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

Where Earth meets Art

There’s something about August that has left me with a form of blog-blankness.

It may be due to my first bout of covid leaving me in a congested fog. Or the fact that the news and politics are too depressing to listen to let alone engage with. I mean, just when you thought things couldn’t get worse, we are faced with the increasingly likely prospect of Liz Truss becoming prime minister! 

Whichever way you look, there’s evidence of climate change, stories of polluted rivers, strikes, shortages, waste, price hikes, incompetency… Seeking out the positives is possible, there are plenty of them around. But most people are having to dig deep to find resources of resilience. For some, these will be primarily financial: basic survival – food, heating, shelter. For others, the focus might be on mental or physical health, practicalities, business strategies… or a mix of all of the above. Somehow it all feels so huge.

Today I did something I haven’t done for a while. I went to an art exhibition. Entitled EARTH: Digging Deep in British Art 1781-2022, it was the fourth in Bristol’s RWA series based on the four elements.  Earth has made a regular appearance in my work. It was a major component of my mud paintings, of my exhibition Re-dressing Absence about the paupers buried in Stroud Cemetery in unmarked graves, and it features prominently in my recently published book In My Grandfather’s Shadow (IMGS) both literally and metaphorically. 

Me gathering River Severn mud for my paintings, 2002

I can’t say the RWA’s EARTH was the most interesting exhibition I’ve ever been to in my life, but in my current mind-fog state of finding it hard to form a coherent narrative about anything, I’d like to intermingle some of my thoughts, experiences and passages from my book relating to ‘earth’ with loosely corresponding artworks by some of the exhibiting artists. 

For me, the earth – as old as time itself – holds the memories of history. ‘Like a smell or tune or piece of material heritage, a particular location can instantly evoke a past that appears to have been buried.’ (IMGS p. 145)

Katie Paterson (b. 1981) Fossil Necklace, 2013
Katie Paterson (b. 1981) Fossil Necklace, 2013

It absorbs the blood, sweat and tears of humanity’s passage over its surface. 

Paul Nash (1889-1946) Spring in the Trenches, Ridge Wood 1917, 1918

It is the life-giving womb of Mother Nature and a resting place for most of us after death. 

Eric Ravilious (1903-1942) Downs in Winter, 1935

Earth offers a metaphor for our hidden roots. ‘Though at times it felt like it, I am, of course far from the only person to try to rattle and sieve the truth from the soil of the past. But the truth is not easily dislodged when it is triple-bound by trauma, guilt and accusations of complicity.’ (IMGS p. 279)

Michael Porter RWA (b. 1948) Dirt Series, 2018-2021

It’s a place of darkness, difficult to access, but also the guardian of precious secrets, materials and gems. ‘While I continued to pursue answers to unresolved questions, sometimes I dreaded having to descend like a miner into the darkness of the Second World War. It always took so long to adjust to the lack of light and air…’ (IMGS p. 314)

Graham Sutherland OM (1903-1980) Tin Mine, Emerging Miner 1942

It became part of my process to come to terms with my German heritage. ‘There was one more task to accomplish before we left La Stanga: my soil ritual. With its fusion of site-specific rite, remembrance and reconciliation, I had come to see this… as a form of acupuncture, using a trowel instead of needles to stimulate the healing of wounded places and wounded people…’ (IMGS p. 150)

Emma Stibbon RA RWA (b. 1962) Broken Terrain, 2017

The earth holds energy. And as David Malone says in his beautiful BBC documentary The Secret Life of Waves, ‘Energy can never be destroyed, it can only change from one form to another. That is the premise of the intergenerational transmission of emotions that I have written about in In My Grandfather’s Shadow. That is why I instinctively traveled to significant places as part of my research. That is why I used earth in my art and my ritual. I wanted to feel the energy and work with that energy in order to understand.

Maybe, if we just keep noticing and moving towards those little moments when all the elements are in perfect harmony, we will find the inner resilience we need to get through the more challenging times.

Sunrise

EVENTS COMING UP:

Thursday 22nd September, 2pm: The Chelsea History Festival at the National Army Museum, London.
Join Angela Findlay as she discusses the process of coming to terms with her grandfather’s wartime service in the German Army and the heritability of guilt. Book tickets here  

Monday 26th September, 3-6.30pm: Online Training: Developing a Shame-Informed Approach Information and Registration here 

Sunday 9th October, 4pm: Cuckfield Book Festival. Julia Boyd and Angela Findlay in conversation about A Village in the Third Reich and In My Grandfather’s Shadow. More information and tickets here

Wednesday 12th October, 4pm: Mere Literary Festival. Angela Findlay in conversation with Jo Hall. More information and tickets here 

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 .

