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

Is trying nonagenarians for Nazi War Crimes the best way to achieve justice?

If it wasn’t so serious, the idea of a 96-year-old going on the run to escape trial would be quite comical. But behind the image of an old lady hopping into a cab at her retirement home and fleeing for the subway station in the early hours is a quagmire of deeply complex and emotive issues.

Irmgard Furchner stands accused of having contributed to the murder of 11,412 people between 1943 and 1945 when she was an 18-year-old typist and former secretary to the SS commander of the Stutthof concentration camp in Poland. She is the latest of several nonagenarian Nazi war criminals to be brought to trial, some of them in youth courts because they weren’t adults at the time of their alleged crimes.

Irmgard Furchner being brought into court

The reason this particular case captured my attention is partly because it coincided with the seventy-fifth anniversary of the final day of the Nuremberg Trials that saw twelve senior members of the Nazi establishment sentenced to death by hanging. And partly because the hearing Furchner was due to attend was in Itzehoe, the same north German town that I have been going to all my life. I have been looking Nazism and the Second World War in the face for several decades now, but my countless happy memories visiting relatives there had completely insulated it from the chill of Germany’s wider history. 

Now it is in the spotlight as the face of retribution. So, is it a total no-brainer that even seventy-five years later, such people, nonagenarian or not, must pay for their part in some of the worst mass killings in history? Or is this more a rush by prosecutors to seize the final opportunity to redress the failures of the previous decades? Will sentencing these last Nazis to time in prison achieve justice for the victims? Or are these trials there to serve the broader objective of Never Forget? Is a ninety-year old even the same person as their eighteen-year-old self?

The last guilty verdict issued was to former SS guard Bruno Dey, who was handed a two-year suspended sentence in July 2020 at the age of 93. The 2019 trial against 95-year-old Johann Rehbogen for his service as a guard also in Stutthof Concentration Camp, had to be terminated as his organs were failing. The only successful conviction was of 96-year-old Oskar Gröning, the so-called ‘bookkeeper of Auschwitz,’ who was sentenced to four years in 2015 but died in hospital after his several appeals failed. I wrote about him at the time in my blog. In his case he had not tried to evade justice. Driven by a desire to counter Holocaust deniers and prevent something like Auschwitz from ever happening again, he had been openly talking about his time as an accountant in the death camp. His testimonies, however, were used against him in court with the unintended outcome that other low-level perpetrators and bystanders went silent. 

Oskar Gröning at his trial in 2015

For some people, the greatest justice to all victims of Nazi persecution that these trials can provide is to keep the crimes fresh in peoples’ minds and prevent them from being forgotten, denied or trivialised. They force Germans, including younger generations, to listen to the testimonies of survivors and to rake over the whole disturbing and uncomfortable past once again. 

It is so important that we never forget; that we all learn the lessons that Germany’s descent into barbarity and atrocity teaches us, not least about the vulnerability of democracy today. But survivors often declare that legal retribution is not the main outcome they are after. That they are more interested in shining light on unresolved or overlooked crimes and contributing to Holocaust remembrance and education. 

So, are we now at a time when imprisonment is a less effective response than a more direct dealing with the aftermath of the offence? Is there now another way that serves justice to the many victims of the Third Reich and their descendants AND sends a powerful message to would-be perpetrators of mass crimes that they will never get away with murder AND contributes to remembrance and education AND offers possibilities for healing and reconciliation? 

The past cannot be changed, but the present can. Might communication between those harmed by and those implicated in Nazi crimes, within the safe frameworks of Restorative Justice or mediation initiatives, offer the possibility to fulfil all the outcomes desired by the survivors? Could the excrutiating discomfort of acknowledgment of past wrongdoing be the punishment? Would talking together create an opportunity to resolve some of the harm and nurture the shoots of healing, forgiveness and reconciliation that can sprout from really listening and really being heard? 

Further reading:

Trial of 100-year-old man in Germany: why Nazi war crimes take so long to prosecute – The Conversation

Former Nazi death camp secretary, 96, remanded in custody after going on the run – Times of Israel

Nuremberg: The Trial of the Nazi War Criminals – Radio 4

Germans are right to pursue 100-year-old former Nazi war criminals – Irish Times

Remembering Dresden – along side its people – helps in the healing of the past

From 13th-15th February, Dresdeners will be gathering to mark the anniversary of the destruction of their city in 1945. This year, rather than creating their usual human chain to snake through the city in peaceful reflection, it will, like most things in this pandemic, be a largely online affair. A Dresden Trust trustee always attends the event as a gesture of deeply-felt solidarity and reconciliation. This year was to be my year to represent the Trust, but instead we have sent a video of messages to our friends and contacts there. Immediate emails of thanks reveal how deeply moved they have been by this extension of virtual British hands and hearts to them. It was a tiny act on our part, but its value was clearly of significance. 

