Madness, Art, Dreams and Aperol Spritz converge in Venice for the 59. Biennale…

I have just returned from Venice, my soul filled to the brim with images, beauty, thoughts and inspiration. I was invited to speak at a one-day symposium on ‘the magic of madness’ that coincided with the opening of the 59th Venice Biennale titled ‘The Milk of Dreams.’ For a person deeply interested in all those words – magic, madness, dreams… even milk when it’s in a cappuccino or gelato – this was my idea of heaven. 

The jetty from which boatloads of tourists used to arrive from Venice to gape at the patients of the former ‘lunatic asylum’ on the island of San Servolo

The MADNICITY Pavilion, where the symposium took place, is situated on the site of a former insane asylum on the island of San Servolo. Three panels of leading voices in psychiatry, psychology, philosophy, critical theory and the arts discussed topics ranging from ‘the place of madness in society’ to the expansion of traditional concepts of ‘normality’ and ‘mental disorder’ to a more inclusive embrace of ‘mental diversity’. There was also some very academic philosophical stuff debated by an all-male panel of professors, but I wasn’t entirely able to follow that. I personally chose to stay on more familiar ground and talked about the madness of institutions, specifically prisons. (You can listen to the whole day of presentations here or just my talk starting at 3:52.50)

At one point, the Chair of our panel – Johnny Acton – asked us what we find most mad about society. For me, it is the fact that the ‘feminine’ in life – and before I get hauled up for being sexist or in some way discriminatory, can I make it clear that I am not talking about biological ‘men’ and ‘women’, nor even ‘male’ and ‘female’ genders. I am talking about archetypes, the feminine principle that is in each and every one of us to a greater or lesser degree. Coarsely, and therefore inevitably inaccurately put, we are talking the feminine/masculine dualisms of moon/sun, inner/outer, art/science, feelings/concepts… you get the picture hopefully. Ok, so where was I? Let me start that sentence again. In fact, let’s have a new paragraph too. 

To me, what’s most mad in society is that the ‘feminine’ is still ignored, dismissed, ridiculed or considered invalid in the face of the more tangible ‘masculine’. The left-brain, rigid logic of science with its need for proof, as I have frequently both observed and said, too often totters behind the more right-brain, unpredictable logic of intuition, dreaming, playing – all the stuff that can lead to creative genius or apparent ‘madness’. Women who lived by these rules used to be burned at the stake, locked up, or simply forced into subservience to men and masters. The island of San Servolo and the amazing installations under the title ‘LUNATICS’ bear witness to the some of the horrific past approaches both to madness and women. The thinking behind most of our systems – education, prison, medicine – are dominated by this ‘masculine’ thinking. And yet, common sense, vision, wisdom and truth are frequently born from the supposedly unprovable, inaccurate, fantastical, unreal phenomena of dreams, gut feelings, instinct. The world has paid a heavy price for playing down their innate value.

‘LUNATIC’ – one of ten collaborative installations by Dominik Lejman and Bianca O’Brien on San Servolo

But something is finally shifting. The world is becoming more fluid, less polarised. Boundaries are blurring. Humans are becoming less certain of themselves and bowing to the greater forces of nature and the big unknowns. This was all reflected both in the panel conversations and the art, the latter not least because Cecilia Alemani, unbelievably the first Italian woman to curate the Venice Biennale, ensured that 80% of artists featured were women or gender non-conforming. And the theme itself – The Milk of Dreams – appealed to symbolism, surrealism, fantasy and spirituality rather than the conceptualism of past years. Many of the big male names were there – Kiefer, Baselitz, Kapoor – but on the periphery, looking rather bombastic, egotistical… ‘out’.

Let’s see if I can make this clearer through a selection of pictures I took, unaware at the time that this was what I was seeing. Some are from the official Biennale pavilions of the Giardini and the Arsenale, others at collateral events and exhibitions around town.

