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

Can we start recognising the different qualities of lived experience and logic… and valuing them equally?

July has provided many rich and interesting stories I could write about.

There was the Labour leader, Sir Keir Starmer’s ill-judged campaign video in which he and Shadow Foreign Secretary, David Lammy, are filmed walking thoughtfully through the grey corridors of the Holocaust Memorial in central Berlin, ‘a massive faux-pas’ in Germany where such a carefully choreographed and blatant political usage of the site would be a complete and passionate no-no. 

Sir Keir Starmer in Berlin

Or the contentious mural by the Indonesian art collective, Taring Padi, deemed unacceptably antisemitic and therefore quickly removed from this year’s Documenta international contemporary art fair in Kassel, the director quitting soon after.

And my personal highlight, the three wonderful book launches that celebrated my arrival at the summit of my endless mountain. July has buzzed with the tangible excitement of people starting to read In My Grandfather’s Shadow and a string of radio interviews (all available here) and future invitations to talk about the themes and questions it raises.

Book Launch at Daunt Books, Holland Park

But two other experiences left me reflecting once again on what I see as a fundamental fault line in our troubled world. One was a recent review of my book, In My Grandfather’s Shadow, in the Observer. The other, the National Theatre Live broadcast of Suzie Miller’s award-winning play, Prima Facie in which an outstanding Jodie Comer (the BBC’s Killing Eve’s notorious assassin) plays a young and brilliant barrister who, after an unexpected event, is forced ‘to confront the lines where the patriarchal power of the law, burden of proof and morals diverge.’ 

In different ways, both the article and the play illustrate the age-old dynamic of ‘feminine’ versus ‘masculine’ perspectives in which the feminine experience is ignored, interrogated until it no can longer stand up and finally overridden, often with catastrophic consequences as the play demonstrates. For example, just 1.3% of rapes end in prosecution. Why? One reason is clear: the clunky measuring tools employed by the law to establish ‘proof’ are wholly inadequate when it comes to female trauma.

On a far less serious level, the Observer review by Matthew Reisz, former editor of the Jewish Quarterly and a staff writer at Times Higher Education, created a similar tension. I am hugely chuffed to have a got a review in the Observer. And there were compliments, like ‘strange and powerful.’ And Reisz was convinced by my hypothesis that a parent’s PTSD can have an impact on a child. Science after all accepts that as real and it’s now mainstream thinking, though it wasn’t always. What Reisz clearly doesn’t give any credence to is the reality, let alone the possibility, of the very premise of the book.

‘Much less plausible,’ apparently, is my belief that I am ‘in some sense haunted by the grandfather she never knew.’ As for the techniques I develop to find an “improbable epiphany” that will help me understand what kind of man he is, well, they are clearly the same “esoteric claptrap” that I suggest my grandfather might have seen them as! 

Matthew Reisz has every right to think like he does, and many will agree with him. I am well prepared for this kind of critique. I knew the ‘woo-woo’ stuff (as one or two of my editors called the more weird occurrences) could be problematic for some readers. But I insisted on keeping it. Without it, it was neither my story nor my book. And certainly not my truth. Including a ‘feminine’ perspective on the largely masculine arena of war and traditional fact-based history was for me essential. And I use ‘feminine’ here not as in female, but as in that inner dimension within all of us. That inexplicable world of instinct, intuition, serendipity, dreams and the invisible whisperings of the dead; often the source of creativity or vision, yet also the areas of human experience so often dismissed as ‘dippy-hippy nonsense,’ not ‘real’ or valid because they are ‘unprovable,’ or apparently just ‘wrong’. For it was these things – not clever science or psychologists – that provided the clues to solving the mystery of what I was experiencing. 

The book is intensely personal. But the issues it explores – addiction, shame, trauma, inherited guilt, forgiveness, reconciliation – are not. As Prima Facie so dramatically shows, they require a different approach to the logic and plausibility of left-brain thinking. This is what I feel Reisz unfortunately misses. In his final sentence, he reveals the source of his unsettledness in the apparent contradiction of ‘a woman who has dedicated her book to “all those whose lives are affected by discrimination, oppression or war” searching so desperately for redeeming qualities in a decorated Wehrmacht general.’ Is he suggesting there couldn’t possibly be any while misunderstanding my desire to comprehend a relative as wanting to exonerate them?

It’s going to be so interesting hearing different responses to In My Grandfather’s Shadow and coming into dialogue with others about their own relationships to the darker corners of their heritages, which is what frequently comes up. Like the prisoners in my art classes, like audience members at my lectures, people begin to talk when you make it safe for them to do so. That’s what I hope telling my difficult story will encourage: conversation. Not about provable facts, but fears, feelings and experiences. Conversation. Not with a goal of judging or a need to be right. Certainly not doubting or questioning the reality of what is being said. Just from a genuine desire to understand others. That’s how we can find our shared humanity.

