How worried should we be about the rise of the far right?

I raise this question specifically in the wake of last week’s 75th anniversary of the Dresden bombing raid by the Allies, an occasion of remembrance that is known for bringing far-right protestors out in droves. Each year, in what they call their ‘Trauermarsch’ (funeral march), several hundred neo-Nazis, xenophobic Pegida and anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany (AfD) protestors set off from the city’s central station to commemorate the dead. The blatantly neo-Nazi flags, tattoos and slogans, however, betray their true agenda. 

While part of me is swift to unreservedly dismiss all forms of far-right nationalism and extremism, another part is keen to understand: What are their grievances? What are their goals? And how should we, as individuals, meet this growing trend around the world? 

I am at the very beginning of my research into these questions, but in relation to the Dresden bombings of 13th and 14th February 1945, it seems that the far-right scene have several axes to grind. For them, Dresden has become a symbol of how the Allies rewrote the history of the Second World War. Drawing on the language and inflated figures first propagated by Goebbels and the Nazi propaganda ministry, Dresden was a “terror attack,” an indisputable war crime in which up to 300,000 people – primarily women, children and refugees fleeing from the east – were horrendously murdered over three nights. (This claim is in spite of the 2010 historical investigation commissioned by the city and largely accepted by historians that conclude figures would be closer to 25,000.) By shifting the focus onto atrocities committed by the victors, they can call for a stop to Germany’s culture of atonement and guilt.

Dresden, the “Florence on the Elbe”
Dresden after the bombing in 1945

This year, the emphasis of their message was not so much on the numbers as on what they call “the truth” about the bombings. They want to make a stand against the way the bombing of Dresden, once known as the “Florence on the Elbe” for its Baroque beauty, is relativised and compared with what happens in wars all around the world. They want to preserve Dresden’s uniqueness, the myth of martyrdom and its status as a ‘city of innocence.’ In some of this they do have a point. The debate about whether Dresden was a war crime or not still divides international historians and the public alike. Just a few weeks ago, I travelled to Coventry Cathedral to hear historian Dan Snow explore the legitimacy of Dresden as a target with Sinclair McKay, whose book Dresden, The Fire and The Darkness has recently been published. 

In the official ceremonies two days before the far right took to the streets, the man who has become a bit of a hero in my eyes, President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, addressed the dangers of this way of thinking. Unlike the 75th anniversary of the Liberation of Auschwitz at which he had spoken a few weeks before (see my January blog), the victimhood of Germans had to be placed centre-stage here. For whether perceived as deserved retribution or a tactical military operation, the bombing raids were calculatedly horrendous creating infernos of such intense heat that people literally melted. It’s an event that does indeed deserve much self-reflection and on-going soul-searching by the Allies as well as a continuation of the already considerable efforts of reconciliation by the British. 

Speaking with his hallmark combination of deep sensitivity and resolute strength, Steinmeier remembered the victims but, even here, he was quick to remind Germans of their role as perpetrators. He warned against the “political forces” that seek to “manipulate history and abuse it like a weapon.” He reached out to all present to “work together for a commemoration that focuses on the suffering of the victims and the bereaved, but also asks about the reasons for this suffering.” And, seemingly referring to the far right directly, he said, “Whoever pits the dead of Dresden against the dead of Auschwitz, whoever seeks to talk down German wrongs, whoever falsifies improved knowledge and historical facts, we as democrats must loudly and clearly contradict them. We must defy them.”

Steinmeier later joined thousands of residents in holding hands to form the annual human chain of “peace and tolerance.” Standing quietly beside him in icy rain and wind was the Duke of Kent, a long-standing contributor to British reconciliation efforts and Patron of The Dresden Trust (of which I am now honoured to be a Trustee). I don’t think Steinmeier dared initiate what happened next, but to his credit, the Duke did. Over a delightful few seconds, the nearly eighty-five-year-old royal looked down and, seeing the empty right hand of the German President, reached out and took it in his. And there they stood for a considerable time, hand in hand bearing witness to their respective nations’ capacities for the wholesale destruction of innocents.