Laetitia KY, Hair sculptures, Pavillon de la C^ote d’Ivoire. Interview here.
Malgorzata Mirga-Tas: Re-enchanting the world, Poland Pavilion
Can’t remember… one of the pavilions in the Giardini
Claire Tabouret: I am spacious singing flesh, Palazzo Cavanis
Francis Alÿs: The Nature of the Game, Belgium Pavilion, Giardini
Beyond: Emerging Artists, Palazzo Franchetti
Sonya Boyce: Feeling her way, Great Britain pavilion, Giardini – winner of the Golden Lion Prize for Best National Pavilion, Venice Biennale 2022
A foyer we stumbled into in a building on Campo Santo Stefano…
Anish Kapoor, Shooting into the corner (2008), Galleria dell’Accademia
From the Arsenale…
Just a beautiful staircase at Palazzo Cini

I could go on and on. But I’d be interested what themes you see in this microcosmic collection.

Altogether, it was an inspiring trip. Wonderful people, paintings, palazzos, piazzas, pizzas and of course the delicious Aperol Spritz to round up the day… simply the best in my book. Talking of which…

My book, In My Grandfather’s Shadow, is still on course to be published in mid-July. Do SIGN UP TO MY NEWSLETTER for information about a book launch near you where you will be able to buy a signed copy or for any other news.

When words become weapons of war or peace

Happy Spring Equinox! I am writing this on the banks of the River Severn, one of my favourite spots in the world. The sun is shining in a cloudless sky, a breeze is dancing through the long grass. I can hear the outgoing tide making its way back to the sea. Within this natural order and peace, it is almost impossible to imagine the horrors of war.  

Like all of us who are far from the fighting front, I feel the combined rage, helplessness and deep sadness of seeing and hearing the heart-breaking scenes and accounts of the millions of Ukrainians fleeing their homes or defending their country, their freedom and their lives. Words seem to be my only weapon against this appalling aggression. But what words would help? And which ones won’t? There is such a fine line between the impactful bravery of calling something out, of revealing the truth in the face of lies, like the Russian TV employee who ran onto the set of Russia’s main news channel bearing a placard saying ‘Don’t believe the propaganda, they’re lying to you here’ while shouting ‘Stop the war. No to war,’ and the potentially catastrophic naming, shaming and blaming of an individual.  

Russian TV journalist, Marina Ovsyannikova, protesting on a live Russian news broadcast

I know that I want to use my words to help bring about peace. Which is why I choose not to use those that I feel add both to the divisiveness that lies behind all wars and to the ‘othering’ of the enemy, which in turn nurtures the erroneous belief that violence and force are the only ways to achieve aims and justify actions. It’s also why listening to Radio Four’s Woman’s Hour on Thursday 17th March left me unsettled. 

I am not usually one to come down on the side of politicians’ typically evasive methods of answering a question. But in this case, I was behind the Foreign Secretary, Liz Truss, in her response to presenter Emma Barnett’s questioning. It went something like this: 

Barnett: ‘Is Vladimir Putin a war criminal Foreign Secretary?’ 

Truss: ‘I think there’s very, very strong evidence that war crimes have been committed in Ukraine and that he is instrumental to those war crimes taking place.’ 

Barnett: ‘Is that a yes?’

Then, citing USA’s President Biden’s recent declaration that ‘he is a war criminal,’ she continued to push Truss. ‘Why don’t you want to cross that line? That line has been crossed by America and I am wondering why we’re not.’ 

Truss then repeated her noncommittal answer. 

And I was glad she did. I didn’t think that style of political grilling was appropriate here.

Some might see Truss’s line as weak. Maybe you do too? I actually don’t. For what, other than an escalation of diplomatic tensions and danger, is to be gained by shoving Putin into the ‘war criminal’ category, even if he is one? By branding him with what is potentially the worst label there is, do we not put him on the defensive rather than encourage constructive conversation? Hitler was a war criminal. And Putin is a million miles away from allowing himself to be equated with him. 

A Kremlin representative’s inevitable response was to call out Biden’s statement as ‘unacceptable and unforgivable rhetoric on the part of the head of state whose bombs have killed hundreds of thousands of people around the world.’ Of course we all know he has a point when you look back at certain episodes of American history. And that is my point. Such statements do nothing other than to add fuel to an already raging fire. 