Who’d have thought 18 minutes standing on a red dot could unleash such terror?

The news that I had been selected to speak at TEDxStroud came on what can only be called a day from hell. It was August 2020. The brick gable end of my mother’s old garage had just collapsed in a storm leaving live electricity cables strewn across the driveway. She was unadvisedly trying to tidy them away while sinking into a diabetic low when we received the news that my brother-in-law’s father had died of Covid. In the flurry of activity and phone calls that followed, the email plopped into my inbox: CONGRATULATIONS! You are one of nine people selected from 84 applicants to deliver a TEDx talk on the theme of Emergence…  

I had totally forgotten I had even applied and my heart simultaneously raced and sank as I realised this was another gauntlet I had to take up. TED is the mecca of public speaking platforms. The iconic red spot on the floor has hosted some of the world’s very best speakers and lured over 3,600 people with a good idea to share. There are strict criteria: No more than 18 minutes per talk. No selling or promotion of a product or business. No profit or pay to speakers or organisers… just a good idea that is worth spreading. 

Tickets and further information can be found here

Over the following months, Covid threw curveballs at the original visions for a live event with an audience of 400, sending each one flying like skittles in an alley. Lockdown even forced a postponement from November’20 to March’21. The organising team were undeterred in their commitment. With each new restriction, they adapted, delivering changes of plan with supportive sensitivity and unwaning optimism. Meanwhile, we speakers met in Zoom rooms hosted by other talented volunteers where we would listen and feed back to each other while witnessing amorphous blobs of chosen subjects being honed to their essence. Not ‘just a minute‘ without ‘hesitation, deviation or repetition’ as on BBC Radio 4, but 18 minutes! 

Sounds easy? It’s not. The techniques to memorise our talks ranged from falling asleep to a recording of your own voice droning its way into your memory, (nothing has ever sent me to sleep faster, all insomniacs click here if you’d like a copy!) to delivering it in a silly Texan accent. We had to practice talking to the barrel of a camera lens while smiling at some imaginary audience member sitting beyond it. We even had to choose proper clothes to wear as opposed to our baggy lockdown jumpers and leggings. 

Practicing…

Kind friends tried to assuage the terror that gained momentum over the final two months until it clenched my chest in a vice and froze my brain. “But you speak so well… it’s no different from the talks you already give… you can do this with your eyes shut.” But a TEDx talk isn’t the same at all. It will be uploaded to YouTube and made available to a global audience… potentially forever. You have no slides or prompts to jog the memory. And what’s more, my ‘great’ Tedx idea isn’t an easy one to talk about, let alone sell as a ‘gift’! Because I am basically asking people to get really uncomfortable; to follow me on a journey that descends into the dark underbelly of human experience, where prisoners, Nazis, unspeakable atrocities or war experiences fester like wounds marinated in silence, pain and shame. 

I sometimes feel I should apologise for bringing such things into the light of awareness. But I won’t, because the rewards are too great to ignore. And because it has become clear, not just to me but to neuroscientists, geneticists and psychologists, that we have to go there if we want to break the cycle by which toxic, unresolved past traumas and wrongdoings persistently disrupt the present. Now more than ever, it is important to recognise the link between the past and so many of today’s symptoms of violence, division, discrimination, inequality, addictions, injustices, racism… 

It is not easy to face unacknowledged past harm, not least because it will have been buried for a reason, often a good reason such as protection or avoidance of pain. But I promise you, it is ultimately easier than schlepping it around with us, patching it up and handing it on to the next generation to deal with. 

Recording my TEDx talk on Thursday 11th March

So, may I invite you to join us this SUNDAY 21st MARCH 2021 from 2pm, not just to hear my TEDx talk Facing the past to liberate the present, but the talks of seven other amazing speakers, each of whom has been on an equally intense journey to deliver a wonderful idea as a gift to you and our world. Tickets and further information can be found here.

PLEASE SIGN UP TO MY NEWSLETTER to be kept informed about all my forthcoming events or click on FOLLOW MY BLOG at the top of the page to receive them straight into you inbox.

To remove, or not to remove statues: that is not the question Britain’s imperial past is asking of the present.

Something huge is happening in the UK. Britain’s colonial past is storming into the present and will not quieten until we listen to what it has to say. The national journey ahead of us will be deeply healing if we do.

