The past residing in the present and shaping the future

“It’s the memories,” 98-year old D-Day veteran, John Sleep, told the BBC interviewer, Sophie Raworth on Remembrance Sunday. Dressed in a blue suit decorated with medals and donning a burgundy beret and tie, his wheelchair was parked on Horse Guards Parade in front of the traditional ‘march past’ the Cenotaph. Asked how vividly he could remember it all, he said, “It was yesterday.” Silence followed as his face crumpled in its fight against tears. As for so many veterans, the title of “hero” bestowed on servicemen today feels misplaced. What he and his fellow soldiers did was not heroic, glorious or even brave necessarily. Those are qualities that belong to their friends who didn’t return. They are the real ‘heroes’ and their memories still roam and haunt the minds of the living. 

Memories; PTSD; horror, honour and pride get shaken into potent cocktails of commemoration at this time of year. Last weekend was almost overwhelming in the scale of significant events to be remembered. Don’t get me wrong; I love remembering the past because each time I ‘re-member’ an event, I learn a little more about its relevance to the present and the future. Time became a linear construct through the human need for rationality and order. Yet in reality, or in my experience at least, time refuses to simply line up chronologically. The past and future co-habit each moment of what we call the present.

November 1989, the fall of the Berlin Wall

This year’s calendar of remembrance started on 9th November, when Europe and beyond celebrated the 30thAnniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and remembered all those who died on the physical and symbolic front line of the Cold War. A bit like with the 9/11 collapse of the Twin Towers, it seems that everybody can place exactly where they were when it happened. I can recall my Sussex landlady’s unbridled joy as she danced in front of her television clapping her hands as the ‘Ossis’ flooded through the wall into the welcoming, cork-popping arms of West Germans. I remember clapping and grinning with her, careful to disguise my shameful ignorance of just how momentous a moment this was. The Cold War may have been the political backdrop to life back then, but I was still in the dark over the potency of German history… half my family’s history.

Next up was the annual Festival of Remembrance at the Albert Hall, an event that every year both moves me to tears and irritates me in equal measure. I have written about it before but in spite of some deeply kitsch musical contributions – James Blunt, the former army officer with a remarkably high voice and Leona Lewis, former X-Factor winner, who massacred ‘Like a Bridge over Troubled Water’ – I found this year’s festivities generally more sensitive, less triumphal (thank goodness) and more inclusive. They focused on the 75th anniversaries of lesser known, yet no less brutal, battles of 1944, such as Monte Cassino and Rome, and the collaboration and friendship of the British, Commonwealth and Allied armies who fought them. They also marked the 100th anniversary of GCHQ and the vital, albeit largely uncelebrated role of the secret services such as the code-breaking work at Bletchley Park completed by a workforce 76.35% of which were women… 

Ok, women’s forgotten / ignored / unrecognised place in war and history is a blog for another day. It’s the role of pride in all these activities of remembrance that I want to touch on here. Specifically the pride felt for and by family members. Pride can comfort in the face of death. Pride can give meaning to apparent pointlessness. Pride can assure the memory of a person is maintained for generations to come. Pride can overcome some of the horror of war. It can swell the heart and make thoughts soar. It can be a balm on the trauma of loss, which, if unprocessed, can be passed from generation to generation. 

So how is it for the relatives of German soldiers, I wonder? Millions died and yet pride is a tool that cannot be employed to soften the sharp corners of grief or maintain the memory. It’s difficult, I know. But for the sake of generations to come, in order to avoid the transgenerational transmission of unresolved emotions and to understand and most importantly quash the re-emergence of Germany’s Far Right, we need to address the problematic nature of remembering the men and women who were limbs in Hitler’s military body of destruction, but also brothers, fathers, husbands, sons, friends… and grandfathers of ordinary German families. 

John Sleep, our 98-year old veteran, is already putting my challenge into practice. Resting on the chequered blanket draped over his lap and gently held in place by misshapen hands in muddy, black woolen gloves, lies a simply-crafted wooden cross decorated with painted poppies and the word ‘Peace’. “It’s for the Monument of Tolerance,” he explained, “an organisation set up on the German border with all nationalities in it. The idea is to prevent wars,” he continues without the hesitation of his earlier answers. John also ‘does’ the German services. “I’ve got no problem with the Germans,” he declares. (Well that’s nice to hear.) “I think they did me a favour.” (Really??) “They got me a very good pension.” (Ah… ok – slightly disappointed face) But fair enough. He’d had “an argument” with a German tank and it had won.  

