all worthy of celebration to those who still harvest and enjoy their fruits. But vast swathes of society are excluded from the feast and are still locked in lives of disadvantage, poverty and discrimination… or prison.
The fact that until 2015 tax payers were still paying off the £20 million debt borrowed by the government in 1833 to pay compensation, not to victims or descendants of slavery, but to wealthy slave owners who lost out when slavery was abolished, shows how the tentacles of slave ownership reach into our present. Surely such glaring insult and inappropriateness are more worthy of expressions of outrage than the temporary covering of Winston Churchill’s statue? Yet Boris Johnson’s string of passionate tweets defending the lump of bronze representing his all-time role model were not only the same typical deflections from the existential debate being demanded by living people… on our streets… now, which are employed by many conservative thinkers. They also display a widespread British contradiction that is out of date and out of sync with the world. We as a nationverge on the obsessive when it comes to remembering our past as saviours of Europe from fascism. Yet we refuse to acknowledge the dark underbelly of murder, pillage, torture, cruelty, oppression, racism – the list is long – that formed the foundations of wealth, privilege and inequality on which so much of British society is built.
The prime minister scored an own goal when he tweeted “We cannot now try to edit or censor our past… those statues teach us about our past, with all its faults.” The editing and censoring the past is precisely what these protests have been about! Other than one in Liverpool, there are no dedicated museums to the slave trade. As for ‘teaching us about our past,’ one viral video of a slave trader being torn down has achieved far more in terms of educating people about Britain’s past atrocities than any existing statue has ever done. On an official visit to Jamaica in 2015, David Cameron employed much the same avoidance tactic by stating that it was time to “move on from this painful legacy and continue to build for the future.” How can you move on from something that is still happening? Until Britain finds a way as Germany has been trying to do – initially reluctantly and on the insistence of the British – to reckon with its imperial past and scarred present, we will not be able to “move on”.
Monuments are key to national identity. They demonstrate and instruct the values of a society by elevating heroes of the time onto plinths to be looked up to and respected for generations to come. They are not innately required to be permanent. Romans used to melt down their statues for coins. So what should happen when those same values become disgusting, offensive and humiliating, whichever angle you look at them from? When they become symbols of psychological and political oppression? Would British people not rightly feel offended or appalled having to constantly walk past statues of former oppressors – Hitler, Goebbels, Rommel – either here or in Germany? Yet this is what the black community have had to endure, seeing the slave-traders who murdered their ancestors, committed mass crimes, genocide and atrocity against them still celebrated in public. The toppling, removal or covering of monuments is not “to lie about history,” as Johnson claims. Nor should it become the prime debate, as it has in right wing papers, whose writers are incidentally putting up almost identical arguments and resistance to owning national atrocity as Germans once did. The statues have simply woken people from their willful amnesia. But there is a danger. If the agitators of colonial history simply vanish, so could the discourse and urgently needed education.
From all my studies and experience of Germany’s post-WW2 culture of Vergangenheitsbewältigung (working through the past) and the ensuing counter memorials and museums that dot the nation’s cities, parks and pavements, there is much the British state/we can, and must, do. As descendants of the original perpetrators, current generations are not to be blamed for the sins of their fathers, but we are responsible for making amends. So, rather than focusing purely on the clunky symbols and symptoms of discontent and planning ten-year prison sentences for those desecrating memorials, the government should be fully engaging with the debate and the root of the problem: institutional racism. The full truth of our past – warts and all – must be integrated into history lessons and school curriculums, museums and public monuments. Like in Germany, cities around the UK could hold their own competitions for imaginative counter monuments – Banksy has already submitted his proposal. Or information tableaus could be erected beside any monuments that remain in situ presenting the other side of the story along with an unmitigated condemnation of any repetition of those values. Also like in Germany, rather than building the highly contested Holocaust memorial by the Houses of Parliament, a memorial to Britain’s own victims could be created as a reminder of how fragile civilisation and democracy are. And for the victims’ descendants, opportunities for conversation, dedicated remembrance days, apology, restitution, compensation, reconciliation, investment… it’s all so late but there is so much to do.
Facing and talking about uncomfortable truths is the first step to healing them. Covid has exposed the inequalities in our society. We have a unique opportunity here for attitudinal and structural change. In the words of the soul singer, Erykah Badu, we need to ‘stay woke’. We simply cannot go back to sleep on this. Rumi, the13th Century Persian poet’s beautiful message is so very apposite for these times.
“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field. I’ll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase “each other”
doesn’t make any sense.
The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you.
Don’t go back to sleep.
You must ask for what you really want.
Don’t go back to sleep.
People are going back and forth across the doorsill
where the two worlds touch.
