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

Remembering Russia’s past as a way to understanding its present

The Remembrance Sunday of 2022 will be one of thankfully few since 1945 that sees another war in Europe raging. As we remember those who lost their lives in past wars, fellow Europeans will be losing theirs in the all too real conflict fighting itself out in Ukraine.

In my last blog I wrote about travelling the Berlin Wall Way, itself a form of 100+ mile-long memorial remembering both a repressive episode in history and those who lost their lives trying to escape it. Well, a little off that route in what was central East Berlin is Treptower Park, the largest Soviet military memorial outside the Soviet Union. Opened on 8th May 1949, it is a 10-hectare cemetery for 7000 of the more than 22,000 Soviet soldiers killed in the battle to take Berlin in the final months of the Second World War and contains the world-famous symbol of the role played by the Soviet Union in destroying National Socialism: the 13-meter towering statue of a Soviet soldier holding a lowered sword over a shattered swastika and cradling a rescued German child in his arm.

The Soviet Warrior Monument built by Yevgeny Vuchetich

To experience this place is to experience a sense of the enormity and profundity of the impact WW2 had on the Soviet / Russian people. For a start it is vast. And the extensive layout is designed to take you through a process of mourning and remembrance to honouring the victors as heroes and liberators. 

‘Heroes and liberators.’

We too use those words in relation to our own soldiers. But how often have we – or do we – actively honour the decisive role the Soviet soldiers played in defeating Nazi Germany? And how often do we include the mind-boggling numbers of Russians murdered or killed in the process (25 million to give a rough/round figure) in our process of remembrance? We don’t really, is the only answer I can find. And yet they were our allies in a war that we, as a nation, have made central to our national identity. Could our slightly introspective leanings and lack of acknowledgment of the Soviet sacrifices and achievement (among many other factors, not least the horrors of the Stalin era) have contributed to the attitudes of subsequent regimes and politics towards the West? Just a question… but one that walking through Treptower Park certainly made me ask.

‘Mother Homeland’

Entering through one of two avenues, the (tiny) visitor is led first to the statue of a grieving “Mother Homeland.” 

From there a promenade lined with weeping birches – incredibly moving witnessing trees seemingly crumpled in grief – you arrive at two sphynx-like kneeling soldiers that act as guardians to the cemetery section below. 

Looking back to the avenue of weeping birches
Looking ahead to the cemetery

Beautifully executed stone reliefs illustrating scenes from the ‘Great Patriotic War’ decorate the sixteen marble sarcophagi flanking the graves, while gold-lettered quotes by J. Stalin, the commander in chief of the Soviet armed forces, underscore the importance of the Communist Party and the Red Army under his leadership. Though clearly outdated, these quotes survived Khrushchev’s denouncement of Stalinist rule in 1956 with the subsequent cull of Stalin-statues and effective banning of any mention of his name in public. 

The sarcophagi tell the story of the Second World War in Russia…
…through extraordinary imagery and craftsmanship.
Dedicated to the ‘heroic dying’ of the Russian people

At the very far end, you climb a stepped hill to a mausoleum supporting the aforementioned bronze statue of a Soviet soldier holding a small German girl.

Turning around to descend, you get an overview of the whole dramatic panorama that reflects the historical narratives and artistic concepts dominant in the Soviet Union under Stalin and to a degree still exist today: monumentality, hero worship, a personality cult, and a claim to exclusivity.

Treptower Park has been and continues to be a frequent venue for commemorative events. Since 1990, with the signing of the German-Soviet treaty on neighbourly relations and the German-Russian agreement on the upkeep of war graves in 1992, the Federal Republic of Germany committed itself to the care, renovation and maintenance of all Soviet military graves and war memorials in Germany. 

The evident meticulousness with which the whole site continues to be maintained (and patrolled by German police) is another of Germany’s visible expressions of understanding and reconciliation that have been extended to the Russian Federation and other countries brutally destroyed in the Third Reich’s expansionist and ideological wake. Does this reaching out in friendship make it easier to understand Angela Merkel’s unpopular (certainly in retrospect) policy relating to the Nord Stream pipeline? And the apparent weakness of Olaf Scholz’s initial reluctance to break Germany’s practice and permit the transfer of lethal weapons to areas of conflict… in this case, to Ukraine?

If the premise of my book is true and unresolved traumas of one generation can impact the lives and behaviour of subsequent generations, then the extreme collective traumas experienced by the Russian people over the past century are part of what we are seeing playing out in the attitudes, politics and actions of Russia today. Trauma responses such as emotional numbness, low self-esteem, acceptance of poverty might go some way to explain the apparent passivity and gullibility of large swathes of the population. Likewise, trauma responses such as shame might be producing the violence, megalomania and greed of those in power. Is this then, by extension of the idea, the natural destiny of all traumatised nations? After all we can see similar dysfunction and violence in Africa, South America and plenty of other nations once brutally colonised.