So just to finish with a bit of undiluted ‘woo-woo,’ I found a 4′ grass snake in my hall a week or so ago. A Stroud friend told me that when animals come into our houses, they have a message. I thought no more about the symbolic significance of a snake. But then yesterday, without me mentioning the snake, another friend reminded me of the questions asked in Goethe’s beautiful story, The Fairytale of the Green Snake and the Beautiful Lily in which the snake sacrifices itself to bridge the divide between the land of the ordinary senses and the land of the spirit or soul. It roughly translate as:

‘What is more precious/glorious than gold?’ asked the King. 

‘Light’, answered the snake.

‘What is more refreshing/quickening than light?’ asked the King.

‘Conversation’ said the snake.

Becoming aware of the invisible ties that bind us to the past…

It is now just three weeks until the publication of my book, In My Grandfather’s ShadowA week in the stunning, state-of-the-art Penguin Random House studio recording the whole thing for the audio book version has left me feeling more intimately connected to it than before. Like a parent, I have spent years nurturing it into its current shape. Now it is leaving the nest and heading into the big wide world… how exciting is that! 

Most of you will already have an idea of the themes it is likely to address from my blogs. And – spoiler alert – it does. But possibly the main thrust of the book – as stipulated by Penguin Transworld when they took me on – was to focus on the heritability of trauma. It involved ‘a bit’ (read: ‘total mind-fry’) of a re-write. Yet ultimately they were right. Because this idea, that we can inherit psychological wounds from our forebears, is gaining more and more traction.

The process or re-structuring a book…

One of the book’s working titles was ‘Invisible Lines’, which I liked. But ‘line’ is somehow wrong. Even the letters that make up those two words are too straight, too linear. For, while there is obviously a linear logic to the structure and the content, the essence explores hidden cycles and the bits of life that meander or tie themselves in knots. Or that appear unsubstantial, unreal even, when really they are holding the tiller to our lives.  

As I have said before, trauma, guilt and shame abide in the psyches of us all to a greater or lesser degree. They are part of what it is to be human. But frequently they remain unidentified, like bottom dwellers in the sea of our emotions that stir up the mud to cloud our vision and cause havoc with how we see, not only ourselves, but others and the wider world. 

In My Grandfather’s Shadow therefore takes readers on a deep dive into largely unknown or unspoken – until recently – corners of experience. Not just of those who lived through the Second World War, but those who came after. It looks at the impact of war and violence in general, a theme that has gained an unwelcome pertinence in the light – or should I say darkness – of Russia’s war in Ukraine with its horrific reports of rapes, brutal murders, forced transportations that echoe my grandfather’s letters from the eastern front in 1941-2. War is as old as the world. But where the brutality was once confined to the battlefield and soldiers, Ukraine is a salient reminder that modern warfare invariably extends into the homes and lives of civilians. For generations.

It is probably easy to imagine how the extreme traumas of the Holocaust could affect the offspring of survivors as well. Traumatic imprints have long been witnessed in second and third generations. What is less known because it could only be articulated when the non-Jewish German grandchildren of those who lived through the war came of age in their 40s, is that traumatic experiences of any nature, if left unattended or untreated, can seriously disrupt the lives of subsequent generations. The process is variably referred to as ‘transgenerational transmission’ or ‘emotional inheritance.’ Even science is embracing the possibility with its own language: ‘epigenetics.’ (See article

How Parents’ Trauma Leaves Biological Traces in Children – Scientific American

Whether biological, psychological, genetic or spiritual, the process of transmission is not new. What is new, is our growing awareness of it. And with that awareness comes responsibility. Responsibility to address the cause of the damage, to find ways to resolve or heal it, and then to prevent it. To neglect trauma, particularly in children, and to ignore how it’s effects can linger on for generations is to potentially condemn them to lives of violence, self-harm, substance misuse, depressions, low self-esteem, underachievement or a general sense of something being amiss, all of which are becoming increasingly endemic in our society. It is therefore in everybody’s interest to do this.

This is one of the reasons I took the risk of bearing my soul and writing my book. Because I really hope that parents, teachers, doctors, psychologists, politicians might open their minds to the possibility that behind someone’s problematic behaviour or attitudes, their unemployability, fears or lack of motivation there might lie an unresolved family trauma, wrongdoing or injustice that is seeking resolution through that person without them realising it. It took me five decades to unravel the ties that bound me to the experiences of my immediate forebears. Because nobody knew about it back then.

Well, we do now. Or at least you will do when you have read my book!

