VJ Day 75 years on: Remembering the Pacific War as an example of what a unified, multinational and collaborative effort can achieve… for all.

What we choose to remember and why are questions that fascinate me, particularly in relation to the World Wars. For how we think of and present the past shapes the future. It’s therefore important to keep up with national narratives and August 2020 has offered a smorgasbord of anniversaries to study. On 6th August, Japan commemorated the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The 14th August was South Korea’s third Japanese Military Comfort Women Victims Memorial Day remembering the women forced to work in Japan’s military brothels. And here in the UK and elsewhere, 15th August was Victory over Japan or VJ Day marking Japan’s surrender and the end of the Second World War. For America the commemoration is actually 2nd September when the official surrender document was signed.

Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park

In spite of my on-going interest in WW2 I have known little about the war in the Far East other than Kamikaze pilots, brutal ‘Japs’ and the TV drama series Tenko shown in the early eighties about British, Australian and Dutch women held in a Japanese internment camp. I can still recall the sand-coloured heat, cruel captors and tattered dresses of sun burnt women. I of course have known more about the atomic bomb dropping on Hiroshima, but always as primarily an American/Japanese conflict. It wasn’t until I went there last year that I learned just how involved the British had been in the whole decision-making process. 

Tenko, BBC Series

As it turns out, I am not alone in my ignorance. Aside from widespread awareness of the notorious Japanese cruelty towards those they held captive – POWs, women and children alike – and the physical and mental scars from which many never recovered, it’s a fact, the war in the Far East always played second fiddle to the western imperative of beating the Germans. Even in 1943, troops in the Fourteenth Army fighting the Japanese in Burma referred to themselves as the ‘Forgotten Army.’ Post took months to arrive, resources were limited and their battles went unmentioned in newspapers. Yet by 1945, with around 1.3 million men and women having served in it, it was the largest army not only in the Commonwealth, but the world. 

I’d never heard of it. Nor did I know until yesterday that when surviving troops finally returned to the UK in 1946, they were told specifically not to talk about their war but to ‘move on’ like everybody else had been trying to do since VE Day. So, having already been overlooked while fighting some of the most ferocious battles of WW2, they were now being requested both to forget and be forgotten once again. It’s a good example of the selective nature of memory, whether personal or collective. And it highlights the importance of ‘re-membering’ the full body of a past, especially those forgotten parts that were dismembered and sacrificed on the altar of a carefully considered national narrative. 

This year’s VJ Day commemorations will have educated many of us on the Pacific War not least its multi-national nature. Gurkhas, Sikhs, Indians, Australians, Canadians, Africans, Americans, Welsh, Scottish and more fought side by side, united in their shared goal of defeating Japan. The 606,000 men that made up the aforementioned Fourteenth Army commanded by General William Slim were from 20 countries speaking 40 different languages. 87% were Indian, 3% African and 10% British. 

National Memorial Arboretum

The BBC’s morning coverage of VJ Day, The Nation Remembers, reflected this beautifully through a multi-cultural programme of readings and music by British Asian actors, Indian musicians, Scottish and African soldiers. Set amongst the conveniently socially distanced trees of the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire and with an incessant breeze ruffling hair and dresses alike, uniformed regiments casually mingled with royal dignitaries and politicians, while elderly veterans clad in best suits and medals shuffled on the arms of descendants or sat on benches staring into the far distance. “To all who served, we thank you,” said leaders from around the world in an online video. The presenter Sophie Raworth and historian Dan Snow once again sensitively drew out memories and stories to paint pictures of almost unimaginable scenes. But it was the veterans’ determined efforts to lay a wreath or stand up for the 2-minute silence that best captured the grit and humility of their generation. 

The more formal ‘Nation’s Tribute’ in the evening provided another moving, albeit more polished testament to their resilience. Hosted by Joanna Lumley – in her serious Gurkha supporter and presenter role rather than the Champagne-swigging Patsy of Absolutely Fabulous – and against a stunning backdrop of visuals projected onto Horse Guards Parade, we heard further multinational perspectives by veterans, including ‘Captain Tom’, our lockdown hero.

Captain Tom Moore

I could listen to them for hours but our national culture of Remembrance clearly has a remit both to entertain and make us cry. So, in keeping with tradition, military bands, glittering celebrity singers and an actually wonderful danced fight performed by knife-bearing Gurkhas punctuated the programme.

Gurkhas dance-fight

All in all, this event was less nationalistic or victorious and more inclusive than any previous ones I have seen. Maybe Covid-19, maybe the Black Lives Matter protests or maybe increased maturity has finally nudged our commemorations towards the humility of those that knew the horrific cost of war behind any victory. There was even a small injection of public self-questioning into the rightness of such contentious acts as the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. That’s new. And very welcome.

As always, veterans asked us to remember those that fought; to ‘appreciate the value of the freedoms we enjoy’ for which so many gave their lives; and ‘to resolve never to be involved in another war.’ Akiko Macdonald, a Japanese woman married to an English man and working with veterans on both sides, called for reconciliation: ‘Yesterday’s foe is today’s friend.’ And Prince William asked us once again ‘to learn the lessons of the past’. I have often done that too in my talks and blogs. But this year I found myself asking what ‘learning from the past’ could mean for us today?  