The Duke of Kent (left) holding hands with German President, Frank-Walter Steinmeier

So far, my answer to my own questions is that there are way too many of us prepared to make a stand against the dark desires of the far right for them to gain significant power. In Dresden, two days after Steinmeier’s call to protect democracy, thousands of anti-fascist counter-demonstrators took to the streets forcing the comparatively low numbers of neo-Nazis to change their route. As one said, “On a day like this, you can’t just stand idly by. We are here to say that this is not our Dresden. There is no room for Nazis in this city — not now, not ever.”

Learn more:

Dresden marks WWII bombing in far-right stronghold.

Dresden: The World War Two bombing 75 years on – BBC News

History Extra Podcast: The bombing of Dresden

Actions may speak louder than words, but words can lead to actions…

This first month of 2020 offered a veritable feast of potential inspiration for January’s blog. It was hard to choose. On the theme of prisons, there was BBC Two’s The Choir in which Gareth Malone has just two episodes to get young men in Aylesbury Young Offenders Institute to sing and viewers to cry. I know from experience, the latter was definitely easier. 

In cinemas, Jojo Rabbit, a risky, irreverent, bitter-sweet comedy about Hitler, breaks through taboos and somehow gets you laughing at the Nazis in ways they would have hated. Less amusing is Sam Mendes’s 1917, which, through its close-up filming method, dumps its audiences into the putteed boots and helmeted heads of two young British soldiers and sends them off on an impossible mission through hell. Within minutes one has snagged his hand on rusty barbed wire, a wound that alone would send all of us racing to A&E. But that is a mere scratch compared to what awaits him.

Another extraordinary BBC two-episoder, Lost Home Movies of Nazi Germany, gives deeper and more nuanced insights into both the lives and the beliefs of individuals living through those times. While Channel 4’s moving My grandparents’ War follows Kristen Scott Thomas and three other esteemed British actors as they uncover the brave roles their grandfathers played in the Second World War. 

2020 will be a year of 75th anniversaries relating to WW2 with more such documentaries, films, books (oh I wish mine too) and podcasts covering increasingly personal moments of suffering, bravery and evil. History has definitely shifted. No longer just a narrative of kings, politics and wars, it now hones in on the stories of individuals caught up in or affected by the decisions of their leaders. Our appetite to understand experiences from the two world wars has not abated, for they still touch us personally. But one day there will be no more contemporary witnesses to testify to the horrors, misery, fear and loss. No more survivors of the Shoah to remind us not to forget what can happen; to warn us that we are not immune.

Over the past five years there has been a 320% rise in Far-Right attacks globally. In 2018 alone, there were 387 violent anti-Semitic incidents – 35 in Germany, 68 in the UK… The Holocaust was clearly not enough to snuff out the thinking that leads to such evil. Which is why I have chosen last week’s commemoration of the 75thanniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz and International Holocaust Remembrance Day at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem as my blog’s focus. There the overriding message of world leaders was of the necessity for vigilance to the language of hate, discrimination and prejudice. (The full speeches are on YouTube)

I have no doubt the Jewish speakers’ speeches in Jiddish were profound and extraordinary. And Prince Charles spoke movingly about the risk of the Holocaust being placed under a glass bubble within history and urged us to re-commit ourselves to tolerance and respect. (He speaks at 1:31:30) But it was once again the German president, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the first ever German president to address guests at Yad Vashem, who, in my view, stole the show with his impossibly difficult and brave speech. I would like to include extracts from it here because, as we approach the thankfully silent bongs of Big Ben on 31st January, I believe his words are relevant to each and every one of us to act upon in our own little ways.

Opening his address (which starts at 1.49.20) with a Jewish blessing in seemingly fluent Hebrew, he continued in English, telling the tragic stories of four individuals murdered in the Holocaust. With the humility and honesty that has become a hallmark of German leaders at such occasions, he unflinchingly took responsibility on behalf of his country:

Germans deported them. Germans burnt numbers on their forearms. Germans tried to dehumanise them, to reduce them to numbers to erase all memory of them in the extermination camps. They did not succeed…. As human beings, they live on in our memory.

