What is the difference between ‘I had no idea’ and ‘I didn’t know’?
I ask this question in the wake of what must be one of the best television series in the past year: BBC One’s deeply uncomfortable and disquieting three-parter, Time.
It is described as: ‘Jimmy McGovern’s hard-hitting, brutally honest portrayal of a failed public service which gets everything right about prison life – minus the tedium.’ If you haven’t seen it – and sorry to my readers abroad if you can’t get BBC – I would like to invite you to watch it, even to dip into it for ten minutes. I’ll tell you why.
Having worked in many prisons in England, I feel everybody needs to know what is going on in them. In our name. There was nothing in the series that I didn’t recognise from my years inside. As I am up against a tight writing deadline for my book (and this blog actually!), I am going to allow the three episodes to speak for me and bear witness to the sheer illogic, and all too often, inhumanity of our current system.
This doesn’t apply to all prisoners, but if we recognise that many addictive, violent and destructive behaviours derive from childhood trauma; if we fully comprehend the impact of untreated traumatic incidents, then the cruelty of locking up people, who were first and foremost victims, in what are often little more than hell holes, becomes very clear.
My admittedly provocative opening question stems from a genuine desire to understand the answer.
For decades, the adult-generation of Germans living through the Second World War have not been believed when they say, ‘we didn’t know’ (about the concentration camps). And people around the world often blame them for having looked the other way. I don’t want to get into that debate here. There is a consensus among historians that some would have known, some would have heard about them and not believed it, and others would not have known. Most of the camps were miles away in the east and there was little access to free press. There was also a deadly dictatorship controlling thoughts and actions. Yet not knowing, or knowing and not doing anything, allowed the deadly system to persist for as long as it did.
I have been talking to a wide range of audiences about my experiences of working as an artist in prisons for nearly three decades. The most common thing I hear afterwards is a shocked “I had no idea.” It’s totally valid, I make no judgment. There are loads of things I have no idea about. But why don’t more people know about this? There are prisons in nearly every major town. The shocking statistics of failure, the appalling conditions and the tragic stories of many of the people locked up in them are reported on all the time, in every form of media. How can we not know about them?
There is obviously a wide spectrum from having no idea, to knowing but looking away, to knowing and acting. I would just like to use this month’s blog to encourage you to become more informed, specifically about the system in which we warehouse prisoners. Not just for their sakes, but for all of us who live in the communities into which they are returned… usually worse.
When enough people ‘have an idea’, things can and will change.
Watching this series is a start. It’s tough watching, but the reality is much, much tougher.
On Sunday 10thJanuary 2021, Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Terminator action hero turned former governor of California, posted a short video on Twitter that went viral. Staring straight into the camera against a backdrop of stars and stripes, the man once known for his body-built body flexed his moral muscles by comparing the mob that stormed the U.S. Capitol with the Nazis.
“Wednesday was the Night of Broken Glass right here in the United States,” he said, referring to the horrors of Kristallnacht, the night of 9th/10th November 1938 when Nazis in Germany and Austria smashed the windows of Jewish homes, schools and stores and set fire to the synagogues. “The broken glass was in the windows of the United States Capitol,” he continued. “But the mob did not just shatter the windows of the Capitol. They shattered the ideas we took for granted. They did not just break down the doors of the building that housed American democracy. They trampled the very principles on which our country was founded.”
Witnessing, in real time, Trump-incited protestors scale white walls and balconies and swarm into the home of the U.S. Congress was truly shocking. Individually most looked pretty ‘normal’ with their caps, hoodies, beards – or horns – in place of masks. But as a mass emboldened by a collective mission, they felt sinister. A mob stitched together by the blatant, you’d think unbelievable, lies of their leader. Trump’s temper tantrum had turned a corner and stamped on the accelerator to become a genuine threat to life.
But, though I admire Schwarzenegger for speaking out unequivocally, can you really equate what happened on 6th January with Kristallnacht? Are Trump’s ‘mobsters’ a valid equivalent to the rioting members of the SA (Sturmabteilung) and Hitler Youth? Is Trump an accurate counterpart to Goebbels? And finally, has democracy been shattered in the way Nazis shattered Jewish lives and livelihoods that night? I don’t think so, but I ask genuinely because making such serious comparisons to such a vast audience, albeit diluted by a schmalzy soundtrack and other comforting dollops of Hollywood, carries responsibilities and consequences. If it was America’s Kristallnacht, what should we and the rest of the world be doing about it?
Accurate or exaggerated, Schwarzenegger is certainly more qualified than most to draw such parallels. Born in Austria in 1947, he grew up with and among people who had lived through the Third Reich and Second World War: active cogs in the Nazi killing machine; passive bystanders, looking away but “going along… step-by-step… down the road;” or any of the other shades of innocence or culpability in between.
