To protest too much… or too little?

The coronation of King Charles III and Victory in Europe Day 1945

This Coronation Bank Holiday weekend marks two events that will retain prominence in British history books forever: the crowning of King Charles III on Saturday 6th May 2023 and the 78th anniversary of Germany’s unconditional capitulation on 8th May 1945 that brought an end to the Second World War in Europe. 

My grandfather (centre) surrendering to the American forces in northern Italy on 2 May 1945.

The Royal Family and Britain’s World War victories are defining features of our national identity and regularly create occasions for celebration. This weekend, both elements came together with the unforeseen effect of highlighting a common, more sinister undercurrent relating to protest, or rather the right to protest. 

For some people the traditional spectacle of ritual, religion, militarism, pomp and swathes of red, white and blue flag-wavers doesn’t reflect any aspect of their lives. Indeed, the price tag of putting on such an event appears obscene in a cost-of-living crisis. And the slightly creepy swearing of an oath of allegiance to the king resembled rather too closely the oath of obedience demanded by Hitler. 

‘Not my King’ became their activist cry, just as other universal voices have cried out: ‘No war,’ ‘Just Stop Oil,’ ‘Insulate Britain,’ ‘Not in my name,’ ‘Me too,’ ‘Black lives matter.’

I am with everybody who is either tired of or has been inconvenienced by protestors. But I fully understand the frustration, desperation even, people feel that leads them to take extreme measures in order to draw attention to what they see as being destructive or plain wrong… for us all. Their right to have that voice of protest is indisputable. Aren’t we after all constantly reminded that the Second World War was fought and won to protect our freedoms because Hitler’s evil regime had removed so many? 

No wonder then that there was an outcry of concern when, in the run-up to the coronation, the government rushed stronger laws through parliament intensifying the powers of the recently passed Policing Act while resurrecting proposals in the largely rejected Public Order Bill. With extended stop and search powers, the criminalisation of disruptive protests, and the imposition of protest banning orders, the right to peaceful protest is clearly under increasing threat. 

“The coronation is a chance for the United Kingdom to showcase our liberty and democracy, that’s what this security arrangement is doing,” Mr Tugendhat, the Security Minister, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme in defence.

Liberty and democracy? Hmmmh… I’m not sure those words quite match the policies and resulting actions!

And while the statement Home Secretary Suella Braverman made on Tuesday 2nd May might sound fair enough, in reality it is pure, misguided hypocrisy: 

The public shouldn’t have their daily lives ruined by so called ‘eco-warriors’ causing disruption and wasting millions of pounds of taxpayer money… The selfish minority must not be allowed to get away with this. We are giving our police and courts the tools they need to stop this chaos and I back them in making full use of these powers.”

In another context, say in relation to our water companies and their appalling levels of waste, pollution and greed, a similar statement would make perfect sense, maybe along these lines:

The public shouldn’t have their daily lives and futures ruined by blatant ‘eco-destroyers’ causing disruption to public water services due to the contamination of our waterways and the wasting of millions of gallons of water each day. The selfish companies must not be allowed to get away with this. We are giving inspectors and courts the tools they need to stop these criminal practices and I back them in making full use of these powers.

Pollution on the Jubilee river in southern England. ‘The EA has called for water company directors to be imprisoned for the appalling decline in performance.’ Photograph: Maureen McLean/REX/Shutterstock

I personally believe Britain would be a poorer nation, not a richer one without the monarchy. But I still respect the views of those who want a British republic because they see the Royal Family as an outdated, unrepresentative, dysfunctional and extortionately expensive establishment that should be abolished. Given King Charles’s sincere dedication and visionary, common sensical, environmental concerns and solutions, which he has expressed – and been ridiculed for – since the 1970s, my hopes are that he will sympathise with protestors in ways this government doesn’t. And he will help push forward the environmental agenda that the whole world desperately needs to make its priority.

The lessons of the Second World War, especially of the Third Reich with its top-down dictatorship, are more relevant today than ever. Nazism showed us how thin the ice of morality is, how even such a culturally advanced country as Germany could fall through into barbarity. It happened slowly, incrementally, in full sight. Little laws restricting more and more little freedoms…

As I say in In My Grandfather’s Shadow: Germany’s lessons are therefore universal, as are the questions we must all ceaselessly ask ourselves: how thick or thin is the ice today, and what structures are in place to stop us falling through it again?