None of this is to say I don’t abhor what Putin is doing as much as anybody. I am just aware that words are absolutely crucial in the dealing with a person whose psychological makeup is so volatile, so proud, so convinced, so terrifyingly dangerous. Because while our acts may be indisputably heinous, we human beings, in all our complexity and contradictions, are never just one thing. So to stick a supremely negative label onto someone – even if they have qualified for it a thousand times over – is in my view counter-productive, especially when, however mad it seems to us, they see themselves in a very different, invariably more heroic light.

While working in prisons, I saw the negative dynamics of labelling people ‘murderer,’ ‘terrorist,’ ‘child abuser’ – even when they were guilty of these crimes. Like the locked door of their tiny cells, there was no way out of that ‘bad’ box. Impotent, ostracised and with no obvious path leading back into the world of ‘good,’ many gave up trying. Some killed themselves. Some continued to numb the shame and sense of separation with drugs or self-harm. Others turned to violence in a futile attempt to punch their way back to the acceptability and respect that ironically often lay behind the motivation to commit their original crime. Shame has a hideous way of making people infinitely more dangerous.

We only have to look at the Germany of the 1920s, 30s and 40s to see what grew out of the humiliation of the Versailles Treaty and above all the ‘war guilt’ clause, which forced Germany to accept all blame for World War One. Or to be reminded, as I was on a recent trip to Hamburg and the blackened ruins of the St. Nicholai church that had so fascinated me as a child, that every nation and each of us are capable of descending into horrific violence, even potential war crimes.

St Nikolai Church, Hamburg

If we are to believe that conflicts begin in the hearts and minds of individuals, then it follows that peace does too. Of course I don’t know for sure, but my feeling, at least from a psychological point of view, is that at this incredibly precarious and dangerous moment in time where the course of the war in Ukraine could escalate in so many directions, we should be doing everything to enable Putin to withdraw, retreat or feel sufficiently victorious to end his war with at least a perception that enough of his dignity and integrity are intact.

I totally understand both the temptation and justification of condemning Putin and his actions as outright evil. But the stakes are currently too high to play the ‘we’re right, you’re wrong’ game. For to do so is to accuse and other the perpetrator in the same way they have accused and othered their foe. Like negotiators communicating with hostage-takers, albeit on an infinitely larger scale, maybe we need to keep in our view the man behind the monster. As many in the west are now admitting, this is possibly what we have neglected to do in the past. And he who feels unheard, unseen, disrespected often feels impelled to stamp louder, punch harder to get themselves noticed. 

I think our personal choice of words is one of few things that each of us have as a tool to diffuse rather than escalate a situation. I just hope we can all find the right ones.

On another note, exactly this time last year, I was giving my Tedx talk. You can watch it here… again or for the first time if you haven’t seen it already.

And yesterday I received the printed proofs of my book In My Grandfather’s Shadow. Still not the final product, but another exciting step towards publication in July. You can pre-order on Amazon here or wait until July to buy in a bookshop.

Related Links

Woman’s Hour Interview with Liz Truss – start at 13.30 mins

This total tragedy and injustice cannot be the start of the Third World War

On Wednesday I was writing about ‘feeling the bass beat of impending war… The jungle drums of chest-beating bullies rutting for power, control, land… The thumping of panicked hearts packing, fleeing…’ By Thursday, as the thud of bombs landing on Ukraine came through our radios with shocking reality, such poetic imagery felt utterly misplaced. Now, as the horrors of Putin’s unprovoked advance to Kyiv to ‘de-Nazify’ and ‘decapitate’ the democratic Ukrainian government begin to unfold, the shattering idea that we could be witnessing the beginning of World War III has been gaining momentum. 

This is heart-breaking. So awful. So wrong. So utterly terrifying. My thoughts and heart are with the people of Ukraine.  

Outwardly, in our own tiny orbits, life continues. Just like it did for Franz Kafka when he noted in his diary on the outbreak of the First World War:

August 2, 1914: Germany has declared war on Russia. Swimming in the afternoon.’

Inwardly I feel sheer dread. 