What is indisputable in both scenarios – and recent ones here – is the role lies play in leading to things spinning out of control. But it’s intolerance that ultimately fuels these lies. Of course, there’s a healthy form of intolerance, which makes us speak out in the face of ‘wrongness’. But on either side of that, lie two unhealthy extremes: intolerance of anything or anyone that is different to us, ‘other’; and over-tolerance of that which may be familiar, desirable or comfortable to us, but that harms others.
For me, a comparison to Nazi times is more helpful when applied to us… the ordinary people who, back in the 30s and 40s, inadvertently enabled their leaders to carry out murderous plans by doing nothing. Resisting was hard, for it could cost you, or your family, their lives. My mother’s best friend’s family vanished that way. Today, however, we can express a healthy intolerance of what we consider wrong, by resisting the temptation to see the mob as a collective ‘other’ made up of misguided cretins, uneducated loons, neo-fascists, Satan worshippers, conspiracy theorists… Some of them may well be any or all of those things, but they will also all be individuals – fathers, sons, mothers, neighbours – united in believing they are right and on the side of truth and goodness.
Maybe, to prevent re-enactments of Nazi times, we could (or should?) invest the time we spend judging, cursing and dismissing those we see as ‘other’, ‘bad’ or ‘wrong’ more wisely; by trying to listen to and understand them instead. That, after all, was what was neglected in the first instance. And people who feel unheard also feel they have to shout the loudest. And by having to shout, they become distorted versions of themselves. That is what we witnessed on Wednesday. It may sound fluffy or impossible and I am not in any way condoning or defending what happened in Washington. I am just trying to avoid becoming inadvertently complicit in deepening the division between ‘us’ and ‘them’. For we all know where that can lead.
You can see some pictures here. Or read a bit more about what happened here.
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.”
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…”
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.
Could it be that even the British have become weary of commemorating the World Wars? Or was the lack of fanfare around the 80th anniversary of the outbreak of the Second World War earlier this month down to having a selective national memory? Do we only like to remember the bits where we emerge as clear heroes, victors or victims?
To my surprise, nothing, or very little, happened in this country on 3rd September 2019. Yet, at 11.15am on that day in 1939, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, in a somber broadcast to the nation made from the Cabinet room in 10 Downing Street, announced with regret that his efforts to ensure peace had failed and that “this country is at war with Germany.” The ensuing conflict lasted six years and cost around 50 million lives.
For Poland this anniversary was obviously a huge deal. Germany’s invasion was the catalyst for Britain’s and France’s declaration of war and few places suffered the same level of death and destruction between 1939 and 1945. It lost about a fifth – that’s six million – of its population including the vast majority of its three million Jewish citizens. Wielun, the first city to be bombarded by the Luftwaffe, was the chosen location for forty world leaders and representatives of other countries to gather together for a dawn ceremony on Sunday 1st September at 4am (2am GMT). Polish President Andrzej Duda, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe, US Vice President Mike Pence were all present. (President Trump cancelled citing the approach of Hurricane Dorian as his reason for basically spending the day on the golf course.) President Putin wasn’t invited. But, why wasn’t our Prime Minister there? I think we sent our Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab, to a subsequent ceremony in Warsaw but…?
Surely a bit more than just a nod to our role in the unfolding of the most momentous episode in modern history would have been appropriate? Maybe a moment where we press pause on all justifications and humbly reflect on the regrettable escalation of the horrors that our declaration of war unleashed? Or a clearly stated renewed commitment to peace in Europe? Or an informed and respectful acknowledgment of the far greater losses suffered by so many other nations? I recently asked friends how many people they thought died in WW2. “Seven million Soviets? Two million Germans? Two million British?” they guessed. “Actually we have no idea,” they admitted. And they didn’t. Most British people don’t. It was between 20 and 27 million Soviets, 7 million Germans and 450,000 British… that’s including Crown Colonies.
To be fair, Boris Johnson, in a videoed speech that circulated on Twitter, praised the “dogged and unconquerable resistance” Poland displayed during the Second World War and how it “never succumbed to tyranny…” But he also couldn’t help slipping in a quick pat on the UK’s back for standing with Poland “in times of triumph and tragedy.” Hmmmh, you just have to listen to Neil Macgregor’s excellent series on Radio 4 “As others see us” to realise that this is not quite how Poland sees things. Part of their otherwise generally positive national memory of us is of ‘betrayal’, not once but three times! (This relates to the Katyn massacre, ignoring the plight of Polish Jews and Britain’s role at the Yalta Conference in 1945 when it was decided that Poland would be given to the Soviets.