‘In My Grandfathers Shadow’ is now out in Paperback.

Links to further reading (as always, not all reflect my opinions necessarily)

UK security minister defends new anti-protest laws before coronation – The Guardian

The Shame of the Coronation Arrests – The Spectator

King Charles will be green in deeds before words, says adviser – The Times

Water company environmental performance hits new low – Environment Agency

England’s water industry now represents the unacceptable face of capitalism – Simon Jenkins

Victory in Europe Day, 8th May 1945

Right to protest in UK ‘under threat’ after coronation arrests, human rights group warns – iNews

Forthcoming Events:

Monday 22nd May: British and Irish Association of Holocaust Studies Online Conference

Monday 22nd May: Nailsworth Festival

Tuesday 27th June: Bradford Literary Festival

A Bonanza of Beauty and Art

In a radical departure from my usual darker themes, I’ve got something special for you. (You may find it more rewarding to view April’s blog on my blog site rather than as an email where the layout sometimes gets a little garbled.)

I have just returned from a three-day trip to Amsterdam with my nearly 89-year-old mother. After her stroke in 2016, talking and understanding became difficult, at times impossible. This trip was designed to bypass both and provide delightful experiences in some of the areas of life we both love – art and flowers. The main components would be the Vermeer exhibition at the Rijksmuseum and the Keukenhof Tulip Festival. Both exceeded our already high expectations as we were treated to a visual and sensory bonanza. We bathed in beauty, feasted on colour, immersed ourselves in the scents and sounds of sunlit spring…

Sold out within two days of its opening in February, this exhibition presents the largest collection of Vermeer paintings ever – 28 out of the 37 known works. Words feel inadequate to describe the quiet intimacy of these often tiny paintings that offer immaculately observed, snapshot-like glimpses into Dutch domestic interiors where mid-17th century women work, play instruments, read or write.

A strong relationship between internal and external worlds is created through letters and the subject’s gaze turned towards open windows or us, the viewers.

Crisp, almost silhouetted figures against potent negative spaces of ‘white’ wall backdrops; droplets of light falling on the brass studs of a chair or the beads of an earring; sumptuous folds of silk sleeves and curtains… the details are breath-taking.

In complete contrast was the loud exuberance of the 7 million bulbs planted by 50 gardeners for the two month Keukenhof Tulip Festival. The cold weather had meant that daffodils, hyacinths, narcissi, muscari, tulips and cherry blossoms were all blooming in a form of perfect synchrony. A heady mix for which no words are needed… just enjoy!

Back at our beautiful hotel – a rare indulgence – the themes of interiors and flowers continued in a creative meeting of design, texture, pattern and nature…

And then finally to the fields and the lovely words of my trooper of a mother that pretty much sum up the special days for both of us: “I don’t want to leave…”

Is King Charles’s visit to Germany important, irrelevant, or are you completely indifferent? 

King Charles is in Germany for three days, his first overseas state visit as monarch after the planned trip to France was postponed. Many people in Britain will not take much notice of this news for a variety of reasons from believing the monarchy should be fundamentally abolished to thinking the whole trip is one big photo-opportunity. But media coverage of his and Camilla, the Queen Consort’s time in Berlin, Hamburg and beyond will show it is far more important in Germany than most of us here might understand. 

There are times I have felt saddened by Germany’s slightly unrequited friendship with Britain. A lot of Brits have wonderful personal or business relationships with our neighbours across the sea, but at Remembrance ceremonies, for example, I have lamented the stiff coolness of the British establishment towards their German counterparts that stands in stark contrast to the genuine warmth displayed by equivalent representatives of France or even Israel. This visit feels different. More relaxed and real. The Royals, at their best, have an uncanny ability to transcend all differences to reach parts other people, above all politicians, can’t, and with far more authentic and lasting resonance than mere symbolic gestures.