Psychohistory‘ – a new but exciting term to me that I appear to have already been practicing – seems to offer a way forward in thinking about these things. It combines history with psychology/psychoanalysis and social sciences/humanities to understand the emotional origin of the behavior of individuals, groups and nations, past and present. In other words, the ‘why’ of history.

I don’t have any answers, nor even the right questions yet, just an ever-growing sense of discomfort in simple, black and white narratives of good and bad, right and wrong. And an increasing belief that we are still very far from seeing, let alone comprehending the fuller picture. But we need to become more trauma-informed in all areas of life. For to neglect trauma is to leave people in a state of emotional numbness. And when you don’t feel, you become capable of overriding humanity and care for fellow living beings and life itself.

Further Reading / Viewing: 

These questions are explored more deeply in my book: In My Grandfather’s Shadow. Published by Penguin Transworld and Bantam Press in July 2022 and available in most bookshops and the usual online outlets

The brilliant BBC documentary ‘Russia 1985-1999: Traumazone’ by Adam Curtis is made up of multiple film snippets taken in those years. As a fly on the wall experience and from the comfort of an armchair, it doesn’t get much ‘better’ in terms of an experience of Russia. To have lived through those years of extreme deprivation, corruption and hunger must have been little short of appalling.

Russia 1985-1999: TraumaZone review – ingenious, essential viewing from Adam Curtis

‘Generations of hurt’: Children and grandchildren of war survivors fear ripple effect of Russia’s war in Ukraine

Russia has yet to recover from the trauma of the Stalin era – The Guardian

Cycling the Berlin Wall Way… an education, a warning, an inspiration

In the faultless pageantry of Queen Elizabeth’s recent funeral, we witnessed one of the things that Britain does really well. Whether you are pro- or anti-monarchy, it was a spectacular display of planning, coordination, ritual, symbolism and attention to detail, as well as a gratitude- and love-filled farewell to the only ‘Her Majesty’ we have known. Impossible though it might sound, I missed most of it!

I was in Berlin experiencing what Germany does really well: remembrance and commemoration of a difficult and painful history. It was, however, not Germany’s intensive and on-going process of coming to terms with its Nazi past that I was focused on. This time, I was with my two siblings cycling the Berlin Wall Way, a continuous bicycle path that follows the former footprint of the 100-mile long Berlin Wall as closely as possible. Taking five days to complete, with added time to explore some of the many poignant locations in the centre, it was a total eye-opener, not least to the very concept of a divided city and country.

Map of West Berlin with the 160km Wall marked in red

The first initially confusing fact to digest is that, contrary to the widely held idea that the Berlin Wall was a north-to-south boundary separating West and East Berlin, in reality the wall went all the way round West Berlin thereby creating a democratic West German island within socialist East Germany. Even with a map, we found ourselves frequently asking: So, are we in the West or the East? the answer to which, I assure you, is rarely as straightforward or obvious as it sounds.

The second tangible shock felt while snaking along its course, was the utter illogic and arbitrariness of this ideological divide – through streets, houses, communities, lakes and woodlands. This randomness would have started as a line drawn on a map by the leaders of the victorious nations – USA’s President Harry S. Truman, Josef Stalin of the USSR, Britain’s prime ministers Winston Churchill and then Clement Attlee as well as other leading members of the three delegations present. That’s probably how most of the other contested border lines around the world have originated. To engage with the whole concept of division, not to mention the impact it had on families and friends separated for nearly three decades, is almost impossible. An enormous 360˚panorama entitled THE WALL by artist Jadegar Asisi gave us arguably our most immediate and visceral sense of being in West Berlin looking at and over the wall into the deadly world behind.

From the360˚ panorama THE WALL by Jadegar Asisi

The third challenge was understanding the complex evolution and structure of the wall that was built in three phases, starting overnight on 13th August 1961 as Berliners slept. What began as a barbed wire barrier and the closure of all but 13 of the 81 established crossing points between the Western and Soviet sectors, eventually developed into not one but two concrete walls separated by a corridor of no man’s land known as the ‘death strip’ with mines, raked sand to detect footprints, trip wire machine guns and armed East German guards in watch towers or patrolling on foot with dogs. By 1989, the Wall was lined with 302 watchtowers and more than 136 people had died trying to cross it.