British Defence Secretary, Ben Wallace, just rolled out the same old tired stuff about Britain going to war to “defend our values and our allies from the Nazis”. (Defending ones values and friends is how all sides justify conflict, however small or large.) He added, “Even though nearly every family in the UK still possessed the memories and hurt of the First World War, they were prepared again to make the ultimate sacrifice. The incredible courage of that generation who fought for our freedom must never be forgotten.” Aaaagh, they just can’t help themselves, these men! It is always all about us. Our heroism, our sacrifice, our justified defence. Wouldn’t this have been the perfect time to engage with Polish history? The imbalance between what we know about others and what others know about us is embarrassing. Our narrative that “We went to war for Poland” is, for example, in Polish minds “We declared war for Poland” because the much hoped for military support didn’t actually follow. We really need to start embracing a wider-angled view of history! (This podcast is a great start)
For me it was once again the German contribution that lit a way forward for us all. Speaking with typical unreserved apologetic candour, President Frank-Walter Steinmeier described how “Eighty years ago, at this very moment, all hell rained down on Wielun, fueled by German racist barbarity and the desire to annihilate… My country unleashed a horrific war that would cost more than 50 million people – among them millions of Polish citizens – their lives. This war was a German crime… I, along with [Merkel], want to tell all Poles today that we will not forget. We will not forget the wounds that Germans inflicted on Poland. We will not forget the suffering of Polish families and nor will we forget the courage of their resistance.” He then went on, with a bowed head and speaking in both German and Polish, to ask for Polish forgiveness. “I bow my head before the victims of the attack on Wielun. I bow my head before the Polish victims of Germany’s tyranny. And I ask for your forgiveness.”
Wow! I know, this is not new. Germany has been publicly apologising for years, starting back in 1970 with Willy Brandt’s silent ‘Kniefall‘. Nevertheless, can we just pause and reflect a moment. The president of a powerful country holding up his hands in surrender and basically saying: “What we did was shit. We were shits. There are no words to describe just how shit we were and nothing can ever change that.” Just imagine how difficult that is to do. And how different the world would be if more people did that. The power of apology. The power of asking for forgiveness. (Whether it is possible to ask for forgiveness on behalf of another / others is debatable as Bernard Schlink does so well in his book ‘Guilt about the past’. But still…)
I’m glad that in a return speech, President Duda thanked Steinmeier for his presence at the painful anniversary before continuing to rightly denounce Nazi Germany’s attack on Poland as “an act of barbarity” and list other massacres and atrocities on Polish soil. He also drew attention to the genocide and mass murder continuing around the world today, and underlined the importance of international alliances like NATO and the European Union. (The question of further compensation was also raised later on… but you can read a fuller summary of the speeches here.) The pain still lingering between these countries that were so utterly destroyed on so many levels is visceral. As is the will for lasting reconciliation.
As much as I am frustrated and disappointed by our on-going and often unimaginative, inward-looking and lop-sided to the point of ignorant rhetoric on the World Wars, I am also optimistic. Younger generations are asking awkward questions that force a re-evaluation of the dusty, airbrushed pictures of our ‘glorious’ Empire. And the answers they are finding are uncomfortable. Maybe when we stop hiding our misdeeds behind the undisputedly ghastly deeds of the Nazis and the Holocaust and finally acknowledge our own national shadow, when we admit that the whole British Empire was based on the genocide of indigenous people and a forcing of our values on others, maybe then we can be genuinely better in the present and the future.
Yesterday I wrote two words that I have frequently thought I would never get to write: THE END. Of course it is not The End by any stretch, but nonetheless this week, for the very first time, I caught sight of a teeny-weeny light at the end of the tunnel; just enough to be able to acknowledge its reality, in writing. I am talking about my book; the book that I have been writing for the past three years and researching for well over ten.
To be honest, I have never known a task so challenging. The idea arose out of my talks to schools and Arts Societies all over the country in which I present the Second World War and its aftermath “through the eyes of an ordinary German family”; my family to be precise. “I had no idea,” is the usual, unanimous response. And here in Britain, we actually don’t. So when audience members started asking me with such regularity “Have you written a book?” or told me in no uncertain terms “You must write a book”, I decided to seize the gauntlet. I’ll just stretch the contents of the talks, I thought naively.
Having spent the past two weeks in France enjoying everything that France has to offer and so much of what I love in life, it is hard to write my monthly blog on my slightly sombre themes of memorials, World War II, the Nazis, remembrance and all that stuff. And particularly on an iPhone from a campervan! But today, as we were driving past anyway, I went to a memorial that has to be one of the most memorable in terms of its immediate and tangible connection to Nazi atrocities.