“Ah the Queen Mother… I love the Queen Mother!” Those were the unlikely words to come out of a scantily clad, barefoot, elderly Aboriginal man’s mouth on discovering I was English. It was 1986 and I had just wandered, equally scantily clad, into a spit-and-sawdust pub in the baking outback of Australia causing the intimidating head-turns and awkward silence seen in movies. Ever since this display of unreserved enthusiasm for a Royal broke the ice – most definitely the wrong idiom to use in a place where 40˚C temperatures would have melted ice within minutes – followed by the dear man’s insistence on buying me a cold beer, I have valued the role the Monarchy plays in the world. 

In some ways King Charles brings an even more special affinity than his revered mother because it is coupled with inspiration for Germans whose long-standing environmental awareness and action match his… apart from the rather glaring contradictions in their love of fast cars and belching factories. Like them, he has been advocating greener, more sustainable ways of working with the earth for decades, ideas for which he has been ridiculed here until mainstream politics recently and reluctantly began to acknowledge their common sense. It’s a happy sight to see our King throwing royal reserve aside to inspect potatoes at Berlin’s 150-year-old weekly farmers’ market, water a tree dedicated to the late Queen, play table football in a refugee centre or spend time at an organic farm (bizarrely owned by friends of a friend of mine) sharing their genuine passion for all that he too believes is good and right.

The intended role of our Royals, rather than the all too frequent ones that are mired in controversy, excess, wrongdoing etc. could be compared to that of the German President – currently Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who I always find carries out his brief superbly. Beyond the divisive party politics and in-fighting that brought us Brexit and what was experienced by many Europeans as a hurtful rejection, King Charles’s visit offers a heartfelt olive branch and reassurance that our countries are still indeed friends with both a shared history that extends way before the horrors of the two World Wars, and a deeply connected future.

Politicians rarely feel able to give credit or compliments to the achievement of others for fear of exposing their own failings. Charles (is that being over-familiar?) on the other hand, can. With no trace of defensiveness or inadequacy of his own country’s policies, he paid tribute to Germany’s “extraordinary hospitality” in hosting over one million Ukrainian refugees. “This,” he said, “seems to me, so powerfully demonstrates the generosity of spirit of the German people.”

Imagine a politician saying that! But if we want to break the insufferable ping-pong slagging matches that fill the House of Commons, this recognition and appreciation of good policies, ideas or actions surely has to be encouraged on all sides? Batting words to and fro, patting own backs and roaring unruly ‘Ayes’ or ‘Noes’ to drown out opponents’ voices is no way to get anything done. And when you look at the decline of so many of our services, institutions and already neglected areas of British society, it is clear that, for far too long, almost nothing has been done.

I am currently reading a fascinating book lent to me by a delightful 92-year-old friend who, after reading my book, treated me to some of her own stories from the Second World War. Her family lost their home to the bombs dropped on Bristol. And yet, in 1948 on hearing of the extreme hunger of the Germans, she and her church youth group, knocked on doors in their parish to collect donations to send to the very people that most around them (understandably) still regarded as the enemy. She remembers the quarter of a pound of tea she collected.

The book she lent me, ‘Darkness Over Germany’ was written by a remarkable British woman, E. Amy Buller, who visited Germany many times in the 1930s with a mission to understand the ideas that radicalised so many people, particularly the youth, in order to learn how to work with them in peacetime and prevent such things happening again. She saw how Nazism was a false answer to a real need and how foolhardy it is to fight a war without considering how to engage with the enemy once they were defeated. 

I can’t help feeling we could learn a great deal from these enlightened elders who operate with the kindness and innate wisdom of their hearts. And it is in that respect that I completely support visits such as the one happening as I write. With clearly genuine warmth, humour and interest, King Charles is re-building bridges, offering friendship and warming the hearts of a great many German people.

Uh-oh, I feel a little ‘God Save the King!’ coming on… I’ll stop here.