I like the ideas behind this Dutch Monument of Tolerance. Unveiled on 8 March 2001, it serves as a reminder of the more than 700 soldiers of 11 nationalities who lost their lives in the Leudal area between 1940 and 1945. I am pleased that at least here German families have an opportunity to bestow a tiny fraction of the recognition other nations can pour over their military family members. So, next Sunday 17th November, on the occasion of Germany’s humble Volkstrauertag – ‘people’s day of mourning’ – I would like to invite you to join me for a tiny minute in thought. A tiny moment in which we try and extend the lines of our famous and treasured poem of Remembrance to include some of Germany’s Wehrmacht soldiers and their families. 

“At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them.”

Käthe Kolwitz: Mother with her dead son, Neue Wache, Berlin

A talk, an exhibition and a TV series…

October is a busy month. Lots to see and do or get done. Can I just add three things to your list? The first two are London-based and optional; the third should really be compulsory for everybody.

So firstly, for anyone in London on Friday 11th October at 4pm, I am very excited to be speaking at the National Army Museum’s inaugural Chelsea History Festival. My talk How Germany Remembers is just one in a whole line-up of talks by impressive historians, writers and speakers – including Max Hastings.

Secondly, and also this month until 3rd November, The Koestler Arts annual exhibition – Another Me – will be showing at the Southbank. I personally haven’t been yet but I know it will once again provide visitors with a glimpse of the huge talent and potential locked up in our prisons. It is a showcase for what the arts can do for people’s well-being, self-esteem and rehabilitation.

I was in fact invited to expand on these benefits for the autumn edition of The Arts Society magazine. Please feel free to read my article ‘Art behind Bars’ to learn more.

But thirdly, and in stark contrast to the positivity of the arts, is the shocking Channel 4 series Crime and Punishment. I know, I know, I have been here many times before. You are probably sick of me going on about the plight of prisoners and state of our prison system. But you won’t be half as sick as all the people involved, who know how acute the crisis is.

Please watch it. Even just Episode 2. And then compare what you see with the Ministry of Justice’s evidence-based summary of what works…

Even I was aghast at what I saw in the first three episodes, and I have been in many of our jails. Everything has got so much worse since the 43% cuts to the budget from 2011 onwards: the levels of frustration from being locked 23 hours a day in conditions that even animal rights campaigners would protest against; the levels of desperation that lead people to shred their bodies or hang themselves to get a radio or better clothes to wear for a visit from their wife and kid; the levels of terror in young officers who patrol the wings after just 10 weeks training and 2 weeks shadowing; and the levels of weary resignation of those who enrolled to help and make a difference but are repeatedly forced to cower behind plastic shields and just ‘contain’.

Photograph 3
Guernsey Prison, Margaret Macdonald Platinum Award for Photography 2019, Koestler Arts

I believe everybody you see in this series is doing their best. But increasingly without hope of change. What you witness is the underbelly of our society. A society that punishes disadvantage, that punishes mental health, that punishes lack of education. In almost every shot, hopelessness seeps under the cell doors to mix with the blood of self-harm.

We all probably feel there are far better causes to engage with – cancer patients, the rain forests, refugees and hedgehogs; that offenders have only themselves to blame and that prison has nothing really to do with us. But if you are reading this, it probably does. Because so many of us have had advantage, education, guidance and love. And it is precisely us who can help bring about change. How? you might ask. Well a good start would be to recognise that Boris Johnson’s policies to extend sentences and build more and bigger prisons are wholly illogical and will only make the situation worse. You could then take a moment to retreat into your imagination, put on the battered, ill-fitting shoes of some of these offenders and try to walk a few steps. See how far you are able to get. The barriers to a crime-free productive life on release are enormous and once more of us realise just how bad things are, we can all join in with the other voices that are demanding: enough is enough.

We love commemorating our victories and losses… but not our declarations of war it seems?

Could it be that even the British have become weary of commemorating the World Wars? Or was the lack of fanfare around the 80th anniversary of the outbreak of the Second World War earlier this month down to having a selective national memory? Do we only like to remember the bits where we emerge as clear heroes, victors or victims?

To my surprise, nothing, or very little, happened in this country on 3rd September 2019. Yet, at 11.15am on that day in 1939, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, in a somber broadcast to the nation made from the Cabinet room in 10 Downing Street, announced with regret that his efforts to ensure peace had failed and that “this country is at war with Germany.” The ensuing conflict lasted six years and cost around 50 million lives.