An example of a section of the wall. What we call the Berlin Wall is on the left

Our little trio started our circumnavigation of West Berlin on the famous Glienicker Bridge in Potsdam in the middle of which spies were on a number of occasions exchanged in the dead of night.

Glienicker Bridge

Following a reassuringly well-marked ‘Mauerweg’ route, we soon passed Schloss Cecilienhof, host to the 1945 Potsdam Conference where the division of Berlin and Germany into occupied zones was decided. From there we hugged the shoreline of beautiful lakes, passing the Sacrower Heilandskirche, the church stranded in the controlled border strip and cut off from its congregation.

Heilandskirche, Sacrow, 1961

Heading north, we reached Alexander House, whose history became the subject of the acclaimed book by Thomas Harding, The House by the Lake, and is now a place of education and reconciliation.

Alexander House: The House by the Lake

Staying in different hotels en route at intervals of roughly 30 miles enabled us to gain a sense of the scale of the wall and the extraordinary episode in history that only ended a little over 30 years ago. Sections of the concrete boundary, a double cobbled stripe embedded into the pavement or road surface, information boards with photographs and explanations all punctuated our journey.

Most moving were the memorials telling heartbreaking stories of failed escapes, largely by young twenty-something-year-old men. With the same unflinching honesty for which all German WW2 or Holocaust-related museums and memorials have come to be known, these allowed us to feel the individual human cost of an ideology based on fear and a necessity to keep people in rather than keeping undesirables out, as the East’s ‘Anti-Fascist Wall’ name misleadingly proclaimed.

Continuing along canals and suburbs, we crossed the ‘Bösebrücke,’ the ‘Bad Bridge’ or Bornholm Bridge that made history on the evening of 9th November 1989 through the jubilant scenes of East Germans flooding across to be greeted by their Western “brothers and sisters” with sparkling wine, cheers and hugs while bemused Eastern border guards watched on helplessly. Unlike my former visits to Berlin while researching for my book, it was this joyous energy of liberation that primarily accompanied me on this trip and allowed me to experience the incredible resilience of Berlin’s inhabitants, past and present, and the revival of its worldwide status as a brilliantly creative, thriving city.

The Bornholm Bridge today and 1989 (pictured)

On we cycled, heading south through the beautifully curated but frequently harrowing Mauerpark (Wall Park) that leads into the Bernauer Strasse from which many of the well-known pictures of people jumping out of house windows into tautly held blankets in the West were taken. It was also the street under which various escape tunnels were dug similar to that shown in the 1962 documentary, The Tunnel and including the ‘Tunnel 29’ of the brilliant podcast and book with the same name.

An extended section of the wall and border strip have been preserved as a chilling testimony to its once terrifying presence.

Bernauer Strasse

The Wall then continues through Berlin Mitte past some of Berlin’s most famous landmarks: the Reichstag, the Brandenberg Gates, Under den Linden and the Tiergarten, past Potsdamer Platz and Check Point Charlie and along the boundary of what is now one of Berlin’s most chilling museums – the Topography of Terror – but what once was the location of many of the most sinister ministries of the Nazi regime. Then through graffiti-covered Kreuzberg, over the River Spree and to the longest surviving stretch of the inner wall painted in 1991 by painters from all over the world to form the colourful East Side Gallery.

Eastside Gallery: ‘My God. Help me to survive this deadly love.” From a press photograph of Leonid Brezhnev and Erich Honecker painted by by Dmitri Vrubel.

The final 40 miles or so along the southern strip of the wall’s course back to Potsdam was largely rural. A sense of peace replaces the former horror of all that the border came to represent. Long stretches of open fields, avenues of birch trees and an alley of 800 ornamental cherry trees donated by Japanese citizens and a TV station in 1995 “out of joy over the reunification of Germany.”

Finally, the three of us arrived back on the Glienicker Bridge from which we had begun our trip, each a little changed, each with a greater knowledge and understanding of German history and our German roots. Each with different emotional responses but a shared sense of the ultimate triumph of humanity and freedom over inhumane systems of repression.

Back on Glienicker Bridge

Upcoming Events relating to my book – In My Grandfather’s Shadow:

Friday 7th October, 7pm. Ebeneza Presents, Somerset: In My Grandfather’s Shadow. More information and tickets here

Sunday 9th October, 4pm. Cuckfield Book Festival: I will be in conversation with Julia Boyd, the best-selling author of Travellers in the Third Reich and A Village in the Third Reich.
More information and tickets here

Wednesday 12th October, 4pm. Mere Literary Festival: In Conversation with Jo Hall. More information and tickets here

Sunday 3rd November, 8.30pm. Stroud Book Festival: In Conversation with Alice Jolly, novelist, playwright and memoirist. More information and tickets here