In the past three weeks, the words “I can’t breathe” have become a universal slogan. And no, they have nothing to do with the Corona virus. They were the dying words of George Floyd as he was slowly killed, in full view, by a Minneapolis police officer. Like a match to dry tinder, his appalling, videotaped death ignited fury. Black Lives Matter and other anti-racist movements leapt to life spreading protests like bush fires through streets around the world. In the UK, while many people peacefully chanted, knelt or lay down in solidarity with the murdered man and fellow victims of racism, others went further, rocking the symbols of white supremacy quite literally off their pedestals.

In Bristol, the main target was the widely-despised statue of Edward Colston. Since his death in 1721, the philanthropist’s name and generosity had been celebrated in famous landmarks – a street, a school, the city’s largest concert hall – while the uncomfortable truth of his lucrative role as Deputy Governor of the Royal African Company (RAC), the most prolific slave-trading institution in British history, was hushed up. Estimates suggest he himself presided over the shipping of around 84,500 African men, women and children to the Americas to be sold as slaves. Horrendous 2-3 month sea journeys chained to the slave decks caused 19,000 to perish. Their RAC-branded bodies were unceremoniously tipped into the Atlantic Ocean as “wastage.”   

Colston’s statue being deposited in Bristol Harbour by protestors

Colston’s bronze presence has long been contentious in the city that used to be known as the ‘slave capital,’ but previous attempts to remove him had failed. On June 7th, however, Colston the philanthropist met his slave-trader Hyde when he was toppled off his perch and dumped head first into the harbour like one of the thousands of slaves under his watch. Whether you agree with such activism or not, it could hardly have been a more perfect gesture of karmic comeuppance. The aftershocks of his heavy landing are still reverberating, cracking the shiny veneer of Britain’s preferred version of history upon which it has built its largely benevolent national self-image.

I am not interested in judging the wisdom of this action – it was emotional and inevitable. I do not condone any of the subsequent violence and I deplore the eruption of the Far Right onto the streets with their eagerness to fight… anything. I am, however, glad that it was sufficiently contentious to prise open the Pandora’s Box of Britain’s imperialism making it impossible to slam the lid down on the restless ghosts of historic crimes.

Anyone who has attended my talks or read my blogs will know I have long been calling for Britain to look at, learn from and redress its own past wrongdoings. It has hitherto been far too easy to hide them in the shadows of the more recent Nazi genocide against which every atrocity naturally pales. For far too long, our history books and curriculums have primarily been testaments to our greatness: our victories and sacrifices, our worldwide achievements and position, the industrial revolution, the apparent huge benefits of British rule, the abolition of slavery… all worthy of celebration to those who still harvest and enjoy their fruits. But vast swathes of society are excluded from the feast and are still locked in lives of disadvantage, poverty and discrimination… or prison.

Churchill’s (boxed) statue in Parliament Square

The fact that until 2015 tax payers were still paying off the £20 million debt borrowed by the government in 1833 to pay compensation, not to victims or descendants of slavery, but to wealthy slave owners who lost out when slavery was abolished, shows how the tentacles of slave ownership reach into our present. Surely such glaring insult and inappropriateness are more worthy of expressions of outrage than the temporary covering of Winston Churchill’s statue? Yet Boris Johnson’s string of passionate tweets defending the lump of bronze representing his all-time role model were not only the same typical deflections from the existential debate being demanded by living people… on our streets… now, which are employed by many conservative thinkers. They also display a widespread British contradiction that is out of date and out of sync with the world. We as a nation verge on the obsessive when it comes to remembering our past as saviours of Europe from fascism. Yet we refuse to acknowledge the dark underbelly of murder, pillage, torture, cruelty, oppression, racism – the list is long – that formed the foundations of wealth, privilege and inequality on which so much of British society is built.

The prime minister scored an own goal when he tweeted “We cannot now try to edit or censor our past… those statues teach us about our past, with all its faults.” The editing and censoring the past is precisely what these protests have been about! Other than one in Liverpool, there are no dedicated museums to the slave trade. As for ‘teaching us about our past,’ one viral video of a slave trader being torn down has achieved far more in terms of educating people about Britain’s past atrocities than any existing statue has ever done. On an official visit to Jamaica in 2015, David Cameron employed much the same avoidance tactic by stating that it was time to “move on from this painful legacy and continue to build for the future.” How can you move on from something that is still happening? Until Britain finds a way as Germany has been trying to do – initially reluctantly and on the insistence of the British – to reckon with its imperial past and scarred present, we will not be able to “move on”.