Just a few of a whole load of links recording his visit:

King Charles celebrates UK-Germany ties in historic address – BBC

For Hamburg, devastated by allied bombing, King Charles’s visit is so much more than a photo-op | Helene von Bismarck | The Guardian

From Meeting Scholz To Visiting Farmers Market; A Peek Into King Charles’ Germany Visit

King Charles III arrives in Germany for first overseas visit as monarch

In Pictures – The Telegraph

King Charles to lay wreath to German victims of wartime air raids. Planned visit to St Nikolai memorial in Hamburg contrasts with approach taken by his mother by Philip Oltermann

King Charles avoids mention of Brexit in speech to German parliament

A meander from Dresden to Diplomacy…

As the days get noticeably longer and the year begins to gain momentum, I have been observing what builds up my energy and what makes it slump. It’s a good way to gain an indication of which direction to follow. What I notice again and again is that when interactions fall into binary dynamics of right and wrong, good and bad, or discussions strive for a dominant ‘winner’, my psyche becomes more combative or defensive and is quickly drained. There is rarely a satisfactory outcome. But when there is an openess for exploration, conversation, ‘compassionate enquiry or curiosity’ as the physician Gabor Maté would call it, my whole body relaxes. I come away feeling expanded, richer, slightly changed, more connected. More hopeful.

Where am I going with this? 

Ruin of the Frauenkirche in Dresden with the Monument to Martin Luther – Church of Our Lady.

Monday 13th February marks the 78th anniversary of the British and American bombing of Dresden. Every year, a human chain of people holding hands in an open gesture of unity wends its way through the city. This year, on Tuesday 14th, a lunchtime gathering will also take place in London with leading figures from the Anglo-German community to remember the second day of the 1945 bombing raid and celebrate the 30th Anniversary of the Dresden Trust. Founded shortly after the reunification of Germany by Dr Alan Russel in response to a ‘Call from Dresden’ to help rebuild the city, the charity is dedicated to healing the wounds of war and furthering harmonious relations between the people of Britain and Dresden.

Whether you see the bombing of Dresden as a British/US war crime, a justified military strategy or a deserved, morale-destroying mission specifically designed to create as much damage and carnage as possible, the outcome is the same: 25,000 civilians died unimaginably horrible deaths. Such extreme acts of destruction are only possible when all that people can see in their fellow human beings is difference, separation, ‘other,’ lesser, enemy… And where that occurs, peace becomes a far-off pipe dream.

In contrast, behind the reconciliatory, healing and bridge-building efforts of organisations such as the Dresden Trust, is a striving for the opposite: collaboration, communication, comprehension, compassion… and a whole load of other words starting with ‘co’ or ‘com’ that signify a certain oneness in our shared humanity. 

Two of the areas I have been most active in – rehabilitation and reconciliation – both have in common that they are repairing or making whole something that got broken. They come about post-event, after the damage has run its course, hence the ‘re-‘ prefix. So what if our collective focus shifted from the costly (on all levels) clean-up jobs those ‘re-‘ words embody, to preventative measures of ‘habilitating’ and ‘conciliation’? What if, instead of constantly having to make good again things that we have damaged – whether health, a lack of education, inequalities or injustices – we put all that time, energy and funding into seeking out and nurturing the common foundations and shared human needs we all have and that we can see so clearly in emergencies such as the devastating earthquakes in Turkey and Syria, where all the differentiating labels (national, political, ideological, gender etc.) we layer over our essential selves get stripped away? 

To do this we would need a fundamental shift from head to heart; in our education, politics, laws, economics, environmental policies, attitudes to foreigners. Thankfully, in many areas, that shift is already happening. 

During President Zelenskyy’s recent tour of Europe, I was gladdened to hear the calm voice of Christopher Chivvis, former Sr. US Intelligence Officer in Europe, in an interview with Evan Davis on BBC Radio 4’s PM programme. He quietly called for a more robust diplomatic track in relation to the Russia / Ukraine war rather than an escalation of increasingly powerful military methods of destruction with the ensuing losses of life. And then he outlined how this could look. I found him more psychologically astute and emotionally literate than many of the louder voices we hear, but see what you think You can listen to the interview here starting 46:31 mins in.

I imagine one of the foundation stones of diplomacy is a willingness to make a concerted effort to hear all sides of the story. An attempt to do just this came in the form of the brilliant 3-part BBC2 documentary series, ‘Putin vs the West’. Produced by Norma Percy, it presents the run-up to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine through the spoken words of an impressive range of key players as well as incredible footage of Putin and co at work. It was compelling watching that I can only recommend. But… for all the different angles it presented, it remained largely the point of view of the west. As Andrew Seale said in his article: “The problem with this type of documentary… is that there is no one credible to interrogate the west’s narrative.” And it was very clear, the west didn’t always get it right.