The last couple of years have seen the 75th anniversaries of many Second World War events: the D-Day landings, VE Day, VJ Day, the liberation of Auschwitz… Each was naturally ‘celebrated’ in technicolour with dignitaries from around the world, for these were some of our nation’s finest hours. Tucked in the shadows of those victories, was the 75th anniversary of the UK and USA bombing of Dresden. As far as I am aware, no British politician attended. Neither Boris Johnson nor Jeremy Corbyn even commented on it. It is still a thorn in the side of Britain’s conscience. 

I am fully aware of the contention surrounding the bombing of Dresden. Was the city a legitimate target? Did the Germans deserve it? Was it a war crime? Were Bomber Harris and his Command heroes or part of a campaign that went too far… way too far? In the articles at the bottom of this post you can read up on some of these attitudes, as well as get a picture of the horrors witnessed by a British serviceman held prisoner there. 

Bomber Command Memorial, Green Park, London (2012)

Seventy-six years on, I feel we are totally missing the point if we get tangled up in binary discussions of whether it was right or wrong. Within the context of Hitler and a World War, you can see how it could be considered ‘right’. On that basis, by reading some of my German grandfather’s letters, you can also see how it could have been considered ‘right’ to invade Russia. And by listening to the stories of prisoners, you can also come to understand how they too consider their crimes to have been the ‘right’ thing to have done. Wrongdoing – on an individual or national level – is usually based on thoughts that justify it as being the ‘right’ thing to do. Often this is a reaction designed to redress the wrongdoing of another… and so it goes on. The validity of the reasoning, however, doesn’t automatically make it the right thing to do morally

We are living through extraordinary times of potential change for good. I say ‘potential’ because if we in Britain do not broaden our perspectives on our past in tune with history’s ever-shifting shape, we run the risk of becoming fossilised within it. Nothing can change if we cling to the old. The current statue debate, as provocatively and passionately pursued by Robert Jenrick, our secretary of state for housing, communities and institutions, is an example of the deeply flawed thinking at the core of some of our attitudes to the past. For him, statues represent history itself. Yet they don’t. They represent the values of the time. Both history and values evolve, and debating and adapting to this evolution are important parts of any country’s healthy relationship to its past. What’s more, focusing on statues is a classic example of merely treating the symptom rather than the cause of a problem.

While I don’t believe the removal (or not) of statues is either the real issue or the solution, the government’s evident terror of a ‘revisionist purge’ by ‘town hall militants,’ ‘woke worthies’ and ‘baying mobs’ is revealing. (And insulting to the justifiable requests for a reconsideration of the appropriateness of certain statues in today’s cities). It is the terror, not just of the dismantlement of our statues and heritage, but of our almost purely benign self-image. So great is that fear, that Mr Jenrick is giving himself the personal power to intervene in democratic decisions made by local communities, councils and institutions about the fate of their statues if their decisions don’t adhere to the government’s position. Is that democracy?

Our national self-image and reputation have already been considerably wobbled, if not toppled, in recent years. So I say, bring it on! Why don’t we just go for it? Why don’t we literally ‘come out’ officially and admit: We have… at times… been utter shits. Does that automatically diminish all that we hold dear and celebrate about ourselves? No, not at all. We can be all those good things AS WELL AS being, at times… shits. We can have done and achieved amazing things AS WELL AS having made mistakes, or been on the wrong side of good, or been actively, deliberately bad. We can honour our pilots and soldiers AS WELL AS deeply question the morality of some of our decisions. No country will think less of us… indeed I am sure they will embrace and welcome our vulnerability after so much bullish bluster.

Dresden, February 1945

Until we can shift our position even just a little, Dresden will remain a contentious and unresolved issue. A dark smudge on the national conscience. Whether it was right or wrong, a war crime, an atrocity or a strategic attack, the fact remains that an estimated 25,000 people – primarily women, children, elderly, refugees and POWs – were killed in indescribably ghastly ways, by any standards of warfare. We deliberately designed it to be just so. Could this government, the successors of the instigators of such calculated destruction and loss of life, not also extend a small gesture of thought to the descendants of our victims?

In Mr Jenrick’s argument, “To tear [statues] down is, as the prime minister has said, ‘to lie about our history’.” If we really rely on our statues to tell the truth about our history, then we need to get carving and casting fast. For so far, only truths considered flattering or benign are being told. Nothing of the dark shadows cast by those men on pedestals is included in our statue-version of history. Doesn’t that then make it a lie…?

Past harm left unresolved is a burden that disrupts the present of each generation as it seeks resolution. It adversely shapes attitudes and policies. Let’s be the generation that works through the full truth of our past, creates peace with it and thereby liberates future generations from it.

