Last week a Chinese schoolboy approached me after my talk The other side: The Second World War through the eyes of an ordinary German family. Slightly trembling and in broken English he asked me if I had been frightened looking into my family’s past. In my talk I describe the journey I started 10 years ago, of peering deep into the darkest episode of modern history to discover what role my family, above all my German grandfather, a decorated Wehrmacht General, had played, or may have played. I knew the boy was asking this question for a personal reason, the shadows of his own family demons were almost visible, passing like clouds over his terrified face.
My grasp of Chinese history is woefully thin. I wracked my brains for atrocities or events that this boy’s family member(s) could have been involved in. Tiananmen Square in 1989 sprang to mind along with the general sense of horrors perpetrated by Chairman Mao’s regime. But actually it didn’t matter whether I knew the precise what, when, where and who of his story. What mattered was the impact it was having on his life.
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This is an obvious choice of topic for my July blog for it touches on all my main themes: WW2 Germany, prison, punishment, forgiveness, redemption.
What we have here is a 94-year-old former SS officer whose job at the age of 21 was to sort the luggage of the new arrivals to Auschwitz and register the prisoners’ goods and valuables. Oskar Gröning was not a guard but a bookkeeper who counted the money the Nazis stole from the Jews. During the trial that started in May in the German city of Lüneburg he admitted: “It is without question that I am morally complicit in the murder of millions of Jews through my activities at Auschwitz. Before the victims, I also admit to this moral guilt here, with regret and humility. But as to the question whether I am criminally culpable, that’s for you to decide.” Today he was sentenced to 4 years in prison after the German Courts found him guilty of being accessory to murder of 300,000 people.
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As I started writing this month’s blog this morning, the Queen was visiting Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp for the first time, apparently at her request.
Much has been criticised or mocked about her State visit in the press: the timing – the eve of a summit where David Cameron is expected to begin new negotiations in relation to Britain’s EU membership; her apparently politically-biased speech in which she referred to a division in Europe being “dangerous” and that guarding against it “remains a common endeavour”; the Queen’s unenthusiastic reception of the German president’s gift of a portrait of her as a child on a blue horse with her father; even the reason for her going was apparently to put Angela Merkel, who is often referred to as Queen of Europe, back in her place…!
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February 2015 saw the 70th anniversary of the bombing of Dresden, a contentious and highly debated element of the British and American war campaign. The deaths of 25,000 civilians and the destruction of the medieval city of Dresden known as the “Jewel of the Elbe” was without doubt one of the low points in the British military strategy.
On 13th February this year Germany held one of their rare commemorations for their own dead. It started with a service in the re-built Frauenkirche / Church of our Lady and continued later in the streets when up to 10,000 people formed a human chain along Dresden’s riverfront, holding hands to commemorate the dead and call for peace.
With my on-going interest in World War commemorations, this was of course a significant one, for two reasons really. On the one hand it remembers German victims of war and on the other it remembers an event that many people see as a British war crime.
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I never seem to stop being baffled by aspects of our society. But more than anything else, I’ve been baffled by the illogic of our criminal justice system since I was able to think for myself. Last night I co-facilitated a Restorative Justice conference that brought it home to me once more how important a role apology has in the process of repairing the harm caused to another.
In so many cases the victim, the most important person within the context of a committed crime, can be hugely helped by the “simple” act of a genuine apology. Isn’t that precisely what we are taught to do as children when we have done something bad? And yet as we grow up and do more seriously bad things, the role of apology is largely replaced by punishment, a revenge of sort that responds to and feeds a victims’s natural and justified anger but contributes little to the easing of their pain. We’ve seen examples of apology countless times in politics: Ireland’s decades of pain-filled longing for an apology from the British government for Bloody Sunday in contrast to the hugely powerful yet simple gesture in Germany in 1970 when Willy Brandt spontaneously knelt at the memorial to the Warsaw Jewish Ghetto. No words were needed and it was accepted by the world as a public acknowledgment of wrong – no excuses, no justifications, just a silent and humble act of apology.
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