What I have learnt from the largely overlooked war in the Far East is the importance and power of working together, of overcoming difference to unite in a common goal. If we are to successfully tackle the enormous environmental, economic and social challenges the whole world faces, we need to learn to operate as a united body. Just as the Fourteenth Army overcame the challenges of national and cultural difference, we need to see beyond and rise above all that divides us. We need to pool resources, ideas and energy for the greater good of everyone. For as General Slim recognised in his journal, it was the ‘comradeship’ within the Fourteenth Army that ultimately turned defeat into victory. 

To watch the BBC coverage of the Commemorations I mention

The Nation Remembers

Nation’s Tribute

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

How worried should we be about the rise of the far right?

I raise this question specifically in the wake of last week’s 75th anniversary of the Dresden bombing raid by the Allies, an occasion of remembrance that is known for bringing far-right protestors out in droves. Each year, in what they call their ‘Trauermarsch’ (funeral march), several hundred neo-Nazis, xenophobic Pegida and anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany (AfD) protestors set off from the city’s central station to commemorate the dead. The blatantly neo-Nazi flags, tattoos and slogans, however, betray their true agenda. 

While part of me is swift to unreservedly dismiss all forms of far-right nationalism and extremism, another part is keen to understand: What are their grievances? What are their goals? And how should we, as individuals, meet this growing trend around the world? 

I am at the very beginning of my research into these questions, but in relation to the Dresden bombings of 13th and 14th February 1945, it seems that the far-right scene have several axes to grind. For them, Dresden has become a symbol of how the Allies rewrote the history of the Second World War. Drawing on the language and inflated figures first propagated by Goebbels and the Nazi propaganda ministry, Dresden was a “terror attack,” an indisputable war crime in which up to 300,000 people – primarily women, children and refugees fleeing from the east – were horrendously murdered over three nights. (This claim is in spite of the 2010 historical investigation commissioned by the city and largely accepted by historians that conclude figures would be closer to 25,000.) By shifting the focus onto atrocities committed by the victors, they can call for a stop to Germany’s culture of atonement and guilt.

Dresden, the “Florence on the Elbe”
Dresden after the bombing in 1945

This year, the emphasis of their message was not so much on the numbers as on what they call “the truth” about the bombings. They want to make a stand against the way the bombing of Dresden, once known as the “Florence on the Elbe” for its Baroque beauty, is relativised and compared with what happens in wars all around the world. They want to preserve Dresden’s uniqueness, the myth of martyrdom and its status as a ‘city of innocence.’ In some of this they do have a point. The debate about whether Dresden was a war crime or not still divides international historians and the public alike. Just a few weeks ago, I travelled to Coventry Cathedral to hear historian Dan Snow explore the legitimacy of Dresden as a target with Sinclair McKay, whose book Dresden, The Fire and The Darkness has recently been published. 

In the official ceremonies two days before the far right took to the streets, the man who has become a bit of a hero in my eyes, President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, addressed the dangers of this way of thinking. Unlike the 75th anniversary of the Liberation of Auschwitz at which he had spoken a few weeks before (see my January blog), the victimhood of Germans had to be placed centre-stage here. For whether perceived as deserved retribution or a tactical military operation, the bombing raids were calculatedly horrendous creating infernos of such intense heat that people literally melted. It’s an event that does indeed deserve much self-reflection and on-going soul-searching by the Allies as well as a continuation of the already considerable efforts of reconciliation by the British. 

Speaking with his hallmark combination of deep sensitivity and resolute strength, Steinmeier remembered the victims but, even here, he was quick to remind Germans of their role as perpetrators. He warned against the “political forces” that seek to “manipulate history and abuse it like a weapon.” He reached out to all present to “work together for a commemoration that focuses on the suffering of the victims and the bereaved, but also asks about the reasons for this suffering.” And, seemingly referring to the far right directly, he said, “Whoever pits the dead of Dresden against the dead of Auschwitz, whoever seeks to talk down German wrongs, whoever falsifies improved knowledge and historical facts, we as democrats must loudly and clearly contradict them. We must defy them.”

Steinmeier later joined thousands of residents in holding hands to form the annual human chain of “peace and tolerance.” Standing quietly beside him in icy rain and wind was the Duke of Kent, a long-standing contributor to British reconciliation efforts and Patron of The Dresden Trust (of which I am now honoured to be a Trustee). I don’t think Steinmeier dared initiate what happened next, but to his credit, the Duke did. Over a delightful few seconds, the nearly eighty-five-year-old royal looked down and, seeing the empty right hand of the German President, reached out and took it in his. And there they stood for a considerable time, hand in hand bearing witness to their respective nations’ capacities for the wholesale destruction of innocents.