So we need to go even further. To include an even more diverse range of voices. To hear our critics too.

If Dresden can teach us anything, it is that it is too dangerous not to. War brutalises. War traumatises. For generations to come. Maybe as former US president, Barack Obama, said in defence of his retrospectively ‘best’ but much criticised decision not to take military action against Syria after it had crossed his ‘red line’ of using chemical weapons: “The ease with which military actions gain momentum, the greater difficulty in pulling back and insuring that diplomacy is given a chance.” 

Further reading

Talks between Russia and Ukraine would save lives argues Christopher Chivvis – The Economist

Putin vs the West review – like a gripping terrifying soap opera – The Guardian

The West is wrong to assume it has global support in the war against Putin – Open Democracy

On this year’s Holocaust Memorial Day, German tanks will be heading to Ukraine to fight Russia. Are we learning from or repeating the past?

With the approach of Holocaust Memorial Day, I find myself engaging with some of my customary questions around how to remember the past and learn from it. 

There is no question that 27th January is a day to collectively bear witness to those murdered under Nazi Germany’s heinous regime. To honour their memories and acknowledge the agonising voids they once filled. To hold in our minds and hearts those who survived and those born later scarred by the violence inflicted on their families. I personally can’t imagine a time when this is not the right thing to do.

Added to remembrance, is the necessity to grasp and implement the lessons of such dark episodes in history. The most obvious ones centre on the dangers and wrongness of discrimination; of othering fellow human beings for their perceived inferiorities or differences in religion, outlook, appearance, social standing, sexual orientation etc. This may feel relatively straightforward for decent people. It becomes less easy, however, when we are requested to act in the face of similar wrongdoings, rather than look away or rant on social media; to become ‘upstanders’ rather than bystanders. How do we do that in this world where injustices can be found everywhere?

One could deduce, that punishing the culprits is an important aspect of commemorating the Holocaust and avoiding future genocides, though the time for that may now have passed. Just over a month ago, the 97-year-old German care home resident, Irmgard Furchner, became possibly the last person to be convicted of Nazi war crimes. After a divisive trial in Itzehoe, she was given a 2-year suspended sentence for her role as the 18-year-old secretary to the Stutthof concentration camp commandant, Paul-Werner Hoppe. For many people, this is justice, no matter how late, and all the more deserved due to Furchner’s evident absence of remorse. For some, however, it is a vindictive attempt to assuage Germany’s collective guilt. For others, it is misplaced and sickening virtue-signalling, pointless scape-goating… the debate is lively.

Irmgard Furchner

A positive outcome of Germany’s learning from its dark past is its nigh on eighty years of pacifism. But this too appears to be being brought to an end, albeit with huge reluctance and resistance within the country. Putin’s illegal war and NATO’s unified military response in support of Ukraine have put understandable pressure on Germany to break its resolve not to get involved in military conflicts and supply Ukraine with its world class Leopard 2 tanks specifically designed to compete with the Russian T-90 tanks. Last night, after months of hesitation and debate, the Chancellor, Olaf Scholz, and the German government finally agreed to send a company of battle tanks and allowed other countries to send their German-made tanks too.

The whole issue is extremely complex, I know, but the psychological irony seems unavoidable. 

On the one hand, the widespread tendency to never let Germany forget the wrongs of its Nazi past is still alive and kicking. On the other, there is now equally widespread demand that it does just that. Or rather that it selectively remembers some bits of its past and forgets others, such as the traumatic memories of the last time German tanks rolled into Russia with the horrifically high death tolls and suffering of tens of millions that ensued. I wish I could ask my German grandfather what he thinks of the situation, having fought on the eastern front for so long… (See Chapters 14 & 15 in my book In My Grandfather’s Shadow)

Operation Barbarossa, 1941

From many points of view, including a growing number within Germany itself, there are compelling arguments for the government to embrace a Zeitenwende’ (turning of the times) in its foreign policy and to override its long-standing commitment to peacekeeping, up its defence budget and contribute more military solidarity to its NATO allies in a shared effort to support Ukraine against Russia. I am not saying this is right or wrong, just recognising that it is a HUGE step for Germans and Germany, a potential game-changer for either good or bad, and one we should try to understand rather than simply criticise and judge. 