Monuments are key to national identity. They demonstrate and instruct the values of a society by elevating heroes of the time onto plinths to be looked up to and respected for generations to come. They are not innately required to be permanent. Romans used to melt down their statues for coins. So what should happen when those same values become disgusting, offensive and humiliating, whichever angle you look at them from? When they become symbols of psychological and political oppression? Would British people not rightly feel offended or appalled having to constantly walk past statues of former oppressors – Hitler, Goebbels, Rommel – either here or in Germany? Yet this is what the black community have had to endure, seeing the slave-traders who murdered their ancestors, committed mass crimes, genocide and atrocity against them still celebrated in public. The toppling, removal or covering of monuments is not “to lie about history,” as Johnson claims. Nor should it become the prime debate, as it has in right wing papers, whose writers are incidentally putting up almost identical arguments and resistance to owning national atrocity as Germans once did. The statues have simply woken people from their willful amnesia. But there is a danger. If the agitators of colonial history simply vanish, so could the discourse and urgently needed education.

The removal of the slave-owner Robert Milligan statue in Canary Wharf

From all my studies and experience of Germany’s post-WW2 culture of Vergangenheitsbewältigung (working through the past) and the ensuing counter memorials and museums that dot the nation’s cities, parks and pavements, there is much the British state/we can, and must, do. As descendants of the original perpetrators, current generations are not to be blamed for the sins of their fathers, but we are responsible for making amends. So, rather than focusing purely on the clunky symbols and symptoms of discontent and planning ten-year prison sentences for those desecrating memorials, the government should be fully engaging with the debate and the root of the problem: institutional racism. The full truth of our past – warts and all – must be integrated into history lessons and school curriculums, museums and public monuments. Like in Germany, cities around the UK could hold their own competitions for imaginative counter monuments – Banksy has already submitted his proposal. Or information tableaus could be erected beside any monuments that remain in situ presenting the other side of the story along with an unmitigated condemnation of any repetition of those values. Also like in Germany, rather than building the highly contested Holocaust memorial by the Houses of Parliament, a memorial to Britain’s own victims could be created as a reminder of how fragile civilisation and democracy are. And for the victims’ descendants, opportunities for conversation, dedicated remembrance days, apology, restitution, compensation, reconciliation, investment… it’s all so late but there is so much to do.

Banksy’s sketch proposal for reinstating the Colston monument as part of a slavery memorial

Facing and talking about uncomfortable truths is the first step to healing them. Covid has exposed the inequalities in our society. We have a unique opportunity here for attitudinal and structural change. In the words of the soul singer, Erykah Badu, we need to ‘stay woke’. We simply cannot go back to sleep on this. Rumi, the 13th Century Persian poet’s beautiful message is so very apposite for these times.

“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,

there is a field. I’ll meet you there.

When the soul lies down in that grass,

the world is too full to talk about.

Ideas, language, even the phrase “each other”

doesn’t make any sense.

The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you.

Don’t go back to sleep.

You must ask for what you really want.

Don’t go back to sleep.

People are going back and forth across the doorsill

where the two worlds touch.

The door is round and open.

Don’t go back to sleep.”

Further reading (I have included a couple of articles with which I wholeheartedly disagree!)

The dark side of British History you weren’t taught in school – video by George Monbiot

Robert Clive was a vicious asset-stripper. His statue has no place on Whitehall by William Dalrymple

Removing the statue of Cecil Rhodes would be cowardly and anti-intellectual by Daniel Hannan

When will Britain face up to its crimes against humanity? by Kris Manjapra

Buried for 50 years: Britain’s shameful role in the Biafran war by Frederick Forsyth 

All lives matter: There is too much at risk for us to let the ‘culture warriors’ win. You cannot teach the lessons of history by trying to erase it by Liam Fox

Britain’s colonial crimes deserve a lasting memorial. Here’s why by Afua Hirsch

Until we reckon with our imperial history, Britain’s toxic culture war will burn by Daniel Trilling

How should we celebrate VE Day 75 years on? Could it not be Peace in Europe Day rather than Victory?

Friday 8thMay 2020 will be the 75thAnniversary of the end of the Second World War in Europe. It was the day when millions of people took to the streets and pubs to celebrate. For those who can remember that time in 1945, the emotions will be particularly poignant. Victory over the German enemy finally brought the promise of peace. That is indeed worthy of celebration. But what should we be doing three quarters of a century on?

VE Day, 1945

On Saturday 2nd May, I was due to be in Belluno on the edge of the Dolomites standing together with a group of total strangers from America and Italy. We had connected on Facebook and had hatched a plan to meet in the area where seventy-five years previously our fathers’, or grandfathers’, paths had crossed, first in war and then in peace. My sister, mother and my two octogenarian German aunts were coming too. 