The door is round and open.
Don’t go back to sleep.”
Further reading (I have included a couple of articles with which I wholeheartedly disagree!)
Friday 8thMay 2020 will be the 75thAnniversary of the end of the Second World War in Europe. It was the day when millions of people took to the streets and pubs to celebrate. For those who can remember that time in 1945, the emotions will be particularly poignant. Victory over the German enemy finally brought the promise of peace. That is indeed worthy of celebration. But what should we be doing three quarters of a century on?
On Saturday 2nd May, I was due to be in Belluno on the edge of the Dolomites standing together with a group of total strangers from America and Italy. We had connected on Facebook and had hatched a plan to meet in the area where seventy-five years previously our fathers’, or grandfathers’, paths had crossed, first in war and then in peace. My sister, mother and my two octogenarian German aunts were coming too.
For me, it had all started fifteen years ago with the discovery of a photograph. I had googled my German grandfather’s name for the first time and the small black and white image that appeared on the screen instantly commanded my full attention. Until then, I had only known my grandfather as a framed photo on my mother’s writing desk. Just a face slightly obscured by the peak of a General’s hat with an iron cross hanging like a choker from a collared neck. He hadn’t moved in forty years. Now he was suddenly standing in front of me, wrapped in a belted, three-quarter length coat trimmed with a double row of perfectly aligned shiny buttons.
His face is instantly recognisable, his eyes still partially hidden as he talks to two men in baggier uniforms. He looks relaxed, upright. There’s even an air of authority in the way one of the seventy-a-day cigarettes I had often heard about rests between the fingers of his right hand. Reading the caption below the photo, I learn that it is 2nd May, 1945. The soldier on the left is an American Colonel, CO of the 337thInfantry, the other a translator. They are negotiating the handover of German troops and armaments. This is the day of Germany’s unconditional capitulation to the Allies. The moment my grandfather’s war ended and his time as a prisoner began. His experiences in the years that followed as a POW to the British would shape his family’s inner, and outer, worlds.
After years spent disentangling the family roots from the blood-soaked mud of conflict and Germany’s post-war silence, my relatives and I would be travelling to meet the sons of the American 337th Division and the granddaughter of the Colonel in the photograph. They had warmly welcomed me into their group. This 75thanniversary, supported by the Councillor of Culture in Belluno, had little to do with victory or defeat, winners or losers, goodies or baddies. It was about reconciliation. About growing friendships and understanding in the soil of broken grief and lingering pride or devastation. It promised to be a very special occasion… we will try again next year.
I can feel I am slightly bracing myself for what will happen on 8thMay. How will Britain mark this historic occasion? Energetic flag-waving aside, will it be much the same as our annual Remembrance Days in November and D-Days in June? Tony Hall, Director General of the BBC says their coverage “will bring households together to remember the past, pay tribute to the Second World War generation, and honour the heroes both then and now.” So yes, judging by that and the day’s schedule, it probably will.
Starting with a two-minute silence at 11am, a series of sing-alongs, prayers and encounters with veterans will follow, all interwoven with the familiar black and white footage. Then comes an evening of singers and actors performing well-loved songs, poetry and stories until 9pm when the Queen’s pre-recorded message will be broadcasted to close the day. Those who have got this far will probably feel slightly mushy (and possibly quite drunk). Filled with genuine gratitude to those who served, they will feel proud to be British, to be on the side of the victors and the heroic defenders of our freedoms… And that is all fine. Of course it is. But it’s not enough anymore.
History used to be a matter of consolation or pride, now it is more a matter of warning and learning. As it shifts over time, black and white narratives of good and bad, victory and defeat, perpetrators, victims and heroes no longer hold. The story becomes more nuanced, the divisions more blurred, the lessons more universal. Simply remembering has become empty. Yet as Susan Neiman explains in her excellent book, Learning from the Germans, “We are not hardwired for nuance. Learning to live with ambivalence and to recognise nuance may be the hardest part of growing up.” No country can fully celebrate the triumphs of its history while ignoring the darker moments. So we cannot, nor should we be allowed to rest in our national self-image as the incontestable good guys. Seventy-five years ago, yes, but not today.
Neil Macgregor, former director of the British Museum and now of the Humboldt Forum in Berlin notes: “What is very remarkable about German history as a whole is that the Germans use their history to think about the future, where the British tend to use their history to comfort themselves.”