For Poland this anniversary was obviously a huge deal. Germany’s invasion was the catalyst for Britain’s and France’s declaration of war and few places suffered the same level of death and destruction between 1939 and 1945. It lost about a fifth – that’s six million – of its population including the vast majority of its three million Jewish citizens. Wielun, the first city to be bombarded by the Luftwaffe, was the chosen location for forty world leaders and representatives of other countries to gather together for a dawn ceremony on Sunday 1st September at 4am (2am GMT). Polish President Andrzej Duda, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe, US Vice President Mike Pence were all present. (President Trump cancelled citing the approach of Hurricane Dorian as his reason for basically spending the day on the golf course.) President Putin wasn’t invited. But, why wasn’t our Prime Minister there? I think we sent our Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab, to a subsequent ceremony in Warsaw but…? 

Surely a bit more than just a nod to our role in the unfolding of the most momentous episode in modern history would have been appropriate? Maybe a moment where we press pause on all justifications and humbly reflect on the regrettable escalation of the horrors that our declaration of war unleashed? Or a clearly stated renewed commitment to peace in Europe? Or an informed and respectful acknowledgment of the far greater losses suffered by so many other nations? I recently asked friends how many people they thought died in WW2. “Seven million Soviets? Two million Germans? Two million British?” they guessed. “Actually we have no idea,” they admitted. And they didn’t. Most British people don’t. It was between 20 and 27 million Soviets, 7 million Germans and 450,000 British… that’s including Crown Colonies.

To be fair, Boris Johnson, in a videoed speech that circulated on Twitter, praised the “dogged and unconquerable resistance” Poland displayed during the Second World War and how it “never succumbed to tyranny…” But he also couldn’t help slipping in a quick pat on the UK’s back for standing with Poland “in times of triumph and tragedy.” Hmmmh, you just have to listen to Neil Macgregor’s excellent series on Radio 4 As others see us to realise that this is not quite how Poland sees things. Part of their otherwise generally positive national memory of us is of ‘betrayal’, not once but three times! (This relates to the Katyn massacre, ignoring the plight of Polish Jews and Britain’s role at the Yalta Conference in 1945 when it was decided that Poland would be given to the Soviets.

British Defence Secretary, Ben Wallace, just rolled out the same old tired stuff about Britain going to war to “defend our values and our allies from the Nazis”. (Defending ones values and friends is how all sides justify conflict, however small or large.) He added, “Even though nearly every family in the UK still possessed the memories and hurt of the First World War, they were prepared again to make the ultimate sacrifice. The incredible courage of that generation who fought for our freedom must never be forgotten.” Aaaagh, they just can’t help themselves, these men! It is always all about usOur heroism, our sacrifice, our justified defence. Wouldn’t this have been the perfect time to engage with Polish history? The imbalance between what we know about others and what others know about us is embarrassing. Our narrative that “We went to war for Poland” is, for example, in Polish minds “We declared war for Poland” because the much hoped for military support didn’t actually follow. We really need to start embracing a wider-angled view of history! (This podcast is a great start)

For me it was once again the German contribution that lit a way forward for us all. Speaking with typical unreserved apologetic candour, President Frank-Walter Steinmeier described how “Eighty years ago, at this very moment, all hell rained down on Wielun, fueled by German racist barbarity and the desire to annihilate… My country unleashed a horrific war that would cost more than 50 million people – among them millions of Polish citizens – their lives. This war was a German crime… I, along with [Merkel], want to tell all Poles today that we will not forget. We will not forget the wounds that Germans inflicted on Poland. We will not forget the suffering of Polish families and nor will we forget the courage of their resistance.” He then went on, with a bowed head and speaking in both German and Polish, to ask for Polish forgiveness. “I bow my head before the victims of the attack on Wielun. I bow my head before the Polish victims of Germany’s tyranny. And I ask for your forgiveness.”  

Wow! I know, this is not new. Germany has been publicly apologising for years, starting back in 1970 with Willy Brandt’s silent ‘Kniefall‘. Nevertheless, can we just pause and reflect a moment. The president of a powerful country holding up his hands in surrender and basically saying: “What we did was shit. We were shits. There are no words to describe just how shit we were and nothing can ever change that.” Just imagine how difficult that is to do. And how different the world would be if more people did that. The power of apology. The power of asking for forgiveness. (Whether it is possible to ask for forgiveness on behalf of another / others is debatable as Bernard Schlink does so well in his book ‘Guilt about the past’. But still…)

I’m glad that in a return speech, President Duda thanked Steinmeier for his presence at the painful anniversary before continuing to rightly denounce Nazi Germany’s attack on Poland as “an act of barbarity” and list other massacres and atrocities on Polish soil. He also drew attention to the genocide and mass murder continuing around the world today, and underlined the importance of international alliances like NATO and the European Union. (The question of further compensation was also raised later on… but you can read a fuller summary of the speeches here.) The pain still lingering between these countries that were so utterly destroyed on so many levels is visceral. As is the will for lasting reconciliation.