Having immersed myself for so many years in the past darkness of the Second World War, trying to understand despots, trying to learn the lessons of history, I suddenly find myself emerging into a present filled with similar appalling scenes. And I feel utterly impotent. I think we probably all do. How are we meant to act? What does ‘reacting well’ to this situation look like, both in terms of our leaders and us as individuals? 

I don’t know.

The instinct is to rush to Ukraine’s defence, which, to some degree, various countries have. But for Ukrainians, it is clearly too little too late. Yet to use force risks the unimaginable outcome of a full-on war with Russia. That just cannot happen. I have lived vicariously through a war with Russia in my German grandfather’s letters from the 1941-2 Eastern Front. It is hell on earth. Nothing, surely, can justify risking a return to that. It is reassuring to hear the defence secretary and military authorities now warning the chamber of the extreme danger of putting British boots on the ground; of declaring war on Russia. Please Boris Johnson, don’t see this as an opportune moment to fulfil your wannabe Winston Churchill ambitions. The responsibility on leaders is huge and deadly serious. They need to tread carefully and with emotional maturity. The language is critical. Confronting a ruthless maniac takes skill. 

‘It is more important to understand the butcher than the victim.’ Javier Cercas

I don’t know how it’s done. 

All I do know from a multitude of life’s lessons, is that all sides involved will be feeling they are right. Just like back in the thirties, we in the West see ourselves to be indisputably on the side of good. We are protecting democracy. Our ways of life are the right ways. But while that all may be true, if I have learnt anything about the psychology of conflict and dictators, I feel pretty sure that that is precisely what Putin is also feeling. Because wars and violence are ultimately created out of a sense of threat to one’s position, values, people and way of life. Out of a fear of loss. Power-hungry dictators, such as Hitler and Stalin, were blind to the suffering caused in their pursuit of visions of a world that in their eyes was ‘good’. Same for criminals. With both sides believing they are right, nothing will persuade or force them to think otherwise. 

 ‘No one who either knows or believes that there is another course of action better than the one he is following will ever continue on his present course when he might choose the better.‘ Plato

It would be counter-productive to shame Putin into believing there is no way back without losing face. 

To do nothing would be an unforgivable betrayal of the Ukrainian people.   

To meet Russian aggression with further aggression would quite possibly provoke a Third World War.

That cannot happen. 

For those who have never experienced war first-hand or occupied themselves with the World Wars, it is almost impossible to imagine their sheer horror. For those with eyes trained on a victorious outcome, it can be easy to overlook the devastating impact on individuals. And not only the inevitable loss of life. What we have been witnessing in Ukraine – civilians signing up or arming themselves with guns and Molotov cocktails, getting stuck in traffic jams, huddling in makeshift bomb shelters – are the fight, flight, freeze responses of trauma. The terror of impending mass destruction, injury, homelessness, hunger and life-long psychological damage for generations to come. Just watch ‘Flee’, the brilliant new Danish animation that is well positioned to clean up at the Oscars, to witness the appalling cost of war on one child, one family. One among millions of others forced to flee their homes.

Still from the film ‘Flee’

Is Margaret MacMillan right when she said in her 2019 Reith Lecture:

 “We like to think of war as an aberration, as the breakdown of the normal state of peace. This is comforting but wrong. War is deeply woven into the history of human society. Wherever we look in the past, no matter where or how far back we go, groups of people have organized themselves to protect their own territory or ways of life and, often, to attack those of others.  Over the centuries we have deplored the results and struggled to tame war, even abolish it, while we have also venerated the warrior and talked of the nobility and grandeur of war. We all, as human beings, have something to say about war.”

If we accept, just for a moment that war is an inevitable part of our world and as integral to being human as, say, creating art, how should we react to it? 

I just can’t believe we are here… again. 

How do you reason with a man like Putin, who genuinely believes his demands and actions are reasonable?  How do we prevent this conflict from escalating into another deadly world war? How can we prevent our own rage and sense of injustice spilling over into a call for retaliation?

For now, I will attempt to keep my heart filled with love and courage to send to the people of Ukraine and those in Russia who do not want this war. To those fighting, resisting, defending. I pray that the whole world finds its way through this crisis to peace. 

Related links:

BBC series Rise of the Nazis: Dictators at War 

Trailer for ‘Flee’

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!

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