Frank-Walter Steinmeier talking at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem

Referring to the Yad Vashem monument, he continued, “I stand before this monument as a human being and as a German… and I bow in deepest sorrow.”

His reference to ‘human beings’ didn’t stop at the victims and those on the side of good: “The perpetrators were human beings,” he continued, lightly emphasising each of our potential to become perpetrators or victims. “They were Germans; those who murdered, those who helped in the murdering, and the many who silently towed the line… they were Germans. The industrial mass murder of 6 million Jews, the worst crime in the history of humanity – it was committed by my countrymen. The terrible war, which cost far more than 50 million lives, is originated from my country. Seventy-five years later, after the liberation of Asuchwitz, I stand before you all as President of Germany, and I stand here laden with the historical burden of guilt.”

Gulp… I don’t know if it moves you, but I know a little of just how heavy that burden is. But as anybody dealing with criminals and/or victims can attest to, genuine admissions of guilt and acts of apology, forgiveness, restorative justice or therapy offer opportunities for reconciliation, that powerfully healing balm for wounds which threaten to fester forever. Steinmeier knows this:

“At the same time, my heart is filled with gratitude… gratitude for the hands of the survivors stretched out to us, gratitude for the new trust given to us by people in Israel and across the world, gratitude that Jewish life is flourishing again in Germany. My soul is moved by this spirit of reconciliation… a spirit, which opened up a new and peaceful path for Germany and Israel; for Germany and Europe and the countries of the world.”

I love the way Germans can speak of ‘heart’ and ‘soul’ and ‘spirit’ so effortlessly…

“The eternal flame at Yad Vashem does not go out. Germany’s responsibility does not expire. We want to live up to our responsibility. By this, dear friends, you should measure us. I stand before you grateful for this miracle of reconciliation and I wish I could say that our remembrance has made us immune to evil. Yes, we Germans remember, but sometimes it seems as though we understand the past better than the present. The spirits of evil are emerging in a new guise, presenting their anti-Semitic, racist, authoritarian thinking as an answer for the future, a new solution to new problems of our age. And I wish I could say we Germans have learnt from history once and for all. But I cannot say that when hatred is spreading…”

“Of course, our age is a different age, the words are not the same, the perpetrators are not the same, but it is the same evil. And there remains only one answer: Never again. Nie wieder. That is why there cannot be an end to remembrance…”

President Steinmeier and Prince Charles
President Steinmeier hugged by President Macron
President Steinmeier hugged by Avner Shalev, Chairman of the Yad Vashem Directorate

I am so glad that President Steinmeier was given such heartfelt hugs on returning to his seat. After Prince Charles’s slightly awkward handshake and strained smile, President Macron looked him in the eyes and embraced him followed by Avner Shalev, Chairman of the Yad Vashem Directorate, who looked like he would never let him go. Such displays of heart, soul and spirit warm me every time.

Further reading:

The Times of Israel: At Yad Vashem, German president says Germans haven’t learned lesson of Holocaust

The Telegraph: Holocaust is no mere ‘fact of history’: Prince Charles stands with world leaders against rise of anti-Semitism

The Guardian: The need to remember and retain the lessons of what became the Holocaust grows rather than diminishes. 

The New York Times: At Holocaust Memorial, a Survivor and Towering Moral Voice Says He ‘Cannot Forgive’

To honour Jack Merritt and Saskia Jones, I urge you to support their positive attitudes to rehabilitation

Sometimes something is reported in the news that inspires an immediate counter-response to the usual political finger-pointing that ensues. When faced with horrific and tragic incidents like the London Bridge attack on Friday 29thNovember, it is all too easy for our knees to jerk us into the simplistic mindsets of wanting to punish, blame and demand, or promise, policies that are ‘tougher on crime.’ After all, two bright young people – 23-year old Saskia Jones and 25-year old Jack Merritt – were killed. What’s more, it was while attending a conference celebrating the five-year anniversary of Learning Together, a prison education initiative from the Cambridge Institute of Criminology, through which students and prisoners learn side-by-side. 