Within the over-simplified, clean-cut narrative of Putin = bad, Ukraine/NATO = good, (which is naturally true from the West’s perspective but not from Russia’s and its allies, hence the conflict), space should be allowed for Germany’s justified fears of an escalation. Its visceral memories of fighting Russia and closer proximity to the country, raise genuinely terrifying concerns that we need to take seriously. At the same time, the contradictions in the messages being delivered to Germany surely don’t go unnoticed: Remember and take the full blame for the atrocities you caused with the Holocaust and the Second World War… but actually, forget some of them now and immediately dispatch tanks against the former enemy with whom you have been trying to make some kind of peace or amends and play a decisive and deadly frontline role in what could easily become a Third World War.

Maybe it really is time for Germany to move beyond its WW2 identity. I hope that this Zeitenwende in German policy will also find a counter Zeitenwende in certain mindsets.

Further Reading:

Was this Germany’s last ever Nazi war crime trial?

Why Germany hesitates on sending battle tanks to Ukraine

Why Germany is struggling to stomach the idea of sending tanks to Ukraine

Germany to send Leopard tanks to Kyiv and allow others to do so

Forthcoming Events focusing on In My Grandfather’s Shadow and open to Public:

Thursday 2nd February, 6-8.30pm, Painswick, Glos: First Thursday In ConversationMore info

Thursday 23rd March, 6pm – Summer Town Library, Oxford: Talk and Q&AMore info soon

Wednesday 29th March, 2-3pm – Oxford Literary Festival: In Conversation with Miranda Gold… More info

Looking back and looking forward…

Looking back over the past year, it seems that whatever lens you look through – global, political, environmental, financial, social – it was a pretty shit year. And looking ahead to 2023, it is hard to see how matters can improve enough to turn things around. Collectively we have been hurtling down a cul-de-sac with a gung-ho ‘it’ll be fine’ attitude for far too long and now we are finally waking up to the reality of the wall at the end. 

I was convinced the upside of the covid pandemic would be that the errors of our ways would become so obvious it would be impossible to return to ‘normality’. If they did, it was a short-lived awakening that hasn’t translated into political policy-making. Then again, maybe we are in more of a transition phase than we know. Maybe the upheavals and misery we are witnessing in the widespread strikes, the fuel and food crises, in Iran and so many other places are all part of a necessary disintegration of the old. Like the breaking up of soil for new shoots to emerge and bear different fruits.

Talking with people, it is evident that our outlooks on life and values have been subtly, if not dramatically impacted by the disruption across the planet. Change takes time and attracts resistance. Those who cling to the status quo will have a harder or more frustrating time in the long term, because ultimately the old models were built on dodgy foundations of exploitation and waste of natural and human resources; on greed and a psychological fear of lack; on delusions of superiority or entitlement; on widespread lies, incompetency, unresolved trauma and an epidemic of (often anonymous) nastiness… 

When, however, you turn away from the incessant rumble of worrying news, hardship and suffering that infiltrate our lives and look at the tiny pockets of society we as individuals inhabit, there is still a huge amount of kindness, generosity of spirit, vision, action, personal awakening and growth. So maybe we are all being invited to think differently? My strategy for 2023 is therefore to at least try to see the unrest everywhere as an essential part of a positive and necessary process of change in the world for the good of humanity. An osteopathic realignment of our shared spine. We have a long way to go. There will be casualties and loss. But I do believe in the power of little steps.

I think that is the biggest lesson writing my book has taught me. Getting to publication in July was a long, long climb, a bumpy road, at times a dark and lonely tunnel, at others a heart-expanding series of intimate encounters. Always focusing on the next step rather than the far-off goal, and taking that step were what eventually got me to the other side. 2023 offers a new chapter, a different landscape with expansive new horizons and possibilities. I wish that sense of possibility and hope for change for you and everyone in some small or big way. 

Have a happy, healthy, peace-filled and kind 2023! 

Links relating to the past year:

Read about my book, In My Grandfather’s Shadow, here

Listen to radio interviews and podcasts about it here

View paintings in my Studio Sale here

Read more blogs here