Maybe 75 years on is the right time for us to stop merely re-playing the gore, glory and gratitude of the Second World War and to start reaching beyond our own borders to include the histories and destinies of foreign populations, such as Russia, Poland, China – even Germany, who lost infinitely more and triumphed daily in tinier, but no less important ways. With a general consensus among historians about what happened and why, we can then shift our emphasis onto becoming fully aware that no country is immune from falling into the same abyss as Germany. Its descent happened gradually in full view. Like a frog being slowly brought to boil in a saucepan, most people didn’t notice.
Covid-19 has ushered in a rash of startlingly rapid changes to our laws and freedoms. We are forcibly and necessarily being shaken out of complacency and into the realisation that civilisation as we know it is both fragile and reversible. So more urgently than ever, our World War anniversaries need to be reminders of this and opportunities for learning and growth to inspire collective vigilance against darker forces and a genuine sense of unity across borders.
Let’s see what happens on Friday. If I wave anything, it won’t be a flag for Victory but a white flower for on-going Peace.
As I write this blog, I am holding in my thoughts and heart all who are suffering, grieving, lonely, lost, anxious, frightened, helping, serving, or dying and all the infinite shades of individual human experience that fall between.
Like for some, but unlike for so many more, my rural little Covid world of the past 5 weeks has been a haven of sun-filled peace. Such is the stillness that you can almost hear buds bursting into bouquets of blooms as Spring rustles through the land like a breeze. Woods carpeted in white and blue have become cathedrals for choirs of birds filling the daily Sunday silence with song. Time is no longer measured by clock hands and calendars, but by the gradual emptying of a fridge shelf or the clapping hands on the pavements that announce another week has passed.
As if from another world, packages of numbers wrapped in the language of war drip-drip-drip-feed death, tragedy, fear and devastation into our days rippling the peace like a faulty tap. Are we at war with Covid-19? Is our sole purpose in the face of a cruel enemy that is attacking all we have come to know and value as “normal,” to defeat it? War requires strategies to target and vanquish an adversary through killing. But, as Angela Merkel said in her address to the nation on 18thMarch, the Covid-19 pandemic is a war without a human enemy.
I find it interesting and heart-warming that 99-year old Captain Tom Moore, an army veteran who fought in the world’s largest war, has become Britain’s inspiration and symbol for how to face the Coronavirus. In total contrast, both to armed conflict situations of war and the language used by several governments, he is not fighting to kill off something. By completing lengths of his back garden, he is walking to help our dedicated services save lives.
I have to confess that there are moments when I almost dread the day Covid-19 is “sent packing,” as Boris Johnson blustered before the virus robbed him of his usual air, and things return to ‘normal’. Of course I want a rapid end to the huge and relentless suffering of so many. But I don’t want us to go “back to normal.” I don’t want the war metaphors to continue but now with triumphant declarations of victory. For Covid-19 has not just been a vile enemy and bringer of death and misery. It has also been a huge teacher, a creator of peace, a unifier of communities, a friend to nature, a highlighter of the fissures in our society and a persistent pointer to the most vulnerable, the most needed and the most brave. Covid-19 is a killer, yes, but as anyone who has been close to the death of a loved one will attest to, it is also guiding us to our hearts.
Many people have said it much better than I can, either in this or my last blog. In my opinion, one of the most insightful and erudite writings on the subject is the essay The Coronation by Charles Eisenstein. In it he says: Covid-19 is showing us that when humanity is united in common cause, phenomenally rapid change is possible. None of the world’s problems are technically difficult to solve; they originate in human disagreement. In coherency, humanity’s creative powers are boundless… Covid demonstrates the power of our collective will when we agree on what is important.
I feel deeply and passionately that there is a much bigger picture to the close-up snapshots we are getting from around the world. We are standing before a phenomenal chance for change. A unique opportunity to not go back to the “normal,” which was neither just, nor sustainable, nor even working for the majority of the global population. As Charles Eisenstein asks: For years normality has been stretched nearly to its breaking point, a rope pulled tighter and tighter… Now that the rope has snapped, do we tie its ends back together, or shall we undo its dangling braids still further, to see what we might weave from them?
The Indian author, Arundhati Roy, says much the same in THE WAY AHEAD:
The writing has been on the wall for a long time. I sincerely hope Covid-19 will make it impossible for these ways of thinking to be brushed aside and ignored as the domain of dippy-hippies, whacko scientists, alternative dropouts, idealists, artists or activists. I pray that during this prolonged pause enough of us can shift our values and priorities fully into the camp of those we are currently embracing, not just as individuals but also as a nation. As I have frustratingly learned from decades of campaigning for prison reform, the political impetus to change will only come from widespread public insistence and/or inspired and wise leadership. I don’t yet know what exactly I, what we as individuals, can do and I welcome all suggestions. But maybe a good starting point is to follow New Zealand’s Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern’s encouragement to “Be strong, be kind.”