Jack and Saskia were clearly two shining lights whose hearts and talents were directed towards helping those residing in the darkest corners of our society. In words taken from tributes to them: 

“Saskia’s warm disposition and extraordinary intellectual creativity was combined with a strong belief that people who have committed criminal offences should have opportunities for rehabilitation… (More here)

“Jack lived his principles; he believed in redemption and rehabilitation, not revenge, and he always took the side of the underdog. He was deeply, creatively and courageously engaged with the world, advocating for a politics of love.” (More here)

The incident is tragic. Our anger is justified. Our desire for action, natural. Our fear of the same thing happening again, heightened… But when political leaders and media outlets effortlessly slip into the amplification of these emotions, there follows a rash of promises and policies often based on inaccuracies or blatant lies, which all too often lead to harmful and unforeseen failures further down the line. I am relieved that over the weekend this process was quickly called out and widely condemned as “beyond disgusting.” And David Merritt, Jack’s father, tweeted: “Don’t use my son’s death, and his colleague’s photos to promote your vile propaganda. Jack stood against everything you stand for – hatred, division, ignorance.”

According to his father, “Jack Merritt died doing what he loved, surrounded by people he loved and who loved him…” That knowledge will, I hope, bring him and his family comfort during the dark times ahead. When I worked in prisons and was often, if not daily, in situations where I could have been harmed, I sometimes wondered whether I would stop my work with prisoners if something terrible happened. I was lucky, I wasn’t attacked. But even if I had been, I don’t believe I would have necessarily stopped, for I too loved and believed in what I was doing, in spite of the risk. Just as a fire fighter can love his/her work while knowing they may well get burned, or even die.

Back in the nineties, I came close to falling victim to the dangerous “Sex Beast of Cologne,” as the tabloids labeled the quiet, unassuming man in my art class who, unbeknownst to me, was plotting to take me hostage. His plans failed, but if they hadn’t, I know I would not have wanted macho bravado and knee-jerk reactions to dominate the post-incident discourse. Nor would I necessarily conclude that my way of working had failed or was wrong. It would have devastated me if the prison had closed down or placed guards in my art classes thereby destroying the chances for rehabilitation I was so dedicated to establishing. Of course there are lessons to be learned, but may the right lessons be learned. 

Me teaching ‘The Sex Beast’ in 1996

Over the next days and weeks, as more facts emerge, we’ll hear more simplified explanations of the causes, more tough talk, more blame and more reactive and punitive measures being promised… I beg you not to fall for unashamed political optimisations of this tragic situation such as our prime minister’s “Give me a majority and I’ll keep you safe from terror.” Boris Johnson’s policies on prisons and crime do not make sense. They have long been proven not to work. They will not make you safer. You can see that for yourself here. And here. And here.

I believe the best way to make sense of such seemingly senseless tragedies is to hear and honour what the people who died stood for. So I urge you to heed Jack’s wishes as passed on by his father:

“What Jack would want from this is for all of us to walk through the door he has booted down, in his black Doc Martens.

That door opens up a world where we do not lock up and throw away the key. Where we do not give indeterminate sentences, or convict people on joint enterprise. Where we do not slash prison budgets, and where we focus on rehabilitation not revenge. Where we do not consistently undermine our public services, the lifeline of our nation. Jack believed in the inherent goodness of humanity, and felt a deep social responsibility to protect that. Through us all, Jack marches on.

Borrow his intelligence, share his drive, feel his passion, burn with his anger, and extinguish hatred with his kindness. Never give up his fight.

You can read Dave Merrit’s full article here

And a few of the many other related articles… if you can face the political blame and shame games:

London Bridge attack: Boris Johnson ignores family’s plea not to exploit victims’ deaths

London Bridge victim’s father said his death shouldn’t be used to justify ‘draconian sentences,’ as Conservatives call for tougher punishment

Johnson’s response to London Bridge attack ignores complex reality

Blame game: Johnson and Corbyn clash as political row over London Bridge terrorism continues

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