In the words of those who have read it:

“Can we as individuals untangle ourselves from a past that binds us to the suffering and deeds of our predecessors?”This profound question forms the basis of this remarkable memoir in which Findlay – granddaughter of Wehrmacht officer, General Karl von Graffen – wrestles the feelings of ‘badness within her’ that has plagued both her mental health and her sense of self for years. It’s a powerful investigation into the individual personal cost that results from wider history, and the ways in which inherited guilt and trauma can leave scars across the generations. A must read… Caroline Sanderson, Editor’s Choice in The Bookseller

This is a moving and powerful memoir that illuminates the extraordinary power of unprocessed trauma as it passes through generations, and how when it is faced it can be healed. Julia Samuel, author of Every Family Has a StoryGrief Works and This Too Shall Pass

An unflinching exploration of shame and pain passed between generations.  This is a powerful and important book which will change the way in which we understand ourselves. Emma Craigie, author

A page turner of the highest calibre! Meticulously researched, searingly honest and beautifully written, this timely book is a salient reminder of how intergenerational relationships connect threads between past and present... This book gives new meaning to the prescient words of psychoanalyst, Roger Woolger: ‘It is the responsibility of the living to heal the dead. Otherwise their unfinished business will continue to play out in our fears, phobias and illnesses.’ Marina Cantacuzino, author and founder of The Forgiveness Project

This is an absolutely extraordinary book. In peeling back the layers of her family history, Angela Findlay reveals a vast, hidden European story that few nations have ever been brave enough to confront. Keith Lowe, author of Savage ContinentThe Fear and the Freedom, and Prisoners of History

A compelling journey through guilt and shame that asks fundamental and painful questions about the extent of a family member’s participation in one of the biggest crimes of the 20th century. Derek Niemann, author of A Nazi in the family

From 14th July, you will be able to purchase In My Grandfather’s Shadow at a bookshop near you such as Waterstones or various online stores .

When headline ‘News’ becomes ‘Normal’

I’m interested in how front page news becomes almost no news as we get used to any new situation. 

When I think back to last August and Britain’s catastrophic and deeply distressing withdrawal from Afghanistan, or February this year and Putin‘s horrific invasion of Ukraine, the shock and terror of the implications of massive personal tragedy and widespread devastation had me glued to the radio. The ‘News’ from countries far away infiltrated my world, influencing my days and above all my state of mind. 

It is with some shame that I have to confess I have now slightly switched off the news. Not out of lack of interest or concern, nor simply because I’m extremely busy in the run-up to the publication my book in July (hence apologies for any typos etc… I am constantly on the road at the moment.) No, I am making a deliberate choice not to turn on the news in order to preserve a positive state of being; so I can feel the excitement of my long journey reaching its end and a new chapter starting; and so I can fully immerse myself in the flower-power of the blooming wonders of nature in all their technicoloured splendour. 

I am sure I am not alone in noticing how quickly and completely the un-normal can become normalised. I imagine it was always thus. History feels more intense than the present because history isn’t experienced on a moment-to-moment basis. It is captured in snapshots – letters, diaries, family albums, military or journalistic reports – and concertinaed into a narrative by skilled historians. The multitude of in-between times that make up the everyday are all missed out. 

Right now – and without wanting to be a doom-monger but we can’t ignore that it is a possibility – we might be witnessing the build-up to the Third World War. Or a climate catastrophe of proportions we can’t imagine. Or world famine. Or intense poverty. Or worst case scenario, all of the above. These times too will one day be reduced to a sequence of significant events and decisions. Yet for many of us, still not directly impacted by them, the business of life continues, to a large degree, as usual. 

Anybody who regularly reads my blogs knows how I frequently get frustrated by the lack of agency, influence or clout I feel in the face of the shenanigans and all too often crap decisions of politicians or world leaders. I never want to not feel justified rage or become guilty of the passivity of ‘looking away’ that so many Germans living in Nazi times are accused of. But thinking back to those times, I find it much easier to comprehend how even then, the ‘News,’ as horrific as it often was, might have become normalised. The majority of people would have read or heard about things, argued about whether they were right or indeed even true, and then probably just got on with the intricacies of their daily lives. Just like most us are probably doing now. 

Maybe it’s because I find it overwhelming trying to imagine the challenges, traumas, upheavals, fears and worries of each individual caught up directly or indirectly in all that is going on in the world right now that I am choosing to surrender to the things I am impotent to do anything about. Maybe it’s ok to want to give myself the best chance of maintaining a level of optimism, vision, hope and love so I can contribute positively to the world in whatever way I can… kind of along the lines of the Serenity Prayer written by the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr and used in Anonymous groups.

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

Then again it may just be an age thing. That I have reached the stage where one sits in a chair and writes grumpy letters to newspapers. Or in my case, where I rail against the endless stream of transparently self-serving, superficial and frankly dangerous tweets by our foreign secretary, Liz Truss, all accompanied by ghastly selfies. Oh here we go, I clearly haven’t quite grown out of my healthy rage at the world!

Happy end of May and beginning of June and next time I write, it will be a countdown to publication day…

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

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