For me, it had all started fifteen years ago with the discovery of a photograph. I had googled my German grandfather’s name for the first time and the small black and white image that appeared on the screen instantly commanded my full attention. Until then, I had only known my grandfather as a framed photo on my mother’s writing desk. Just a face slightly obscured by the peak of a General’s hat with an iron cross hanging like a choker from a collared neck. He hadn’t moved in forty years. Now he was suddenly standing in front of me, wrapped in a belted, three-quarter length coat trimmed with a double row of perfectly aligned shiny buttons. 

His face is instantly recognisable, his eyes still partially hidden as he talks to two men in baggier uniforms. He looks relaxed, upright. There’s even an air of authority in the way one of the seventy-a-day cigarettes I had often heard about rests between the fingers of his right hand. Reading the caption below the photo, I learn that it is 2nd May, 1945. The soldier on the left is an American Colonel, CO of the 337thInfantry, the other a translator. They are negotiating the handover of German troops and armaments. This is the day of Germany’s unconditional capitulation to the Allies. The moment my grandfather’s war ended and his time as a prisoner began. His experiences in the years that followed as a POW to the British would shape his family’s inner, and outer, worlds.

2nd May, 1945

After years spent disentangling the family roots from the blood-soaked mud of conflict and Germany’s post-war silence, my relatives and I would be travelling to meet the sons of the American 337th Division and the granddaughter of the Colonel in the photograph. They had warmly welcomed me into their group. This 75thanniversary, supported by the Councillor of Culture in Belluno, had little to do with victory or defeat, winners or losers, goodies or baddies. It was about reconciliation. About growing friendships and understanding in the soil of broken grief and lingering pride or devastation. It promised to be a very special occasion… we will try again next year.

Visiting the location in 2007

I can feel I am slightly bracing myself for what will happen on 8thMay. How will Britain mark this historic occasion? Energetic flag-waving aside, will it be much the same as our annual Remembrance Days in November and D-Days in June? Tony Hall, Director General of the BBC says their coverage “will bring households together to remember the past, pay tribute to the Second World War generation, and honour the heroes both then and now.” So yes, judging by that and the day’s schedule, it probably will. 

Starting with a two-minute silence at 11am, a series of sing-alongs, prayers and encounters with veterans will follow, all interwoven with the familiar black and white footage. Then comes an evening of singers and actors performing well-loved songs, poetry and stories until 9pm when the Queen’s pre-recorded message will be broadcasted to close the day. Those who have got this far will probably feel slightly mushy (and possibly quite drunk). Filled with genuine gratitude to those who served, they will feel proud to be British, to be on the side of the victors and the heroic defenders of our freedoms… And that is all fine. Of course it is. But it’s not enough anymore. 

History used to be a matter of consolation or pride, now it is more a matter of warning and learning. As it shifts over time, black and white narratives of good and bad, victory and defeat, perpetrators, victims and heroes no longer hold. The story becomes more nuanced, the divisions more blurred, the lessons more universal. Simply remembering has become empty. Yet as Susan Neiman explains in her excellent book, Learning from the Germans, “We are not hardwired for nuance. Learning to live with ambivalence and to recognise nuance may be the hardest part of growing up.” No country can fully celebrate the triumphs of its history while ignoring the darker moments. So we cannot, nor should we be allowed to rest in our national self-image as the incontestable good guys. Seventy-five years ago, yes, but not today. 

Neil Macgregor, former director of the British Museum and now of the Humboldt Forum in Berlin notes: “What is very remarkable about German history as a whole is that the Germans use their history to think about the future, where the British tend to use their history to comfort themselves.” 

Maybe 75 years on is the right time for us to stop merely re-playing the gore, glory and gratitude of the Second World War and to start reaching beyond our own borders to include the histories and destinies of foreign populations, such as Russia, Poland, China – even Germany, who lost infinitely more and triumphed daily in tinier, but no less important ways. With a general consensus among historians about what happened and why, we can then shift our emphasis onto becoming fully aware that no country is immune from falling into the same abyss as Germany. Its descent happened gradually in full view. Like a frog being slowly brought to boil in a saucepan, most people didn’t notice.

Covid-19 has ushered in a rash of startlingly rapid changes to our laws and freedoms. We are forcibly and necessarily being shaken out of complacency and into the realisation that civilisation as we know it is both fragile and reversible. So more urgently than ever, our World War anniversaries need to be reminders of this and opportunities for learning and growth to inspire collective vigilance against darker forces and a genuine sense of unity across borders.

Let’s see what happens on Friday. If I wave anything, it won’t be a flag for Victory but a white flower for on-going Peace.

Some other views I found interesting:

We Remember World War II Wrong

Why I’ll be a VE Day dodger

German President Frank Steinemeier’s speech 08.05.20