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 .

What a year… and on we go…

What a year 2021 has been! 

Just in my blogs alone we’ve watched the storming of the White House and the removal of contentious statues. We’ve marked Holocaust Memorial Day in January, the anniversary of the bombing of Dresden in February and remembered to remember – albeit only just – Remembrance Sunday in November. You shared my experiences of deep anxiety prior to giving a TEDx talk in March, explored the idea of inherited trauma and guilt as well as ‘genetic pain’, and toured a German photographer’s exhibition: Long Shadows of War. I have taken you – as I frequently do – into the depths and dysfunctions of our prison service. First, via a gruelling TV series, then through new government policies, from relatively harmless ones such as the introduction of high-vis jackets that simply won’t work to terrifying ‘Saudi Arabia-style’ approaches that leave 18-year-old women giving birth alone in cells. We also witnessed the tragic withdrawal from Afghanistan and questioned the sense of trying and locking up nonagenarian former Nazis. 

Thank you for joining me on all or some of those journeys of enquiry and thought.

It feels like there is so much going on in the world, like we are hurtling towards bigger disasters while still mopping up smaller ones. It’s hard to remain optimistic when our own horizons have shrunk due to the imposed or self-imposed Covid restrictions, and yet good things can come out of all this unrest and uncertainty. Like my book!

For the past months, I have been strapped to my desk in a mad rush to meet deadlines and finally ‘finish my book’. I know, I know, you’ve heard that before. I’ve said it before because I frequently thought I had. This time, and certainly by Christmas, I really will have and, what’s more, you can read about it and… drum roll… even pre-order it HERE… What a perfect Christmas gift! Just know it won’t actually be published until 7th July 2022. 

I have never known such a gargantuan task as writing a non-fiction book of around 100,000 words. But then In My grandfather’s Shadow weaves together all the threads running through my blogs, my careers, my whole life, into one narrative. Set against the backdrop of Germany’s Second World War and post-war decades, it tells the stories of three generations – my German grandfather, a decorated General who served on the eastern front; my German mother, who fled Berlin in 1945 as the Soviets advanced, and me, their respective Anglo-German granddaughter and daughter who, by some transgenerational mechanism, carried some of the scars of war that they hadn’t been able to heal.

That’s all I will tell you about it right now. But, on top of my usual responding to current developments within my blog themes, I intend to devote next year’s blogs to whetting your appetites with little morsels until you feel you absolutely have to read the book!

For now though, as 2021 draws to its dark and slightly messy close, I would just like to wish you a very happy festive season, good health of mind, body and soul, and much love, light and laughter in your hearts for the new year ahead. 

Look forward to seeing you in some form in 2022. It’s going to be really good… or at least better. Even if it is just ‘fine’, all is and will be well.

Cheers to that!

11.11. ‘Lest we forget…’ But I did. This year I forgot.

For many a year, as regular readers of my blog can attest to, I have acknowledged and written about Armistice Day, Remembrance Sunday and the need to remember. But this year, 11.11. passed me by unnoticed. I was definitely silent at 11am, but not because I was remembering. I was in the depths of Cornwall deeply immersed in the increasingly final (final final x 10) Final Edits of my book.

I feel bad for forgetting, because I do think it’s important that we remember and commemorate. Just listen to the repeat of Radio 4’s 2014 programme Commemoration to hear some of the main reasons we do. But I also find it curious that I did forget. For this dance between remembering and forgetting is a healthy one. I should know. I have been dancing it a long time.

On Thursday 11th November, the only glimpse I caught of a world beyond the war narratives constantly unfolding in words on my laptop screen, was the sound of the shaky-voice of South Africa’s last white president, FW de Klerk. He had died in Cape Town aged 85, and his office had issued a prerecorded posthumous video apology for the pain caused by his country’s discriminatory system of white rule. On reflection, this collision in time between his apology and our Armistice Day, revealed what, to me, might actually be the essence of why we still need to remember.

“I, without qualification,” said the man who, together with Nelson Mandela, had overseen the end of apartheid, “apologise for the pain and hurt and the indignity and the damage that apartheid has done to black, brown and Indians in SA.” 

I cannot comment on his speech or his former role in the painful history of his country – you can read a bit about them on some of the links below. But, whatever sceptics and critics say about his motives or timing or whether what he said went far enough, I did feel the power of apology in his words. Genuine apology is that all too often underrated act that can set into motion so much of what we try to achieve through remembrance: restitution, forgiveness, reconciliation and healing. For many victims of wrongdoing or harm, such acknowledgement of their pain and a heartfelt apology for it is all they really want.

Of course, on Remembrance Sunday of all days, we first and foremost want to honour and show gratitude to the fallen and to hold their loved ones in our thoughts and hearts. But, if you don’t know any soldiers who have fought, let alone died in contemporary wars, or if you have never met a veteran of the World Wars, as is increasingly the case, it is hard to actually ‘remember’ in more than a slightly abstract way. For many school children, the Second World War exists in a last century time warp, as I found out at one of my recent talks when one of them asked me whose side I had been on! (Really? Have you not listened to a word I have just said? Or do I just look like I am 95-years-old?)

That is why I am wondering if Remembrance could shift some its emphasis on the past, to include more about the present and the future. The act of apology innately requires an understanding of the lessons history can teach us. Embedded within an apology is more than just a hope for ‘Never Again’. A genuine apology is ‘Never Again’ in action. So today, Britain’s Remembrance Sunday, I am not only going to remember the sacrifices and losses of war. I am going to imagine a time when the hands of heartfelt apology are extended between nations both in acknowledgement of past mistakes and in renewed agreement to act in ways that assure such mistakes never happen again.

Links to further reading:

FW de Klerk issues posthumous apology for pain of apartheid

Apology accepted? SA weighs in on FW de Klerk’s final message

FW de Klerk: South Africa’s last white president dies and leaves apology for apartheid

For Some South Africans, de Klerk Missed Chances for True Reconciliation

BBC Radio 4 Something understood: Commemoration

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

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

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

Irmgard Furchner being brought into court

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

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

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

Oskar Gröning at his trial in 2015

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

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

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

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

Further reading:

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

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

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

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