The Duke of Kent (left) holding hands with German President, Frank-Walter Steinmeier

So far, my answer to my own questions is that there are way too many of us prepared to make a stand against the dark desires of the far right for them to gain significant power. In Dresden, two days after Steinmeier’s call to protect democracy, thousands of anti-fascist counter-demonstrators took to the streets forcing the comparatively low numbers of neo-Nazis to change their route. As one said, “On a day like this, you can’t just stand idly by. We are here to say that this is not our Dresden. There is no room for Nazis in this city — not now, not ever.”

Learn more:

Dresden marks WWII bombing in far-right stronghold.

Dresden: The World War Two bombing 75 years on – BBC News

History Extra Podcast: The bombing of Dresden

Actions may speak louder than words, but words can lead to actions…

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.

Frank-Walter Steinmeier talking at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem

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…”

President Steinmeier and Prince Charles
President Steinmeier hugged by President Macron
President Steinmeier hugged by Avner Shalev, Chairman of the Yad Vashem Directorate

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.

Further reading:

The Times of Israel: At Yad Vashem, German president says Germans haven’t learned lesson of Holocaust

The Telegraph: Holocaust is no mere ‘fact of history’: Prince Charles stands with world leaders against rise of anti-Semitism

The Guardian: The need to remember and retain the lessons of what became the Holocaust grows rather than diminishes. 

The New York Times: At Holocaust Memorial, a Survivor and Towering Moral Voice Says He ‘Cannot Forgive’

Dresden… a spectacular phoenix rising from the ashes

My recent trip to Dresden and Leipzig reminded me what wonderful places German cities can be. Particularly in summer when the music of high quality buskers wafts through squares lined with outdoor cafés offering chilled Grauburgunder and Pfefferling (chantarelle) dishes with white asparagus; when young people ride on rickety city bikes across the cobbles, hands dangling by their sides. It’s only the ever-present cranes punctuating the skyline of sloping roofs, or the gaping, pulled teeth-like gaps between buildings that remind you that all you are looking at was, in the not so distant past, rubble; grey, gaunt, improbably upright façades standing sentry among collapsed homes and destroyed families. 

I have to admit, before I went to Dresden I had questions about travelling to a reconstructed, rather than original, Baroque city. I questioned whether destroyed buildings should be re-built and replicated or whether their ‘death’ should be seen as an opportunity for something new. Or whether a 21stcentury appearance of 18th century architecture still constitutes an historic monument. My first sighting of the city’s famous profile of domes and spires lining the river and my subsequent face-to-face meeting with the ‘Florence on the Elbe’ quickly rendered those questions superfluous. Dresden is simply beautiful.

Of particular interest to me as a newly elected trustee to the London-based Dresden Trust, was the city’s most historic and well-loved landmark, the Frauenkirche. Its bombed remains had been left untouched by the communist regime of East Germany for decades, both as a symbol against war and a memorial for those 25,000 killed in the notorious 2-day aerial bombing attack by Britain’s RAF and the USA. 

After the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall and 1990 reunification of Germany, the future of the Frauenkirche became a focus of the widespread national debates and philosophical soul-searching still continuing to this day. 1993 then launched seventeen months of clearing, documenting and organising the 23,000 cubic meter mound of rubble with characteristic German thoroughness. 8,390 interior and exterior façade stones and ceilings were saved as well as over 90,000 back up blocks and other features. By 2005 – to cut a much longer story short – the church re-opened. Crowned by a shining golden orb – donated by the Dresden Trust as a heartfelt gesture of reconciliation from the people of Britain and created by a team of silversmiths headed by the son of a Bomber Command pilot – the church now proudly dominates the bustling Neumarkt once again, almost a literal phoenix raised from the ashes. 

The golden orb donated by The Dresden Trust

In a former industrial area a few miles away is the antithesis of the Frauenkirche’s resurrection. Housed in an empty gas container, the huge 360˚ digitally processed panorama of the bombed city by the Berlin-based artist, Yadegar Asisi, is almost as mind-blowing. Visitors enter the cylindrical space at ground level but can climb a centrally erected scaffold tower to view the city from various levels. Against a backdrop of music, lights dim or flicker to emulate night or bombs as people stand in silence staring at the abyss of destruction.

Dresden, 1945. A section of the 360˚ Panometer by Yadegar Asisi

Looking at this seems to viscerally insult ones humanity, possibly all the more so because, though we have all clocked the pointlessness of war many times over, “This time, we were the pigs”. In that devastating space, the guest book entry of an American visitor resounds with rare indisputability. This was ‘us’. Whatever our justifications for bombing Dresden – and there are always apparent justifications for aggression, just talk to violent offenders, listen to politicians – we designed bombs to have the maximum impact, not just on buildings or military targets but on civilians. It was an act that rightly continues to needle our ‘heroic victors’ narratives and shake the moral high ground we want to, and often do, occupy. For that reason alone, I am grateful for Dresden. 

Left: one of two original walls left standing

Nearly seventy-five years on, only the dark sections of the original Frauenkirche and the blackened stones that polka-dot the soft sandstone exterior like plasters bear witness to the horrors of those two fateful nights in February 1945. As normal life buzzes at its feet, the church, often filled with music, stands defiantly, a profoundly moving symbol of peace and reconciliation and a testament to the sheer bravery, optimism and determination of Dresdeners.