Just back from a trip to visit family and friends in Hamburg and Cologne. Whenever I am in Germany, I find myself indulging in the familiar, yet distinctly different, smells and tastes of fresh brötchen and good coffee; my body relaxes into the warmth of the modern apartments while my mind clicks into a different gear, re-structuring sentences and dusting down long-unused words and concepts that don’t exist in English. It’s a funny kind of home-coming feeling, away from home.
I was, of course, asked about Brexit. It has dwindled in significance since the German elections, for Angela Merkel’s ensuing demise has given Germany a headache of its own. It felt strange being in a Germany that is punishing her for her open-arm policy to refugees. ‘Mutti’ has, after all, been such a solid rock and island of hope to us all in the choppy European waters. Nonetheless, the people I met – from bank managers to former colleagues and elderly relatives – all wondered how Brexit was going to work. “I don’t know, I can’t see it yet,” I’d say, trying not to be disloyal to the choices made by the ‘British people’. “The country is very divided on almost every issue involved,” I’d continue, and then change the subject. The impending split always pushes me into a bit of a national vacuum.
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I’m finally watching the Netflix series ‘The Crown’ and what an education it is! Not only in the structures behind our most British of establishments, the Monarchy, but also in the innate internationalism that lies within it. With shameful ignorance, I keep pressing ‘pause’ to ask: so whose surname is Windsor – it seems to have been pulled out of a hat? And who were the Mountbattens? Within the claustrophobically rigid regulations of the Royal Family, normality gets turned on its head, almost made up as you go along: traditional gender divisions, nationality, even the very concept of British-ness. Ironically the Queen inadvertently championed the then radical feminist issue of not only being allowed, but obliged, to keep her maiden name (Windsor) rather than adopting her husband’s family name (Mountbatten).
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Germany’s ‘open house’ policy and newly attributed “moral leadership” within the mounting refugee crisis was indeed initially surprising. It certainly wasn’t always so. I’m remembering the 17-year-old boy I met in the nineties when I was working as an artist in Cologne Prison. His name was Christian and he had been placed in the special segregated unit there because his crime was so contentious on a national scale. He was one of four young Neo-Nazis responsible for burning down the house of a large Turkish family in Solingen in May 1993, killing three girls and two women and injuring fourteen other family members. It was the most severe instance of anti-foreigner violence in modern Germany and in 1995, Christian was found guilty of murder, attempted murder and arson and sentenced to 10 years.
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I was very interested in two of the questions I was asked in a recent talk to the sixth formers of a London boy’s school. Both were similar and in response to some statistics I showed about German students’ relationships to their country’s past. And both touched on one of my on-going questions in relation to young Germans today: Do we expect them to feel guilt and shame for what their great grandparents were caught up or directly involved in, or can they now be proud of their country and say with genuine conviction “It has nothing to do with me”?
The statistics from a Zeit Magazine survey of 14-19 year olds revealed, among other things, that:
80% believe remembrance of the Nazi times is important
67% believe it is their generation’s duty to make sure that Nazi Germany and the Holocaust aren’t forgotten
60% said they were ashamed of what Germans did in Nazi times
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