As much as I am frustrated and disappointed by our on-going and often unimaginative, inward-looking and lop-sided to the point of ignorant rhetoric on the World Wars, I am also optimistic. Younger generations are asking awkward questions that force a re-evaluation of the dusty, airbrushed pictures of our ‘glorious’ Empire. And the answers they are finding are uncomfortable. Maybe when we stop hiding our misdeeds behind the undisputedly ghastly deeds of the Nazis and the Holocaust and finally acknowledge our own national shadow, when we admit that the whole British Empire was based on the genocide of indigenous people and a forcing of our values on others, maybe then we can be genuinely better in the present and the future. 

Further reading:

https://www.dw.com/en/german-president-asks-for-polish-forgiveness-on-wwii-anniversary/a-50247207

https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2019/09/01/german-president-asks-forgiveness-80th-anniversary-start-second/?WT.mc_id=tmg_share_em

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/aug/30/truth-is-a-casualty-80-years-after-start-of-second-world-war

Boris Johnson’s plans for ‘cracking down on crime’ aren’t ‘bold’, just old. And they don’t work.

More prison places, more punishment, longer sentences and tougher stop-and-search powers for police… I am far from alone in being dismayed at Boris Johnson’s ideas on prison reform. 

However, his prison policies are no more and no less than I would expect from him: vain, backward-looking, wilfully ignorant of evidence and expertise and whiffing of his trademark self-serving disregard for the people affected. Anybody who works in the system or has occupied themselves with the deeper issues behind the revolving door of our flailing, and failing, system can see the shallow grasp he has of what is required. As the respected Prison Reform Trust says: “Tough rhetoric is no substitute for understanding the evidence.” 

In a blatant display of easy vote-winning, tough-on-crime policies, Johnson is returning to Michael Howard’s aggressive and long disproven claim: ‘Prison Works!’ So let’s just unpick a little of what he and his team are suggesting as part of their “bold” plan (‘bold’? ‘Old’ would be a more accurate description) “to create a justice system, which cuts crime and protects law-abiding people.” 

1. “10,000 new prison places” – at a cost of £2.5 billion – “so we can keep criminals behind bars.” Nothing new here, not least the well-known fact that prison is not a solution to cutting crime or reoffending. The then justice secretary, Liz Truss, made the same pledge in 2016 and the places were first due by 2020. The government then quietly reduced its target to 3,360 places by 2023. So far only one prison has been completed.

Responses to this idea: 

Peter Dawson, Director of The Prison Reform Trust: “Doing away with overcrowded and outdated prisons makes a lot of sense. But governments have been promising that for decades and they always underestimate what’s involved. According to the prison service’s own figures it would take 9,000 new spaces just to eliminate overcrowding – not a single dilapidated prison could be taken out of use before that figure was reached.” 

Frances Crook, CEO of the Howard League for Penal Reform: The construction of new prisons is “an exercise in ego and reputation” and a “gross squandering of taxpayers’ money.” 

Robert Buckland QC, the fifth Conservative justice secretary in four years: “More and better prison places means less reoffending and a lower burden on the taxpayer in the future…” Except it DOESN’T Mr Buckland! And there is a raft of evidence, teams of experts and front-line workers and decades of failure to reduce re-offending through a punitive system to prove it. 

2. To “properly punish” offenders by sending more to jail and to make sure criminals are “serving the time they are sentenced to” by putting an end to the automatic release of prisoners half way through their sentence. Hmmm… just a few weeks ago research indicated that short prison sentences were driving up reoffending and former Justice Secretary, David Gauke, had called for “ineffective” prison sentences of under six months to be abolished. You can do the maths yourselves. Currently reoffending costs the UK £18bn per annum. Keeping an adult in prison costs around £37,000 a year, with at least double that amount for a young offender. Reoffending rates for sentences of less than 12 months stand at 65%. There are 83,000 people in the system… Put those figures on your campaign bus Mr Johnson. 