In my forthcoming TEDx talk on 21st March 2021, I will be explaining How facing the past freed me. You can read more about it here and buy tickets to the event here

Related articles:

The Spectator: Did Britain commit a war crime in Dresden? A conversation Sinclair McKay and A.N. Wilson on the 75th anniversary of the bombing raid

Good Morning Britain 75th anniversary: Dresden bombing survivor Victor Gregg 100 on

Herald Scotland: Dresden 75th anniversary: why Britain must come to terms with its own dark wartime past 

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

The Telegraph: We will save Britain’s statues from the woke militants who want to censor our past (Robert Jenrick)

The Guardian: It’s not ‘censorship’ to question the statues in our public spaces

Please sign up to my NEWSLETTER to be kept up to date on my forthcoming BOOK on the subject here. To receive my monthly blog by email, press FOLLOW at the top of this page. Or contact me for any enquiries about my TALKS.

Being inspired to be a ‘light in the darkness’ feels a powerful way to honour Holocaust Memorial Day

When it comes to Remembrance, I cannot think of a more important day to take time to reflect than today – Holocaust Memorial Day, the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz by the Soviet army in 1945. Eighty or so years lie between us and the horrors that started in Germany and then spread beyond. Most of the survivors of those times are no longer able to bear witness to them. And yet, for many descendents, that past will still be alive shaping their present. It is primarily for them, and all that they carry in their hearts, that I pay such attention to this day.

As readers of my blogs will know, any day of remembrance raises questions in me: what to remember, how to remember it and to what end? I’m always particularly interested in the editing process of our personal, collective and national memories. Which selection of people, events and actions we choose to remember and honour. And which get left out.

Edits of history come about for all sorts of reasons, not least because some memories are too painful… or shameful to re-visit. But what happens to things that happened, but aren’t included in the stories we tell about ourselves? What happens to those awkward truths or people that disrupt more favoured version of events? Obviously politics plays a big role in shaping a country’s historical narrative to support left, right or centre agendas. But I still ask, what happens to the inconvenient truths that get suppressed, denied or banished to the footnotes?

Plans for a Holocaust memorial next to Parliament

I found this recent article by Richard Evans in the New Statesman fascinating: How should we remember the Holocaust? It describes some of the multiple points of view in the on-going debate about the appropriate form, location, size, message and so much more of the proposed Holocaust Memorial and learning centre in the heart of Westminster. It’s complicated. This is exactly the kind of debate Germany has been engaged in almost incessantly since the eighties and that lies behind their extensive culture of ‘counter memorials.’ At one point it was even suggested that perpetual debate on the form of a memorial was possibly the best way to keep the memories alive.

I have many thoughts (obviously!) on what is said in the article, but I will spare you of them here (except one!) in favour of inviting you, on this day, to think about where you stand in relation to Holocaust remembrance. My ‘one’ opinion echoes that of Raphael Wallfisch, a leading international concert cellist whose mother was forced by the SS to play in the infamous women’s orchestra at Auschwitz. He insists that the proposed ‘British Values Learning Centre’ “must reflect clearly and truthfully, the complete and unvarnished truth of Britain’s role before, during and after the Jewish Holocaust…” This request for a fuller picture is echoed by many others in the Jewish community and beyond.

We are witnessing all around the world not only a rise in anti-Semitism, but also eruptions of rage as suppressed, uncomfortable truths surface. Covid-19 is giving us an opportunity to re-think how, what and why we remember. The Britain of today needs to rise to this challenge, now more than ever before. Of course, remembering and hearing the stories of the victims is paramount. But if we primarily focus on what Germany did and how the British triumphed over evil, we are missing a vital lesson. Britain also needs to look at, and learn from, what we as a nation didn’t do… but could have done.

 Statue of Sir Nicholas Winton, the “British Schindler” at Maidenhead railway station

This man, Sir Nicholas Winton, could never be accused of not having done enough. Against all odds, he smuggled 669 boys and girls, destined for concentration camps, out of Czechoslovakia in 1939. Celebrating his unbelievable bravery and life-saving initiative with candles feels a truly fitting way to mark this day. We can all join in for households across the country are being invited to light a candle at 8pm this evening, as an encouragement to us all to “be the light in the darkness.”

A few more things here:

This 4-minute film is a deeply moving testament: Story of Nicholas Winton, BBC That’s life – Short version

Holocaust Memorial Day: Sir Nicholas Winton’s statue lit up: Article about the above lit-up statue

Article in The Conversation: Plans for UK Holocaust Memorial looked promising, but now debate has stalled

BBC 2: Confronting Holocaust Denial with David Baddiel

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’