3. Apparently it’s “time to make criminals feel afraid, not the public.” Home Secretary Priti Patel goes further and wants them to feel “terror.” “Populist electioneering” says Simon Jenkins in The Guardian, and it is. Even the most basic psychology or a bit of listening to offenders’ stories would reveal the terror many of them have already felt in their homes, schools or communities making them feel compelled to join gangs or arm themselves with knives. Can the government not see the relationship between the rise in knife crime and the nine years of brutal cuts – that Johnson supported – to community support officers, probation, police, not to mention education, youth services, housing, mental health and other public services? Johnson wants “…to keep criminals off our streets and turn them into law-abiding citizens when they have paid their debt to society.” But has society honoured its duty to educate those people, to support their needs, to protect them? 54% of prisoners are dyslexic, 50% can’t write, 29% were victims of abuse as children. They will be released with just £46, a criminal record, often a newly acquired drug habit and frequently nowhere to live… so where is the ‘bold’ plan for the chances they will be receiving to become ‘law-abiding citizens’?

That’s still not the end of it.

4. “20,000 more police officers” – which will merely reinstate those lost by the past years of Tory cuts. “Extended stop and search powers” – which often result in the unfair targeting of ethnic minorities and were a key factor in the anti-police anger that triggered the riots while Johnson was mayor of London. Even reports by both the Home Office and the Metropolitan Police found no long-term significant reductions in crime. And “£100 million worth of airport style X-ray scanners, metal detectors and mobile phone blockers to crackdown on drugs and weapons coming into prisons – even though many of them come in with underpaid officers wanting to make an extra buck.

Johnson’s next point makes me laugh… and weep!

5. “It is vital we have a world-leading prison estate…” How about aiming for a fair, functioning, humane prison estate as a start? Every single HM inspector of prisons says the same: our prisons are shameful shambles. We lock up more people than anywhere else in Western Europe; we already have excessively long sentences; prisons are filled to 95% of their operational capacity; overcrowding, cuts in front-line prison staff (1/3 of newly-appointed recruits leave within a year of being in post) and squalid conditions have led to the highest levels of violence and self-harm. Drugs abound while meaningful activities, education and work remain a luxury… you can read about countless other contradictions of purpose and violations of human dignity almost weekly.

Frances Crook again: Mr Johnson “doesn’t seem to understand” how the current justice system works. “What is coming out of Number 10 is politics but not real life. It’s not going to deal with real-life crimes and victims. It’s a lot of hot air.

I am in good company when I say a government’s approach to prison policy is a litmus test for its maturity, wisdom, far-sightedness and humanity. 

Dostoevski:“The degree of civilisation in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” 

Mandela: “No one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails.” 

Even Johnson’s hero, Churchill:“The mood and temper of the public in regard to the treatment of crime and criminals is one of the most unfailing tests of the civilisation of any country…” 

In his macho rhetoric on the treatment of crime and criminals, painfully devoid of detail on educational or rehabilitative measures, Boris Johnson may mean well. ‘Tough on crime’ always appeals to the general public as it’s apparently for our safety. But with these measures, he is merely exposing naked ignorance, vanity and apparent indifference to the issues faced by real people. Emptying prisons of short sentence prisoners; providing extensive education and work opportunities; rolling out victim awareness and restorative justice courses; offering incentives for good behaviour; instating many more, well-trained prison officers on the wings with time, not only to open and close doors but to listen and guide… These are some of the things that will move our prison system in the direction of being fit for purpose. Only then can we start dreaming of ‘being safe’ and having the “world-leading prison estate” Johnson wants.

Further reading:

Mark Capleton: I’ve been in and out of prison for 35 years – trust me, Boris Johnson’s criminal justice policies are useless. Behind every sentence, there is a person. Without the rehabilitation and education opportunities given to me, I would be back inside. But the prime minister’s announcements don’t offer those chances at all. https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/boris-johnson-crime-policy-prisons-cps-stop-and-search-a9056966.html

Putting more people in prison is not the way to cut crime. If Boris Johnson wants to be tough on crime he must reduce re-offending rates, says Reform researcher Aidan Shilson-Thomas. https://www.publicfinance.co.uk/opinion/2019/08/putting-more-people-prison-not-way-cut-crime

Boris Johnson thinks building more prisons can curtail violence – he couldn’t be any more wrong. Johnson is appropriating the pain of victims for political legitimacy while simultaneously abandoning those who need help rather than jail time.  https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/boris-johnson-prisons-stop-and-search-criminals-a9056286.html

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

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